The morality and brutality of hair
Riddhi Dastidar writes about Indian women and their tangled relationship with hair.
Add 1 cracked egg, raw. Two tablespoons of curd, white and cold. Mix it together with a teaspoon of almond oil. Whip the whole concoction, rub into your scalp, coat each strand completely- wait till it congeals to a hard shell.
Scuttle like a crab because you feel like a crab, and you want to run away from all the remedies enforced upon you by your loving mother.
You are seven-twelve-fourteen all the way until fifteen when you give up, fed up. Try on the different names bestowed upon you- pulling this way and that to see if they fit: Balderella. Gandhini. Nothing as tragic as a tragedy that is comic to other people.
Many years later, get an amicable divorce from your lank-limp-much-maligned hair. Shave it all off, convincing the cheap unisex salon that yes, this is what you really want, when they ask halfway through. Then turn into what your mother would call a cautionary tale: ‘Those kinds of people. The ones who draw attention to themselves because they’re insecure’. You remember onesuch from a McDonalds in Europe- a colander of piercings with a black jacket and a purple mohawk.
Get your own unnecessary piercings. When the hair grows into fuzz, keep the undercut and adorn yourself with tattoos that spell to you hope and trees.
Realize that your mother was right. It is about weakness, but this body of yours and what you transfigure it into is armour. Realize also that by choosing what they stare at, you hold the power. You tell the story. And in this one, Balderella saves the day.
To start with story, at the beginning of the beginning Eve is depicted with long hair. You’ll find that popular imagination about hair has been rather template. Miraculously, before they knew enough to be ashamed of nudity, someone had bequeathed upon man the wisdom to enforce strict gender norms and wear his hair short. (God truly is great!)
While we’re on the topic of fiction, did you catch the news about the hair thieves in the summer last year? Over 50 women in Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi reported being knocked unconscious and waking up to their hair gone-missing. These phantoms migrated to Kashmir later in the year, where the situation only escalated while the police dismissed it as mass-hysteria- both turns unsurprising. Sometimes the phantom barber was reported to be a woman, sometimes an elderly man. The women were ‘traumatized’ by this ‘punishment’. There were never any witnesses, and the mystery remained unsolved -- the realm of something García Marquez might write by way of India.
Hair is magical.
The ability to grow our hair is perhaps the closest we come to being plants. More than any living thing, plants indisputably require no justification for their existence; my heart’s greatest irrational-impossible desire is to turn into a tree.
Listen, like leaves unfurling, we can tangibly see our hair grow month by month, millimetre by millimetre. Sometimes in storm, we grasp at it and yank it out like the root of the problem. We chop it down; a harmless simulation of violence, we are ruthless in our desire to ‘shake things up’. No matter. Always, it regenerates. Hair can forgive a lot.
“Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh”
That’s Philip Larkin on trees.
The question is why is hair such a metaphor? Why for us Indian women, is hair so tied to our sense of self?
To start at obvious, we are visual creatures: hair completely changes appearance. This alone though, doesn’t explain the connotations carried by different kinds of hair.
The ideal which is to say, normal, as per Bollywood and mainstream ‘Indian culture’ is long, thick, straight black hair. There is a tangled global history behind this narrative. To unpack part of it we must travel westward, to white women taking to factories after WWII decimated ‘the boys’. This is where connotations of short hair and the ‘modern, working woman’ took root and persisted even after the boys returned and women were shunted back into rigid gender roles at home, pre-second-wave-feminism. Meanwhile in pre-independence India, we conformed more and more to the highest caste (the white man) and the ‘respectable male’ cut his hair short. In contrast, in complement, ours had to be long.
Hindu-majority India by way of Manu had very rigid codes for the ‘proper woman’ -- Dalit women not invited (except as always when it came to sexual violation).
And so like a Gordian knot, the idea of long, thick, lustrous hair was braided into the idea of womanhood. Signifying all good things befitting a woman, like fertility, leisure time and resources to care for it, docility and subservience. In this narrative, women were vessels -- for penises and babies-- and devoted their lives to raising both. When they could no longer be these vessels, they were made un-woman. Widows were ripped from the world of sex and household affairs -- the first symbolic death being their hair. Shave the hair and you unwoman the woman. Uncolour her clothes and unspice her food. For she was too unworthy to stay wed.
Shaved heads are reserved for those at a remove from the world: Monks and nuns committed to austerity. Soldiers to discipline. Inmates to punishment.
And the unwoman, the abomination: widows. And me.
But what did I like about letting go of my hair?
Being called ‘sir’ when I went to buy biryani or stood in line at the airport. My lips twitched into a smile and the man noticed my nose pin, contradicted himself into ‘ma’am’ when he handed it over --back in the right box.
I liked the way there was almost no time-lag between the water leaving the shower-head and reaching my body. It happens at once: Cold! Water!
I liked the feel of my stubbled head, my strokable scalp, finally so visible I didn’t have to worry whether it was invisible, covered up between failing strands of hair: Be woman, be woman! It is the closest I come to being animal, delighting in the feeling of fur, the touch of my hand on body minus even the faintest connection to the erotic or attractive.
Yes, I liked very much not thinking about what I look like.
Speaking of stories we have been told, consider the lobster. Since this is India, consider Shahrukh Khan’s lobster in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai: poor Anjali, shunted from one trope to the other.
Trope 1: Loud, just as good as the boy at manly-sport, hates being compared to “doosri ladki”, can’t wrap her head around female fashion, hence short hair.
Trope 2: Sanskari saree-wearer with a side of self-sacrifice and long sweeping hair. Weepy and lacks agency. Loses to cheating man and responds with coy confusion (All the better to love, my dear).
The narrative may feel outdated but it’s still around, only more insidious in form. Consider the violence the modern Indian woman inflicts upon her hair - burning it with irons and blowers, bleaching with chemicals and bullying it into submission at the altar of beauty.
It starts when you are little, often on Sundays when the loving community of mothers and aunts, didis and didas get together in a ritual of storytelling, oil and champi-- caring for you
Take modern-day Subhadra for instance, she has both her arms and is a killer bassist. This Subhadra has a six-head, as people have said ‘in good humour’. She tells me about getting a passport-photograph when she was five. How when they got the pictures, her mother sat down with a pen, sincerely drawing hair on photobaby Subhadra. Her aunt tried to convince her it was because she had a bigger brain than other people - of course, she had the same high forehead herself.
Conversely however, there is the embrace of natural hair over the last few years. The parlour aunty may still advise you “Hair spa karwa lo!” or cheerily tell you your hair is too thin/too gray- always too something, too nothing - but she’s less likely to shame you for not going straight.
The world of natural curls can seem revolutionary. It also effectively recruits you into having a near-physicist-level grasp of surfactants and humectants, and proficiency in The Curly Girl Method. It is empowerment commodified and sold to the elite in the garb of feminism and self-love. Much like going vegan, dedicating yourself to natural hair requires time, energy and currency.
I learn about this foreign world from my friend Esther, whose own straight hair woke up sulky on her sixteenth birthday, decided it was bored and suddenly changed.
Don’t forget though, there’s a right kind of curly. In case you were wondering, it’s Kangana Ranaut. The frizzy, thick, unmanageable mane your classmates teased you about is not invited to the self-love party, sorry- hair spa karwa lo!
We keep Tresemme in our bathroom. Meena comes to do jharoo-pochha and I tell her sleepy at breakfast that I’m writing this essay. She has the right kind of hair, bunched into a khopa; left loose, words like sweeping would be fitting.
Chool meye’der shob kichu, she says like it’s the end of the matter. Hair is everything to a woman. Back in the village, she says, we’d scrub our hair with anything-- mud, Surf. Now we use Sunsilk. Amar rang maila, she says, but even now everyone knows me as the Bengali with the hair.
Chool na thakle meye meye hoye na, chele hoye. Without hair, a woman isn’t a woman; she’s a man.
I see the older women on the metro every so often, their scalps a startling yellow-salmon-pink on display- old carpets, worn in the middle. I worry that someday I’ll be amongst them. The words ‘hair transplant’ revolve in my head like a promise for when I’m a very-famous-very-rich writer. Surrounding the phrase (which is lit up in neon like a billboard) are three floating heads:
1. Saurav Ganguly 2. Harsha Bhogle 3. The bald, mustachioed, Bengali dermatologist who talked all over me and my mother and snapped ‘Hair transplants don’t work, here try some Minoxidil / Rogaine/ Hair4u - why are so many of the alopecia meds pun? Who approved this copy and why were they getting their jollies at the expense of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of Dr Batra’s teeming shore?
The exception to the ideal is the Boy-Cut-Babies club. Until children begin to ID publicly as girls and hence not-boys, you see the boy-cut everywhere there are ‘working mothers’ pulling double-duty. If you hold on to the boy-cut though, the word Tomboy gets thrown at you a lot, and then ‘dyke’ -- in good humour, re.
We don’t yet have the visual vocabulary to imagine a short-haired woman outside of type; you must be one of the following: the dyke, the elfin/edgy girl, and as Bollywood would have it, a journalist or filmmaker in a war-zone (see Anushka Sharma in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and her predecessor, Preity Zinta in Lakshya).
It’s is true that short hair is a marker of stepping outside heteronormativity. Angana whom I met at a queer poetry event tells me over voice-note, how much she loves the very traditional boy-cut she’s had forever. ‘When I was little I related a lot more to boys though I didn’t have the language for it -- I thought, boys like girls and girls like boys and I like girls… so where the fuck is this going?’ She goes on, crackly on my phone-speakers: ‘Even today, I ID as a woman because it’s convenient, because it’s closer than masculinity which I don’t want’.
She loves her hair, cut: 12 haircuts a year, calendering life into liveable pieces, preferable to a period cycle.
Leaving the the gender binary behind entirely, I first encounter Vqueeram, long-haired, kempt, at a favourite cafe -- more poetry. When I ask what pronouns I should use they say ‘I have none. Use whatever’.
‘Remember, the lakshman rekha is a line women shouldn’t exit and men cannot enter.’
She’s written elaborately and eloquently on his hair -- sharing a part feels inadequate. Still, this is the end of it: ‘I hate how I cannot get them cut because my hair is what confuses the hatred of men on the street with their desire and so heteronormativity feels less of a defeat. My hair is the irreconcilability of patriarchy with personhood.’
Long hair too, is subversive then. Using bangs to cover up acne or scars is old hat, but hair as hiding can be reclamation. Debarati is a Calcutta explant to Bombay; she makes beautiful feminist embroidery-art. Years of street harassment in her childhood left her with a fear of going out unshielded. As an adult she wears her hair long, middle-parted, almost never tied, shield from the male gaze. ‘I grew my hair out as a mode of protest’ she says. I will not let them see my body’.
I find this echoed in the work of Sri Lankan artist, Anoli Perera’s photo-performance series ‘I Let My Hair Loose’ where passive female sitters have their hair misplaced in front of their face.
I tell Debarati I can relate. Hyper-visibility to make invisible what you want. Direct the gaze, control the story.
I want to tell you reader that we eat stories. We grow fat on Rapunzel and the genre of woman as cautionary tale: white-haired witches and wild-haired crones, still alive but carrion. We hear silky-smooth and think Livon; Complete the sentence: Garnier longandstrong; Fill the blanks with RealwomenuseDove -- and I’ve never met a short-haired goddess yet, but I’d like to.
After the women have tonsured their hair at the Venkateshwara temple, upheld their end of the deal with God, this gratitude later sorted and packed for auction by a government enterprise -- they pick up Tirumala Laddoos for distribution in their hometowns. This is how they offer explanation unspoken, announce their return from pilgrimage and sanctioned self-sacrifice -- because of course it needs explaining.
I want you to notice that the loss of hair is always presented as a loss of self-- but this isn’t the only story. Consider the language with which we speak of hair almost as though it were more than mere-mundane-body, as though it were flesh-made-woman: words like unmanageable, wild, untameable, changing.
I want to posit that the messaging begins to make sense if we think about hair as analogous to women. Best tolerated when pretty, docile and under control. I support resistance -- the prince and Rapunzel may both weep for her lost hair, but consider this retelling: the loss of hair is no symbol for punishment like it was with the hair thieves in Kashmir at the beginning of this essay. In this version, Rapunzel takes agency, and wields the knife herself, uses her hair herself as escape route.
I want to bring to your attention that we eat stories and they create themselves by consuming us. I suggest noticing that we already colour outside the lines in glorious, glorious multitudes, and turn noticing into knowing that it’s so much and only body, only hair -- too little, too petty these old stories to contain our stories.
Writer's Note: Over the course of writing this essay I spoke with many, many women - some friends, mostly strangers and acquaintances. They came from a large range of ages, professions, and religions. When speaking of Indian hair, two obvious threads are the hijab and hair, and Sikh women and hair. Both are complicated topics I didn't feel adequately equipped to speak for. I also searched for adequate representation of Dalit women and hair -- there was not much specific literature beyond that they weren't bound as strictly by norms of head-shaving after widowhoood though as they sought to integrate themselves into upper-caste society, the communities often took up oppressive practices as well. As a Savarna woman, I wanted to avoid tokenizing, and so you won't find those explorations here.
Riddhi Dastidar writes and photographs things in Delhi. She loves cats and trees everywhere. She used to be a molecular biologist once but changed her mind. A few of her preoccupations: the female gaze and space, mental health, performing gender, families, childhood and alt-narratives. You can find her on @gaachburi on Instagram.