Posted in 1940s, Historical fiction, Shoah, Writing

Re-Becoming Women


Almost as much as Klaudia loved sleeping in a real bed, she loved running a comb through her hair.  Of the three of them who remained, she was the proudest of her hair.  Even a modern girl was allowed to think of her hair as her crowning glory.

“I feel like a baby discovering her body,” she said as they got ready for bed on the fifth night of their journey. “I just love feeling the shape of my arms and legs coming back, and feeling the soft little hairs growing on my legs and arms again.  I’m becoming a woman again.”

“My favorite part is watching my bustline growing again,” Aranka said. “I no longer remember how big it was before, but I know it’s still not done coming back.”

“Do you think our busts will ever be as big as they were before?” Csilla asked. “Not that I ever cared how big mine was, but I don’t like the thought of my body being permanently deformed.  At least we were pretty much done growing and had reached our full heights before last June.  I don’t think any of us shrunk that way.”

Klaudia crossed her arms across her pajama top and tenderly cradled her recovering breasts. “I hope they go back to their former size.  It’s a miracle they’re growing back as it is.  A girl has to have some way to turn boys’ heads besides her brilliant mind.”

“You were a bit on the large side,” Aranka gently teased, reaching for her little hand mirror. “I bet Kálcsi was kept warm at night remembering them.  Did he ever get to touch them?  You can tell us now.  It’s just us girls.”

“Of course not.  We were only fourteen when we were deported.  All we did was kiss and hold hands.” Klaudia squeezed her eyes shut. “Though part of me wishes we’d at least done something.  My boyfriend should’ve been the first man to see me naked, not those thugs who didn’t deserve to look at us.  Thank God he was never one of the guys who had to shave us every three weeks.  That would’ve been beyond humiliating.”

“It would’ve been humiliating if any of our men or boys had been in that damned shaving line,” Csilla said. “I’m never touching a razor unless I develop some embarrassing female moustache or something.  Not after how we were forcibly shaved so many times.  Why do women in America shave their legs and underarms?  They’re robbing themselves of part of what makes us women.  Little girls don’t have body hair, but women do.”

“My mother taught me to trim my underarm hair so it wouldn’t get too sweaty and smell bad in the warmer months.  I guess I can kind of see why American women would want to get rid of underarm hair.”

Aranka relaxed back onto the bed and curled her head onto her pillow. “I hope we have our full pubic hair back soon too.  I felt like I’d really arrived as a true woman when I got it before.  Even if I was the only one who saw and touched it, it was still like a special marking setting me apart from the little girls.  I wish Irén were still here to have that special experience of starting to become a real woman.”

Csilla lay down in the middle of the bed as she always did, so she could have Klaudia and Aranka on either side of her and hold onto both of them even in sleep.  As far as she was concerned, these were her younger sisters now, in a bond thicker than blood, a bond forged in fire.  With no more families left, they had to cling together.

“Do we have any peppermints?” Klaudia asked, rubbing her stomach. “I don’t know what I ate that would’ve given me a stomach ache.”

“Do you think you have food poisoning?” Csilla asked. “Your portion tonight wasn’t excessive.”

“I hope not.  We can’t delay on our journey.  Maybe some of the boys have survived and are waiting for us, and they’ll leave if we don’t show up soon enough.  Maybe my Kálcsi survived and will die of a broken heart if I’m not there.”

“You’d better believe we’ll take all the time we need if you’re not feeling well.  Your health is more important than racing home just to see if some boyfriend survived.  And if Kálmán did survive and he still likes you, he won’t turn heel after only a week or so.”

Klaudia buried her head in her hands. “I don’t know how this is possible, but I think I just wet myself.”

Csilla rubbed her back. “If you did, I’ll give you my pajama pants.  It won’t hurt me to sleep half-naked for one night.”

Klaudia got out of bed and froze when she pulled her pajama pants down.  There it was, the relentless red stain she hadn’t seen since last June.  After having those drugs mixed into their tea, and then rendered too emaciated to menstruate anyway, this was even more of a miracle than regrowing her hair.  She began laughing.

“Csicsi, Ari, look!  I’m one hundred percent a real woman again!  I can have babies someday!”

“Congratulations,” Aranka said. “I’m jealous of you.  You’re the first of us to start menstruating again.  I hope I’m next.”

Csilla hugged her, then opened the emergency supply bag she’d made up. “I organized some disposable sanitary napkins before we left, while you were busy organizing clothes and handbags.  Will you be okay with safety pins holding them in place?  I’m afraid I don’t have a belt.”

“Safety pins are fine by me.  I always hated that damned belt anyway.” Klaudia sat next to Csilla as she was fastening a napkin to a pair of female drawers. “I’m glad you’re my sister now.”

Csilla kissed her on the cheek. “I love you too.”

Posted in Atlantic City books, Historical fiction, Russian novel, Russian novel sequel, Writing

Historical fiction and body hair

I started doing some reading awhile ago on the history of body hair acceptance and removal, for both feminist reasons and historical fiction research. While the removal of body hair has long been considered part of good hygiene in places like Egypt, India, and certain parts of the Islamic world, in the West (and particularly America), it’s only been in vogue since about World War One. And as I read somewhere quite some time ago, a lot of people don’t realize the women in the average historical romance would’ve had full body hair, even though nowadays most people would cringe at the thought of the female lead in a romance novel having hairy legs and armpits.

Women didn’t, and weren’t allowed to, expose their legs or arms until the hemlines and sleeve lengths started shrinking around the First World War. Women could even be arrested in some places for just showing their ankles. When it became socially acceptable and normal for women to show their legs in public, and to wear short-sleeved or strapped dresses and tops, the shaving industry started a campaign to convince them to shave their legs and armpits. It was considered just as indecent, flaunting female sexuality, to show hairy legs and armpits. Body hair, until very recently, was considered a potent symbol of adult female sexuality, something separating the real women from the prepubescent 1o-year-old girls.

So the women in my Russian novels would’ve had full body hair, and been considered normal, real women by their husbands. Lyuba, Eliisabet, Kat, Lyuba’s mother and aunt, the older Lebedeva sisters, and Granyechka all would’ve had hair on their legs and armpits, and not been recoiled from when their lovers touched them there and discovered the hair. Kittey, Viktoriya, and the younger Lebedeva sisters probably would’ve shaved, just because they were of the younger generation and wearing the new clothes more often. Possibly even the younger Soviet characters like Georgiya and Inessa might’ve shaved their legs, just because they’re modern women of the new era.

Anastasiya, even though she still routinely goes around in ankle-length hemlines, would’ve been shaving for no other reason than because it’s the in thing to do, and she can’t let anyone think she’s unfashionable and behind the times. Katrin, the most radical character, would’ve been sugaring her legs in the era just before the invention of the safety razor, or razors for women period. As she shockingly admits in her paean to hospital birth (published in the Estonian, Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and English radical papers she writes for), she already shaves her pubic hair, so the prepping nurse had one less step to do. To Katrin, removing body hair is a matter of good hygiene, and she would’ve been doing it even before it became something women were socially pressured to do.

Until very recently, the idea of a woman voluntarily removing her pubic hair would’ve been considered bizarre. Girls used to look forward to getting it, since they knew they were becoming real women. Full pubic hair on a woman used to be considered very sexy and normal, and a guy making out with a girl wouldn’t have been at all shocked to find it when they rounded third base. Now there are apparently lots of men who have never seen female pubic hair in spite of having had lots of partners, and people of both sexes who think it’s gross, dirty, or even unnatural for a woman to have pubic hair.

The girls in my Atlantic City books are very pro-shaving, and are even shaving their pubic hair. The guys similarly shave their chests, both to please their girls and because they don’t like excess body hair. I know now that a normal girl coming of age during the Forties wouldn’t have even thought about shaving her pubic hair, even though it’s meant as a social satire and spoof. But I still need to have a basic historical foundation behind the satirizing.

My female Shoah characters past puberty (such as Jadwiga, Eszter, Marie, Caterina, Aranka, Klaudia, Csilla) would’ve been thrilled to see their body hair coming back. Their hair had all been shaved as part of the plot to rob them of their female appearance. Emaciated, hairless, and not menstruating, they were reduced to ageless, sexless hags. It would be bizarre to depict any of them as shaving off body hair as soon as it finally started growing back. Women in Europe also aren’t as hung-up about body hair as Americans. It’s still considered normal in many places in Europe to see a woman with hair on her legs and under her arms, no rude comments or accusations from strangers.

A lot of people nowadays have the tendency to forget, or not realize, that history does not begin and end in America, and within the last 10-20 years. What is now considered normal would’ve been considered bizarre, mentally ill, confusing, or laughable 50, 100, 300 years ago. For example, it was considered normal and not dangerous or goofy for all of human history, until relatively recently, to sleep in the same bed as your baby, nurse past two years, birth with a midwife, push in positions other than flat on the back, without counting to ten and holding one’s breath, carry your baby in a sling instead of pushing it in a pram, and immediately attend to your baby when s/he cried.

Then men took over childcare and developed obstetrics, and the woman to woman chain of wisdom was effectively severed, as men convinced women that a baby would be spoilt if it were held against the mother’s body, immediately picked up when crying, nursed, and kept in the mother’s bed instead of put in a crib in another room. Only recently have we begun to discover the common sense wisdom of our ancestors. So too with body hair. Until about 20-30 years ago, normal adult women were expected to have pubic hair, and women changing for the beach or public baths a hundred years ago wouldn’t have been shocked to see other women with hair on their legs or called mocking attention to it.