This is Objects of Affection, a column by Katie Okamoto finding meaning in the feelings we have for everyday things.
Favorite granddaughter,Some daythese will be yours
Ba-Da Da Da
I watched the music video at home over 56K, the video freezing on Britney’s neon bra with the zipper, one thing at least I’ll forever remember. Then I watched it again, frame after frame of honey-smooth skin, all knee-socked legs and pits and tummy. It was obvious that I needed to start shaving my legs. It was less obvious that I had a crush on her. Did I want her or want to be her? Neither, I would have said. I want her, said the boys. I had always made friends so easily with boys. Now I had a reason to feel alien from them, because in a new way we were the same.
At first I shaved with a disposable Bic razor, a brutal thing that was no match for my grove of Japanese-Spanish hair. Its two blades scraped flaps of skin from my knees and ankles if I wasn’t careful, and I got used to seeing blood in the shower. Then the Venus came out, the first razor designed to make you feel like a goddess, the commercial said. It had a swooping gummy-blue handle and a pivoting cartridge with three blades. I accepted Gillette’s claim that it had been designed for women’s curves, or, more specifically, the tender places boys were not expected to be smooth. That it had been designed for me.
In the pink-tiled shower, I ran my finger experimentally over the cartridge. I discovered that it had a strip of gel that slimed when wet. The gel made the blades salivate across my skin. I shaved quickly, the ball of my foot flexed on the edge of the tub, my leg a woman’s leg. With the Venus, I was good at shaving. My flesh seemed to quiet. In the summer especially, when my eczema got angry, I found that having smooth legs itched less—a relief not to irritate myself, for once. I liked the way my outline emerged from behind the blades, how I slipped against myself.
But though I liked my shaved legs, shaving them felt a little like I was playing a part. It’s not Mach 3 in drag, a Gillette exec said of the Venus in 2000, when the company introduced it. Every woman can be the goddess of something, a spokesperson for Venus’s ad campaign told the New York Times. As a kid, I’d never quite expected to be one—a woman, I mean. To be a woman at all had felt far-fetched, like being an astronaut. Still, I suspected great things. I stood in front of my bedroom mirror with my hands forming breasts from my flat chest and grinned to myself, Aha. Here we go, a woman.
It wouldn’t occur to me to ditch the Venus until I was thirty-two, when my body and I fell apart.
That summer, I strained to breathe in a bra—asthma or panic, I was never sure. My periods slowed by weeks, then months. As a teen, my chin had never broken out before, but now, as penance, it did. I seemed to have forgotten how to sit, and my back and hip ached constantly. I didn’t recognize my feet. And there was something else, a vein running through me like quartz crystal through granite, splicing me. Maybe it’s because I had switched continental plates, moving for the first time to Los Angeles from New York. An unremarkable event, clichéd even, like the omens I logged: three earthquakes in the first week.
I was freelancing and worked from my new home. The afternoon sun turned the apartment into a glassworks, all radiant heat. To cool off, I started jumping in the shower at five. Afterward, to conserve water, I shaved my legs with the blue Venus, standing in a blast of sunshine at the sink. But LA’s desert air flared my dormant eczema, and the triple-blade cartridge irritated me in ways it never had before. I’d been shaving with the same brand for twenty years; this was supposed to feel fine. But it did not feel fine, and, more troubling, it felt familiar.
While they were alive, my grandparents sometimes took me down the shore. Grandma, my mom’s mom, sporting her daisy-stamped swim cap, tossed me into the saltwater pool at the Spring Lake boardwalk and doled out Hershey’s Kisses when I swam back. It only got sickly when she introduced me to friends: This is my granddaughter, isn’t she beautiful? I felt itchy.
But I felt itchy a lot. For most of my childhood, a persistent blaze burned behind my knees, where salt and sweat collected. I was told not to scratch, but a forbidden itch becomes unbearable. I always caved. Under my nails there formed a point so ferocious and sweet, it almost made the fire that redoubled afterward worthwhile.
My embarrassment at how my legs looked was worse than the eczema. I learned to orient my body in awareness of my perimeter, so that no one I hoped to impress would see the raw land between my calves and hamstrings—the popliteal fossa, the hough, the knee pit. I felt thirsty with envy for the easy smoothness behind girls’ kneecaps my age, the way their skin seemed to beam and beckon at the world.
Sometimes my envy felt like an itch. Another word for lust.
One day, desperate to improve how I felt, I read online that single-blade razors are better for sensitive skin. It was as if I’d been waiting for the excuse. I found an online store whose target audience was men who shave their faces. I know because a page told me, equal parts gag-me and prophecy: A classic wet shave takes you on an aesthetic journey back to the root of your male essence.
Sometimes my envy felt like an itch. Another word for lust.
To be honest, the thought of having any clear essence appealed to me. By the end of middle school, I’d known I was neither straight nor gay, like I was neither fully Japanese nor white. Bi felt more accurate, but the word lived clunkily inside me, next to half and hafu, the Japanese word for being biracial—words for cleaving, I’d thought. I wish I’d seen then that my childhood was an era of sorting hats—fixed categories, not spectra. In my overwhelmingly white suburban town, I’d grown up explaining, a form of apology for the confusion my appearance seemed to cause. I was eager to meet others where they were—head thrust forward, torso flopping in. Even in arguments, I found myself assuming this posture. It was comfortable, so I thought it had power.
If anything, the cant of my lean seemed to pitch forward more in college, where I regret—not uniquely, I realize—worrying far too much about the comfort and pleasure of other people. But I did discover that I was turned on by the sight of men’s razors as much as by their owners. Sometimes more. I coveted something when I’d spot them, the morning after maybe, with its certainty of having been wanted and surviving that want—but I glimpsed something else too, something that might be mine. A navy dopp kit, zipped and careful. A gray cartridge razor in a cup nicked from the dining hall, more fun, unpredictable. Even the boy I loved: I can see his Gillette razor there, drying on the dresser beside his fennel toothpaste. We sat on his floor and exchanged air, salt and anise and something bath-like, like cedar. All at once, I unfurled. I want him. But as soon as I thought this, I slipped. Toward a person I always felt myself becoming with men. Here we go, a woman.
On the shaving site marketed to men, I scrolled through every page, ogling the soaps and colognes, the brushes and stands. I swooned in golds, navies, vegetable greens. Some safety razors were a mean matte black, others flashy gold, but I picked a simple one of chrome-plated stainless steel, tight crosshatches on its weighted handle. It was inexpensive and I liked how it looked, polished and ageless, like it had jumped through time. To my cart, I added a squat wooden shaving brush with blond boar bristles, meant to be strong but soft, and a box of double-edged razor blades, each wrapped in crisp tissue. To complete my set—I was now, the site reminded me, a True Man of Discernment—I found an Italian shaving cream, Proraso, scented with eucalyptus and menthol, that squeezed from an aluminum tube. The tube’s design was tailored, retro modern, Italian drugstore chic, with wide strips of hunter green and thin stripes of red and bronze.
When the razor arrived, I felt like I was holding a bit of car fender in my hand. Shaving with it was more seductive than expected. I squeezed a pearl of Proraso into my palm and swirled it swiftly with wet bristles, working up a lather thicker than whipped cream. The brush’s handle had the finish of a pool cue, lacquered smooth. I hoisted a heel to the edge of the counter, propped chin to knee, took the razor in my right hand, and traced the path of the blade with my left. Despite its name, the razor’s danger, always present, felt closer than it ever did with Venus; I sensed that how I’d wield it mattered. I gripped it gently and let its weight do the work. Every few strokes, I turned on the tap, wet the blade, flicked my wrist, and went again, eucalyptus tingling the air.
That first LA year, I often drifted into cracks, found myself suspended below the surface of the day. Shaving on one such afternoon, I sensed something there. If I wanted a woman, I wanted her completely, I had only ever wanted this woman, I wanted to wrap myself through her and send us vine-black and emerald through her spaces. If I wanted a man, I really wanted him, to stand on the silver edge of our strength, to bridle before coming unbridled. If they wanted me, they wanted me because I was a woman. To be a woman and to want them felt untrue to my desire and the shape of it—a rock, a stone, hot white, the stone of me.
I took a breath and found it easy. With the steel against my skin, I felt as if I was coming into some power I didn’t know I’d had, which is maybe what happens when will and want align.
I was suddenly, devastatingly, catastrophically horny.
I’d switched shaving routines to care for my skin, but really I’d made an aesthetic choice, a transformative one. A brush whose handle fits in my palm, steel that calls through my mind to a long-shelled clam, scent that coaxes me open. Sometimes, with my foot on the sink, I bend and rest my mouth on my knee, not quite a kiss. I recall the itches I used to hide.
All my life, I thought shaving my legs was an act of womanhood. Even naked in the shower, I played the part. Then I traded a razor aggressively marketed to women for a razor aggressively marketed to men, and everything changed. To find that a razor expressed my fluidity is corny, I admit. But with my new setup, shaving transformed into something else, not masculine either, but mine. I like to think of it as a creative act. Razor in hand, I make myself—at once lineal and new, shadow and sun. I’m a particular color depending on the day, the hour, crimson, peach, cerulean, violet; that color is its own source, and my wanting comes from that source, dye in water, permeating me. I feel me shift through the steel I hold, like ocean floor speaking to sonar. Form, reform, there I am.
Over two years, as it’s been subjected to the Proraso and city water, the shining, etched handle of my razor has acquired a powder-white patina, like the inside of a clamshell. It comes from carelessness, specifically my own—proof that, though I shave with care, evidently I lack patience. When I’m done, I stash it, still dripping a little, in a coffee mug with the tube and the boar-bristle brush. Though I reach for it often, the mug gathers dust on its bathroom perch, a fact that occasionally annoys me. Every few months, I wonder if I should just get a stand, but that seems like fuss. For now, this feels like me. Today, this is mine.
Katie Okamoto's writing has appeared in Catapult, The Atlantic, Eater, TASTE, Metropolis, and BuzzFeed Reader, among other places. She participated in the 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop for non-fiction and memoir and is at work on a book. Formerly, Katie was the senior editor at Metropolis, the architecture and design magazine, in New York City. Find them at katieokamoto.com.