For my introductory blog, I decided to bring together some of the themes I’ll be covering in “Post-PCV, Post-Feminist”: anecdotes from my Peace Corps Bulgaria life; how to be super empowered, but not “show” it; the ungentle transition from my “Quarterlife” crisis into my “Thirtylife” crisis; and the life and times of my vagina.

Right away it came to me—the story of my first bikini wax.

This should tell you everything you need to know about me and what I stand for.

~~~

A lot of people join the Peace Corps and use this opportunity to not wear deodorant for two years. I too was hoping for this freedom, but I was placed in Bulgaria–a struggling, but very fashionable Eastern European country.  In Bulgaria, because I didn’t wear skin-tight jeans, midriff-revealing strips of fabric that somehow qualified as blouses, and stilettos in winter–this meant not only was I not a woman, but that I had balls. My puffy, unisex L.L. Bean fall/winter/early spring jacket lead to many awkward confrontations from bathroom attendants in train stations, first demanding my 10 stotinki, and then pointing me in the direction of the men’s room.

”I’m from Hawaii,” I’d say, as if to justify my three layers of Patagonia extreme-weather long underwear.

(I wanted to say: “I have tits under all this down!” but I didn’t know the Bulgarian for tits.)

I wasn’t in Bulgaria long before my Bulgarian girlfriends put some post-Communist pressure on the unfortunate American (me).  I was to burn my Gap t-shirts along with the weekly trash and never, ever–for the love of Vasil Levski–wear running shoes with my jeans when we went out at night. Whenever we’d plan a girls’ night out, the director of the town’s only women’s rights NGO would remind me to dress, “mnogo sexy,”—mnogo being the Bulgarian intensifier “very.” Kolko sexy?” I’d respond, for clarification on how much I needed to mnogo it up for the NGO Christmas party, or outing to the discothèque.

Mnogo, MNOGO sexy.”

Right. Good thing stilettos and pink faux-fur shrugs were on my Peace Corps packing list. Also, like most volunteers, my clothes were sun or space heater dried, and had all shape stomped out of them while I simultaneously cleaned them and showered in my five minute “race against the boiler.”

Pretty wouldn’t be easy in the Peace Corps.

Considering I had the language skills of a three year old–I was already on my way to exchanging the “Check out my double-D brain,” core of my self-esteem–for one that involved the holy beauty trinity of padded bras, mesh, and black eyeliner. Also, with the emphasis on cultural integration by PC Bulgaria staff, I felt pressured to integrate by uncovering my Inner Sexy, lost beneath enough fleece and down to protect me from any accidental mafia shootings. And marriage proposals.

Another problem, according to both my girlfriends, the women who worked at the post office, and my orphan-students, was my weight. Even minus the fleece, at 5’3” and 133 pounds, according to Bulgarian standards, I was fat. The entire community told me I needed to eat only one meal of grapefruit and bacon every day, and take up smoking.

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is full of warm and fuzzy moments, until an orphan calls you fat.

Judging from the thickness of my turtlenecks, my girlfriends also speculated that my bush runneth over, and not in a political sense.

I don’t know why I finally conceded. Maybe I did feel like less of a hot Hawaiian tamale after my first Bulgarian winter. I was pallid and soft from too much banitsa (Bulgarian for “Cheesy death pastry”) and not enough will to “When in Bulgaria” and wrap myself in saran wrap and ride a manual stationary bike for an hour to achieve size emaciated. Also, for a few leva, what did I have to lose? I knew there were no $4 Brazilians in American spas. I should carpe cheap foreign labor, and support my town’s economy.

The fact that I did have more than one spa to go to should tell you a lot about my Peace Corps experience.

I should have done more research before I let someone make me an appointment. My Bulgarian Best Friend Yulia was supermodel gorgeous. We often would relax from the psychological toll of a grey concrete bloc covered landscape, by going to the local sauna and covering ourselves in olive oil, extra-virgin. In America, we would have called Yulia “very, very skinny,” and offered her cheesecake to make ourselves feel better about our own mini-muffin tops. In Bulgaria, women asked when she was due. It was brutal, having anything more than flesh and bone.

Regardless of how I let this happen, here I was in the spa’s waxing, no turning back—and hopefully no turning over–having a minor panic attack, wondering whether I leave my panties on or off, and only now wondering about the specific mechanics of a bikini wax. Ah, Women’s Studies classes at Harvard—if you could see me now. Eventually I decided on panties on, because I was more mortified that the technician would walk in and see my American flag, and by American flag, I mean vagina. I knew so much about the do’s and don’ts of Bulgarian etiquette—but this, this hadn’t been a cultural assignment. I never filled out a worksheet covering four traditional Easter foods and how to behave during an intimate waxing session. I was on my own.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“A little,” I answered, because I didn’t know what my options were.

After she took a little off the sides, I peered down, entirely unimpressed with my mini mullet.

“A little more?” I asked, using my fingers to demonstrate a very small amount.

She trimmed a little off the top, transforming it from mullet into mohawk.

Still unsatisfied by my increasingly foreign-looking ya-ya region, I decided to “When in Brazil,” and said: “Take off everything,” which was probably not the right way to request a full baldy in Bulgarian.

“Everything?” she asked.

“Everything, but watch the taint.

Fortunately, I knew the Bulgarian for taint.

As I checked out of the spa, I heard the waxing technician tell the front desk: “Zone 3,” which I think meant the zone of my vagina.  I can’t help but wonder to this day, Where is Zone 4?

~~~

I never expected to join the Peace Corps, and become pathologically obsessed over my appearance–from what everyone could see (my weight), to what no one could (my crotch). What made me obviously American in Bulgaria was not my whitish skin or ethnically vague features, but the fact that I was a Doc Marten wearing, ponytailed, thongless woman who may have been better able to integrate in on Amish farm than in the most fashionable country east of Macedonia. I just wanted to be comfortable in my body, but in Bulgaria I would never be comfortable, because winter is to Hawaiians as death is to the living.

Taking care of one’s body and sexuality can be the banitsa of life–I just left my sexy in America, along with my early 20’s and ass pants. I can joke about it now–as I can my birth–but living in a foreign country, I couldn’t believe how devastated I was by the feeling that I wasn’t beautiful enough. It was shameful, the way I’d cry if my colleague told me I was so fat for a runner, while I spent most of my time in Roma (gypsy) ghettos, and if I was going to shed a damn tear, it should have been over humanity’s heavy sufferings–the ones we all see in magazines, on CNN, in person during those brief do gooding “find yourself” years. Some of us try to stitch what we can–we build day centers and offer computer classes, provide clothes, medicine, food, and school books for impoverished children–but these are all such small stitches, imperceptible on a world-sized wound. (It’s something. It’s still something.)

I was Gender Theory nerd and Psychology major in college over ten years ago, always trying to better understand my fellow woman, and mostly myself. The deconstruction of femininity, the etiology of disordered eating, the barely kept crazy within–Feminism 101 didn’t prepare me for living in small town Bulgaria, where staying sane meant staying pretty.  Unfortunately, there’s no end to pretty, and all the hair removal and saran wrap in the world won’t get you there. Because like fat free banitsa–it doesn’t exist.

Maybe the superficial obsessing over my imperfections was a self defense mechanism to keep me from a deeper depression that should have been the human result of what I saw working in orphanages and ghettos–what I saw day after day for years and couldn’t touch. Maybe self absorption over a few pounds and having zero sex factor saved me from sad coma over the incomprehensible unfairness of all of life.  I don’t know; nihilism is the new cynicism. I don’t obsess about waxing or weight anymore; instead, the existence of natural disasters, genocide, and bride burnings baffles me–like a math problem in Wonderland, where the rules change faster than we can.

After my first bikini wax, I briefly wrapped my judgmental American Feminist Within up in saran wrap, and stuck her in a manual hamster wheel.  I wanted to revel in my new wow-factor; I was proud of myself for doing something that was so un-me.  “Sure, Jenn,” you might say. “And next time you might as well try murder or naked karaoke.” I didn’t feel like a half-Asian Paris Hilton, ready to show all of Dupnitza, Bulgaria my not-so-secret well-maintained garden, but I did feel oddly brave and newly sassy–for going out on a cross-cultural limb and traveling to the eighth dimension of my comfort zone. I survived something, like a ritual sacrifice, only less bloody, and minus the “In the Name of Satan” part.

Integration in a new culture doesn’t always take the form of baby swaddling, beret wearing, yak eating, or left hand using–for me, it was sitting with my Bulgarian girlfriends, shooting the shit na bulgarski, and feeling like under my jeans, long underwear, long underwear, and long underwear, we all had Zone 3 in common.

~~~

If you like this, see also: The time a beautician peeled half my upper lip off during my first mustache waxing in Bulgaria; the time a beautician applied a new electric-shock treatment to my zits in Bulgaria; the time I hurt my knee and the gym director slathered honey on it and wrapped it in foil in Bulgaria; the time I moved home to America, and resolved never to wax, shock, or use honey in lieu of Ben Gay ever, ever again.