The Ties That Bind

I gained independence through the centuries-long Iranian tradition of threading

It’s August 2010 when my mom hands me a spool of thick white thread from Iran. I’m days from leaving home for university in New York City, and she’s decided it’s time to teach me how to care for my facial hair — a long-running source of shame and embarrassment — on my own, after years of patiently threading my face and the faces of all my high school friends in our spare bedroom. 

In my hand the spool feels intimately familiar. I’ve witnessed my mom, aunties, cousins, family friends, and frenemies wield and yield thread for as long as I can remember, sometimes in a brightly-lit kitchen, other times atop the edge of a bed. In the corner of the room, I would watch the threader’s head and body move back and forth, undulating in rhythmic movement, as small hairs fell down the face of the person being threaded, faintly visible in the light. 

Before the term ‘threading’ ever entered the beauty world’s lexicon, I knew it as bánd,’ the noun for ‘thread’ in Farsi. The verb for ‘threading’ is bánd andakhtan.’ It literally translates to ‘throwing’ or ‘putting on’ thread, which feels more fitting since much like the act of painting or intricacy of dancing, there’s athleticism involved here. ‘Threading’ feels too delicate to describe the act.

My mom teaches me her technique in the bathroom where she has tied the thread to the faucet with several knots, as is customary when threading your own face without help. “Bunch up the thread in your left hand a few times, but give yourself enough thread to reach your face,” she explains, starting her demonstration. We practice this first move, twirling our hands in unison, in a manner similar to Iranian dancing, until she feels I understand how to measure the right thread lengths and how many times to rotate my left wrist. Then comes the hard part. “Lean into the mirror,” she instructs. “Bring your left hand up towards your upper lip as you pull the thread up from the faucet. Now pull the thread out with your right hand.” My left wrist, which is already twisting and contorting, creates diamond-like hair traps so that when I pull away from my skin with my right hand, the twists grab onto my hairs and yank them out. This is ‘threading.’ 

“Now, let’s try this for real now,” she says after watching me practice these movements. At first, I’m scared. I’m scared of inflicting pain on myself, to do something wrong, to disappoint my mom. I’m mostly scared because I’ve never done this without her guiding hand. I place the thread against my cheek (an area with minimal hair) to try first. I feel the abrasion of the thread against my skin and a sting that blooms bright red. I move to my upper lip and yank at one spot. Ouch. My eyes water, but in the mirror, I see my mom proudly smiling to herself, her eyes crinkled in satisfaction, so I bravely smile back and continue. 

Learning to thread is a rite of passage. My mother learned threading from her mother, who taught her and her best friend the method in their teenage years. Her mother forbade shaving so threading was my mom’s only option. In the sweltering heat of Southern Iran, my mom would thread her own leg hair so she could feel good wearing skirts and shorts. Traditionally, in my grandma’s time and before, Iranian women used to wait until marriage to thread their faces and eyebrows, throwing a big party with their women friends to do so.

Since grooming norms around women’s facial hair have changed in the decades since, this practice is old-fashioned and outdated. It’s no longer a common occurrence, but the practice of threading together in groups still remains. There is probably a long line — infinite spools of thread’s worth — of women in my family who taught each other this life skill, considering ‘bánd andakhtan’ dates back thousands of years. I feel like I’ve reached a new stage of adulthood to be entrusted with this knowledge. 

Although Iranians are a group of people notorious for having plenty of hair everywhere on their bodies, somehow, in our household, we were too embarrassed to have our typically hairier male counterparts witness the act. If my dad was home and I needed threading, I would just point at my upper lip and my mom would know. She’d discreetly grab her spool of thread, and we’d go into the back room of our house. She’d flick on a floor lamp with three light bulbs, point it at my face, hand me a stretchy cloth headband, and get to work. 

As my mom would work her magic, I’d contort my lips and press my tongue under parts of the skin that were difficult to reach, holding up my chin for those pesky dark hairs to be visible in the light. Threading isn’t passive for the person receiving it; it requires two to partake. Ten to fifteen minutes later, I’d emerge bleary eyed and with red skin, but a bare, hair-free face.

My mom has looked after my hair for most of my life. As a child, she would spend an hour blow drying my thick mane because she didn’t want me to ever leave the house with a wet head. As a fourth grader, she trimmed my tiny mustache with baby scissors. In sixth grade, we upgraded to wax — painful but effective. If these ages seem young for hair removal, just know that I begged for it after relentless teasing from classmates in school. In caring for my hair, my mother simultaneously cared for my well-being

So when my mom teaches me how to thread only days before I leave for school, I realize she’s saying what she cannot out loud: You’re grown up now; I won’t always be here to care for you. You have to take things into your own hands. By passing me the thread, she teaches me more than a skill: She grants me adulthood. I hold independence in my hands and control over my future. It’s exhilarating but bittersweet, because a big part of me will always yearn to be taken care of by my mother.

A week after moving to New York City, I am threading my face again in the bathroom. My audience is no longer my mother but my two new roommates in our non-air-conditioned dorm room on 10th Street. My lips are pursed with thread in between them and my roommates’ mouths are agape as I deftly perform my little tightrope dance, pulling hairs from my upper lip, my chin, my brows. They’re amazed by the speed and precision of this technique. Suddenly my facial hair, the thing I’ve for so long felt ashamed and embarrassed about, makes me feel cool and confident. A tinge of loneliness and longing for my mom unfurls in my chest. Though she isn’t there to guide me through this, I know she would be beaming with pride.

I only recently ran out of the same thread my mother gave me, and I can’t bring myself to toss out the pink plastic spool. It’s small, no larger than my thumb, but holds so much significance for me: the feeling of newfound independence, the excitement to start a new chapter of my life, the ability to finally care for myself. I treasure it for once containing a tiny but mighty string, connecting me to my mom and our ancestors before her, as I wend my way through the world with only their instructions to guide me.

Roya Shariat is the Impact and Partnerships Director at Glossier and author of Maman and Me, a cookbook (available for order!) about Iranian food and her family. If you’re interested in reading more about the Iranian diaspora, here’s one on knowing nothing about Persian beauty

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