Content warning: depictions of mild gender dysphoria and casual bullying.
In preparation for the tattoo, I shaved my legs for the first time in a year.
Technically, I didn’t have to. Only one leg was getting inked, after all. But it was weird to imagine one limb smooth and shiny while its sibling walked beside it, a mirror image save for twelve months’ worth of scruff. Maybe it could have been a statement. Performance art, even! Something something multiple expressions of the self can exist in the same body.
As I stood in the shower washing clumps of shin-fuzz out of a disposable razor, I mentally wrote half an artistic rationale for leaving my left leg hairy. But then I imagined the sensation of the scraggly calf brushing against the perfect smooth one—worse yet, against the tender healing skin of the new tattoo—made an involuntary ‘yurk’ sound out loud in my bathroom, and decided to just do ‘em both.
Afterwards, I ran my hands down my legs, plasticky smooth for the first time in months and months, and tried to figure out whether it felt good or not. Tangibly, texturally? For sure. Velveteen to the touch, still dewy with moisturiser.
Emotionally? Well. That got complicated. A rush of dopamine from patting my own satin-soft shins is inevitably followed, shot and chaser, by a memory: an echo of a giggle that vibrates around my brain.
‘You need to shave your legs,’ says Allie Kierney, sitting next to me in year eight P.E. We’re, what, thirteen? In our sports uniforms, the shirts engineered in a lab to be the world’s ugliest shade of grey. In our shorts, regulation length, with our knobbly pre-teen knees stuck out in front of us, getting itchy on the grass.
The memory is at least a decade old, but it feels so close. I can smell the grass, taste the fizz of early summer at the back of my nose, feel its heat prickling across my shoulders. I can hear myself, as if from outside my own little scrawny body, say ‘What?’ And I can hear Allie giggle again. I can see her pink-painted fingernail as she points to my legs, which are stretched out on the lawn beside hers.
Clear as day, I remember the contrast: Allie’s thighs, knees, shins, upturned to the November sky and ending in a pair of expensive running shoes. Shaved smooth as the proverbial baby’s bum. Practically glowing as they reflected the afternoon sunshine, golden like a trophy. And suddenly, a forest of legs around me, and a cacophony of voices.
‘I went with my sister to get mine waxed,’ said Laura, proudly, from above me and from on high.
‘Ugh, lucky,’ said Penelope, mournful. ‘I had to do mine with a home kit. It stung heaps afterwards.’
‘You probably did it wrong,’ laughed Allie; that tinkling, melodic, someone-ringing-a-bell-right-in-your-ear laugh of hers. I remember, so clearly, sitting on the grass with my scruffy legs framed by vibrant, itchy green. I remember, so clearly, realising that this view in front of me was somehow wrong. Not just unfashionable, but incorrect.
So I borrowed (well, stole) a bag of my dad’s disposable plastic blue razors and shaved my legs in the sink. I came to school the next day covered in tiny cuts but free of hair. We had P.E. again, and I laid my stinging victory on the playing field for all to see. Allie tutted pityingly at the band-aids and cooed ‘Aww, you tried.’
As I sit in the tattooist’s waiting room a lifetime later, I wonder what Allie Kierney is doing right now. Are her legs smooth? Does her laugh still sound like the laugh that ricochets around my head whenever I think of high school? Is she happy?
Isn’t it funny how some offhand thing a thirteen-year-old girl sighs at you can lodge itself in your brain, like a pointy pebble stuck in the shoe of your consciousness?
I send my partner, Cal, a text. Why are the front of your legs always hairier than the backs? What’s the evolutionary advantage of that?
Cal sends back Pre-ink nerves? and some heart emojis.
The person I love has three tattoos already: on their shoulder, a little cow jumping over a little moon; on the delicate inside of their wrist, some music notes, spelling out the beginning to their favourite Chopin piece. On their ribs—hidden away most of the time—is a snake, wending its scaly way around their torso. I often, absentmindedly, trace it with my fingertips when we’re spooning.
I asked Cal what prompted them to get an art installation on their body if it was in a place where no one would see it? And they shrugged and said ‘I know it’s there. It makes me happy.’ As if that immeasurably complicated notion—being happy with your body, your body being something that is yours to know and not for others to see—was as simple as that.
I contemplate telling Cal about my spontaneous memory of oval grass and horrible giggles and knobbly teenaged knees, but decide against it. Instead I type out, but seriously why? Does it make us, like, more aerodynamic when we’re fleeing from predators or something?
‘Aww, you tried,’ echoes once again in my head. That’s what it felt like, for years and years: unbeknownst to me, the insufferable little voice of Allie Kierney, age thirteen, had put words to my gender dilemma. It always felt like trying, being a girl. Like something I had to do better at, something I had to study for. A script I was squinting at, frantically, while standing in the wings waiting to be pushed onstage. Shave your legs, wear a bra, do your hair right, react properly to the right TV shows and music and… hey, oh no, there’s been a printing error, I don’t have all my lines. They fade out here and get all scrambled. See? Hello? Does anyone have another copy of the script? No? What do you mean that’s my cue?!
Most of my teen years felt like a bad improv show. The legs were part of the costume.
Absently, I rub my smooth calves against each other. Fidgeting in my seat, sure, but also testing the pleasant sensation. Artificial as it is, it honestly feels super nice. I wish that was the reason Allie and company had ordered me to shave. Did they enjoy this feeling, too, or was it just another line of dialogue they felt they had to follow?
My phone buzzes. Cal clearly thinks (not inaccurately) that I’m spiralling, and has sent me about twenty supportive emojis. I quirk a smile.
I ponder how the first time I ever shaved my legs—raked a razor over my delicate skin, chopped the peachy hairs that had been growing there since my childhood, sent blood dribbling down to my ankles in stinging ribbons—I did it because some girl laughed at me. Today, I did it to make a tattoo artist’s life easier.
Like stripping the paint so we can decorate. Tilling the soil so she can plant the roses and lilies and vines that will go curling, in black ink, from my heel to just under my knee. Making room for a garden of my own design. I think about the artwork that will be spiralling up my skin by the end of the day, and feel a sugary rush in my chest.
And I think about how, in time, new spiky, scraggly hair will grow on these no-longer-knobbly legs. It will poke through the drawings embedded in my body. Give it another few months and the petals and fuzz will be sharing the space, and they will both be mine.
The thought is comforting, and I lean into that comfort, wonder what it would be like to explain this quiet, fuzzy euphoria to that thirteen-year-old not-a-girl sitting mournfully on an itchy green sports field.
The tattooist pops her head out into the waiting room and calls my name. I give my silky-smooth knees one last pat and jump out of my seat, eagerly following her down the hall as fast as my legs can carry me.
About the author
A.R. Henderson is a non-binary writer, editor, and fledgling academic working on Ngunnawal country. They are currently finalising a creative thesis about queer young adult fiction and teenaged trickster gods. They are also currently trying to figure out what their second tattoo should be. You can find links to their work (and ramblings about books and cartoons) @TheAfictionado