The other night, my son was sitting with me watching a little TV before bedtime when he told me that he had found a hair growing out of his left armpit.
I don’t remember when it was exactly that I began to grow body hair, but I do remember not having any myself and feeling naked, standing in the locker room at school dressed in my shorts as all the other hairy ape-like cryptids in my class unselfconsciously moved about in the showers as men. And I felt odd. I felt as self-conscious as a naked girl in the boy’s locker room. I just didn’t belong.
So while I do not remember the day I’d discovered my first body hair, I remember all too well what it was like to not have body hair when everyone else did. It was with this in mind that I made a big deal out of my son’s faltering step toward puberty and congratulated him with an “Awesome!” slapping him on the back and asking him if he wanted me to take a picture for his baby book and perhaps throw a party and invite his grandparents. He failed to see the humor in this, but was glad all the same that I recognized this life event for what it was—he was becoming a man. At least as far as he was concerned. If he only knew…
So of course for me this begs the question, when does a girl become a woman? Is it body hair? Breasts? Her first period?
From my older, male point of view, this is subjective. I’ve met adults who’ve behaved worse than children, and not just women either, but according to a certain little eight-year-old I know, it’s really rather simple.
She and I were bantering back and forth one morning as we often do while she is getting ready for school and I am getting ready for work. She had mentioned knowing some profound life lesson already at her early age, and I argued that it was impossible for her to know this. “You’re just a little girl,” I’d said.
“No, I’m a woman,” she countered with a twinge of condescension.
“You’re not a woman,” I said, shaking my head, snorting.
“Yes I am.”
“No, see?” I grabbed her in a bear hug. “Your head only come comes up to here on me.” I released her and indicated with a hand-slice across my abdomen when her head had been.
She tipped her head sideways a bit and placed her hands on her hips like she does when she’s realized that I’ve just said something really stupid. With this look, she’s trying to explain a relatively simple concept to me that I should understand but don’t, my stupidity so profound that it requires her to look at the world through my skewed perspective in order for her to explain it correctly.
“I am a woman. When I sat in Mom’s car the other day, the airbag light turned on.”
Interesting. A validation by proxy of the soft orange glow of a dashboard indicator lamp in a Japanese model, compact car and connected to a passenger seat that somehow senses weight. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I once placed a case of beer on the front seat of my car once and that same amber puberty meter told me my beer was now a woman just like I didn’t have the heart to tell my son that our family is cursed with hair that may take longer to make its appearance, but once it does, it grows everywhere like patches of crabgrass, and none of these places are in the least bit desirable. Unless you’re a Sasquatch or you intend to run about naked in the woods that is.
But don’t we all look for these little signs that show we have reached a desired level of maturity? When I was young it was body hair and a deep voice and now that I’m older, it’s knowledge, wisdom, less body hair (much less), and a deep voice. Some things never change.
Later, at a traffic stop, I glanced over at the spot on the dash that told my youngest daughter that she was all grown up now, and I asked this dashboard oracle a few questions of my own.
“What gives you the right to tell my little girl she’s a woman now?”
It didn’t answer. Neither on nor off, it just read “AIRBAG,” silent.
“She’s my last one, my little girl, and Maddie’s leaving for college this fall. Have you no heart?”
A car impatiently honked behind me and, looking up, I began to feel rather foolish for talking to an idiot light that may very well be smarter and more mature than I, and decided I’d better check my left armpit for hair when I get home.
Later that evening, Lindsey and I left the house to pick up her big sister from basketball practice at school. Lindsey hopped into my car and sat in the seat next to me. As I started the car, she put on her seat belt, pointed to the passenger side airbag light, and said “Dad, look.”
I watched with her as the airbag light lit up, hesitated a moment, then lit the “OFF” light. I laughed.
“Ha, you are not a woman yet. I knew it!”
“I don’t understand. I was in Mom’s car…”
“You are still my little girl. Aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess,” she said, shrugging, unperturbed.
As we drove, she asked me, for some reason I didn’t bother to investigate, how can little kids drive a car? How can they reach the peddles? I wasn’t really paying attention. I was too happy about still having my little girl. I told her that I supposed that they sat on the edge of the seat and scooted forward to reach the peddles, but this would make it difficult to see out the windshield.
As we waited in the car for her sister to finish, I remembered this question and asked Linn if she would like to go over to the big, empty school parking lot and drive around while we waited. Her eyes bugged.
“Yeah! Can We? Can We?”
“Sure… oh, wait a minute.”
I tapped on the airbag light. “You can’t. You’re still a little girl.”
She hit me. She hits hard for a girl.