Hair—I’ve always had a very complicated relationship with mine. Throughout school, my mother and I would comb my frizzy hair and rip it into sections to be neatly braided. I would sit in school, afflicted by migraines almost every other week, none of which I ever connected to my hair.
I remember thinking of getting a haircut, but looking around… Every single one of my female classmates had long hair. It was only when I started college that I had the freedom to let my hair flow openly.
I would brush and oil it every single day, only to have it look like a lion’s mane. It was only much later that I discovered that I had curly hair. I tried to repair the damage and get beautiful, long curls—a struggle that lasted a year.
This was when my closest friend and colleague, someone whom I admired for flaunting short hair, suggested that I get a haircut. I was nervous: what would people say? What if they hated it?
I had already been slut-shamed for colouring my hair. No matter how much of a brave face I put on, it did hurt to have my parents look ashamed at family gatherings. And, I knew this new move would not be received well either.
But, curiosity won and I got a short bob. It was like a weight was off my shoulders. I stood straighter and I felt lighter… Like all those years of pain and shame I’d felt for not having the straight hair I’d seen around me, was gone.
I went home that day, only to have my mom burst into tears at the sight of me.
My heart clenched in my chest and I felt like glueing my hair back together. Two days later, when my mom passed by me at the dining table, she ran her hands through my hair and ruminated out loud that she wished it’d grow back.
I felt so much guilt and shame at that moment, it took all my willpower to not cry.
It took me months of reassurance from my inner circle that I had done nothing wrong, that having short hair was not a crime. As I grew more confident with my hair, I began experimenting with styles and learnt to love myself, whether I had long hair or not.
That was the beginning of my fight against long hair. I vowed to never let it grow long. People would just have to get used to something different.
Even now, when I asked my mother if she had anything to say for the readers of this article, her response was, “Tell them a good, Indian woman would never do this.”
I am not the only one who has borne the brunt of cutting my hair. In a recent conversation with Simran Pavecha, she said:
“I have had a love-hate relationship with my short hair. Growing up in a small town with short hair was not easy. After a point, it became really difficult to distinguish between humour and insult. Even my close friends at college continued to perpetuate the stereotype that I have ladke jaise baal (masculine hairstyle).”
Women in India have always been expected to grow their hair out. Within different religions, the appearance of our hair holds certain connotations. From widows having to shave their heads to cutting off a woman’s hair as punishment, it’s somehow seen as shameful to have short hair.
Long hair has always been an indicator of beauty, and health. Growing up in an orthodox Hindu family, my act was seen as a transgression, and as a sign that I had to be tamed.
Simran added, “My idea of femininity has changed over the years. But, back then, others made me feel like I was aspiring to be a man because of the way I wore my hair. There is a constant sense of not being ‘normal’ or ‘not like other girls’. When others keep telling you you are different or not enough… Somewhere, you start buying into it.”
My classmates would joke that I was turning into a boy. All the rage within me manifested in the ultimate haircut. I shaved my sides off. At home, I was shunned at family gatherings.
My classmates were convinced I had become a lesbian and that rumour had other classmates as well as juniors turning away when they passed me in the corridors. My own professors would sneer at me, declaring that I was a rebel.
I was no longer considered feminine. I was someone who was trying to be a man. My dating life got complicated, with men laughing at me because my hair was seen as cute, but not feminine.
The anonymous social media messages began, from fake accounts asking if I was a lesbian, to uncles at family gatherings telling me to grow it back soon. All this only served to add fuel to my rage. Why did my hair define me even before I had spoken a single word?
My hair was never a political statement when I initially cut it off, but it has become one now. I had to show people that short hair or shaved sides didn’t indicate my sexuality, nor did it dictate my identity.
I started wearing more feminine clothes alongside my short hair, much to the shock of people, even to this day.
I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to the stares and whispers every time I enter a room, though. Sometimes, I’m scared it will affect my work as an educator, because I’ve seen parents wonder whether I’m capable of training their kids, solely based on my appearance
I have my fair share of days looking into the mirror wondering whether longer hair would be better.
But, I’ve also seen other women see me and choose to chop their hair off. It’s become a statement that I refuse to go along with somebody else’s standards of beauty. It’s a reminder that I’m beautiful, no matter what my hair looks like.
My hair is no longer a crutch for me to hide behind, or a weakness that would make me cry myself to sleep, or an indicator of my sexuality. I would be queer even if I had hair like Rapunzel…
It’s just hair, and it’s free and wild. It has also served as an effective social filter—I’m usually approached by other open-minded folks who’d like to know more or those who don’t mind it all. My hair, or rather the lack of it, has initiated enlightening conversations with children.
From being asked if it was to “keep my head cool” to be able to tell them that being a woman has nothing to do with the way our hair or body looks, I’ve had a lot of fun showing children that personal expression is exactly that. It’s personal, and nobody can make you feel bad about it.
Every day that I define my own femininity, I’m showing the world that this too can be feminine… That this too can be beautiful.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.