We live in a world of binaries where we conveniently divide the world into black and white. Most of the times we fail to see the grey that struggles to survive between these two hemispheres. Some of us remain unaware while most of us choose to ignore it. Maybe such a scenario exists because pigeon-holing things make lives easier. This grey would resurface for me whenever I visited a barber or the bourgeoisie ‘hairstylist’.
My parents always felt the need to get me a haircut whenever my hair curtained over my shoulders. They thought long hair would derange my concentration and distract me from studies. Also, the changing climate invited guests like Unbearable Heat which made it impossible to let my hair grow itself in an autonomous fashion. However, they failed to notice the bullying I underwent due to short hair on my head.
After a point I started dreading the barber and the chop-chop. What started as an attempt to help me focus on my studies, ended up as an open invitation of unwanted looks and annoying comments from my classmates and friends. Some of them expressed their strong gendered opinions by calling me a ‘boy’, while some sadistically commented as to how I lost my ‘feminine touch’. Some even lamented on the lost length while a few teased me by singing the choruses of popular Bollywood songs, like “Subah ho gayi mamu” where ‘mamu’ was a colloquial substitute for the word, ‘uncle’. The “joke” soon started to feel derogatory which led to me internalizing criticism and doubting myself.
they failed to notice the bullying I underwent due to short hair on my head.
However, during my adolescence, I experimented with both short and long hair. A mildly complicated scenario emerged when the guys I dated shrugged and queasily suggested bargains whenever I expressed my desire to go short. Some even vehemently protested while some mildly threatened to break up (jokingly, or maybe not) with me if I ever did so.
I suppose I was too young to understand the psyche behind a guy’s disapproval for short hair on a girl’s head. Now that I reflect back on those memories, I would say that they were blinded with the ‘constructed notions of beauty’ in the society. Can we not blame the popular culture as well as the historical archetypes created over generations of important texts?
This reminds me of the scene from Leena Yadav’s ‘Parched’, where Rani’s (protagonist) son is extremely disappointed to see his child-bride with a quasi-shaved head. He is immediately humiliated in front of others and infuriated to find himself in such an embarrassing situation. In a way it ends up hurting his male ego since he believed that his bride will be ‘beautiful’ with cascading hair. Everyone in the bus makes fun of the young girl and the boy’s friends tease him for marrying a short-haired girl. This is also a classic case of gratification of the male gaze.
Being an adult now and pursuing further education in a liberal arts programme gives me a distinct lens to look at society and be more accepting of things. I do not fret any more over visits to my hairstylist. I style my hair however I want to, despite the suggestions made by my parents or peers. Nonetheless, I was once vexed when an acquaintance raised a question: ‘Is your short hair making a feminist statement?’ The person went ahead to grumble upon how an Indian feminist can be easily spotted in the crowd, anytime because of the short hair and big bindis.
NO, short hair is not a “feminist statement”, BUT a matter of individual choice.
What frustrated me at that time now evokes a pity laugh. Feminism, which is struggling everyday to break away from stereotypes and fight for equality gets thrown into the cliché-ridden bandwagon. And, NO, short hair is not a feminist statement but a matter of an individual’s choice.
Some even advocate the notion of women ‘trying to be like men’ by keeping it short. In such cases, power gets associated with short hair. Lauren Cochrane’s article in The Guardian, ‘The Power of the Political Bob’ or the Pob associates short hair with a hassle free, no-nonsense and independent woman, who does not have the time to worry about unnecessary adornment of the hair. Indirectly, a typecast for men emerges, creating the short hair/long hair binary. The short hair norm for men started surfacing with the advent of war periods where the cropped and beardless soldier became a symbol of virility thus the beacon for standards of masculinity.
An additional complication arises when short hair on women start getting identified with lesbians. I personally know a lot of people who have confused short haired women for lesbians, therefore assuming a person’s sexual orientation on the face value, literally. Again, such assumptions show how lesbians become a threat to dominant, heterosexual masculinity (such women cannot be “possessed“) and short-haired women are again ridiculed.
At the end of this article, I can only say patriarchy is afraid of a ‘little’ length. Whether it is in terms of clothing or hairstyles, society always wants us women to keep it long. Well, I think it is high time that women rethink their hairstyles the next time they visit their stylists. We should no longer be tied down to jaded and bothersome shoulder/waist lengths but experiment from an entire range of short crop, shaved, buzzed, dyed, undyed, a long pixie with a fringe, a half-head ‘Skrillesque’, etc. After all, I do take life lessons from Coco Chanel who once said, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life”.
The ‘baal kati mahila’ will always be seen as an outlier in our society ! I had also written a post about hair and the politics of its symbolism for sexuality. You and your readers may also like to read that. https://thatwhichiam.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/having-a-bad-hair-day-aint-nobody-got-time-for-that/
What a lovely read, Shreyashee! I chopped my hair a few months ago, and did not know then that it was a life-changing moment. Your write-up beckons for a number of reasons. Looking forward to reading more.
Way to go, FII!
I was a bit luckier: my grandmother thought it looked good, and one of my college friends told me I ‘looked like Rihanna’! Now I’ve grown it a bit after getting back to dancing, but I really wish I could chop it short again.
Very well articulated. A short haired woman is often thought of as a queer and such imposed notions of sexuality and personalities shape the very definition of beauty that needs redifinition. Would love to be in touch with you to exchange more of such ideas.
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