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A decision on the razor's edge

In Sikhism, the body is a gift to be honored by leaving it in its natural state. Maintaining kesh, or hair, is one of the five articles of faith. But as Sikh women in America know, not all potential husbands appreciate that.

October 09, 2011|By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times
  • Nilofer Chariwala uses threading on the eyebrows of Stacie Negrete at Ziba Beauty, a salon in Artesia. Threading is a common hair removal technique for South Asian and Middle Eastern women. For observant Sikh women, keeping kesh -- hair -- can be a daunting struggle in a society where razor ads saturate the airwaves and Brazilian waxes are a common beauty ritual.
Nilofer Chariwala uses threading on the eyebrows of Stacie Negrete at Ziba… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

On a busy sidewalk in downtown Los Angeles, Birpal Kaur threaded her way through a stream of women with perfectly shaped eyebrows.

She occasionally reached up to smooth her own — dark, bushy and untamed, hinting at a unibrow.

For six months, the 28-year-old Sikh had resisted the urge to have her brows groomed, as she had regularly done in the past. For observant Sikhs, the body is a gift to be honored by leaving it in its natural state. Maintaining kesh, or hair, is one of the five articles of faith as ordered by the 10th guru.

So she felt a bit guilty as she made the brisk eight-block walk to the Bombay Eyebrows Threading kiosk on 7th Street.

"It makes me feel kind of like a sellout," said Kaur, dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt and a hot pink tank top, her round face framed by long, dark tresses.

In a society where razor ads saturate the airwaves and Brazilian waxes are a common beauty ritual, keeping kesh can be a daunting struggle.

"Let's put religion aside and be real," said Sumita Batra, a Sikh who owns a chain of 16 hair removal studios across Southern California and Las Vegas. "Who … is attracted to a hairy-legged, mustached woman?"

The issue has much to do with the pressure to get married.

"The guys do the whole, 'Wow, that's awesome,' " when they meet a woman who keeps kesh, Kaur said. "Then they walk away, and you know they're never going to date you."

Indeed, many Sikh women here and in their native India are abandoning kesh in favor of the modern idea of beauty. The shift has made it harder for women like Kaur who want to stay committed to their kesh but feel pressure from inside and outside their Sikh communities.

Kaur tells herself that she will abandon any hair removal once she is married.

In the next moment, however, she acknowledged that she and other young Sikh women have a romanticized expectation of meeting someone who will appreciate the body in its natural state.

"I haven't met him yet," she said.

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At the downtown Macy's Plaza, Kaur settled into an empty seat at the threading kiosk.

Hanging nearby was a photo of a South Asian bride, laden with ornate gold jewelry, her heavily made-up eyes cast down and a gold embroidered scarf pulled over her hair. Her dark eyebrows were pencil-thin.

Myra, a petite woman with light eyebrows and nary a hair on her arms, took a long thread between her teeth and wrapped it around her fingers as she jerked hairs off Kaur's face.

Kaur squeezed her eyes shut, wincing occasionally. Her mouth tightened with each twinge of pain.

Like many South Asian women, Kaur has thick, dark hair on her face and body. In middle school, classmates called her "fur ball."

When she was 15, Kaur sneaked a razor from a complimentary toiletry bag her father had brought back from a business trip. She kept it for weeks before working up the courage to shave her legs — on the morning of a friend's pool party.

The next year, a couple of months after she got her driver's license, Kaur got her eyebrows threaded for the first time. In college, she continued shaving and threading off and on.

For Sikhs, hair is more than just about honoring the body or maintaining their identity. They are taught that every single pore of a person's body is a way to connect with Waheguru, the Sikh name for God. Altering the body can inhibit that ability.

But as India urbanized and Bollywood and foreign movies promoted a new fashion norm, more women began to treat the religious requirement as flexible, said Gurinder Singh Mann, a professor of Sikh studies at UC Santa Barbara.

Sikhs in America have found themselves wrapped in a culture even more obsessed with the waxed, plucked and clean-shaven. Today, for many women, the mandate against removing body hair has been conveniently regarded as largely applying to men.

Although men and women are held to the same standard in Sikhism, there is a cultural double standard on kesh. Provided that women maintain long tresses, the community generally looks the other way when it comes to removing facial and body hair. Religious leaders, Singh Mann said, have been fumbling to address the problem.

"The winds of all this modernity and secularism are growing," Singh Mann said.

Guruka Singh, who blogs on the popular site SikhNet.com, said married and single men often tell him: "I look good in my turban and my beard, but I want my wife to look a certain way."

The topic of kesh is often avoided at the gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, but is discussed online in forums or in intimate discussions among younger women, said Manpreet Kalra, co-founder of Kaurista.com, an online lifestyle magazine for Sikh women.

"We have seen that it is a major issue," she said. "When men say, 'Oh, I keep my hair so it's OK if my wife doesn't, because my kids will still do it,' that's such a sad thing to hear guys say."

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