The Pleasure and Pain of Hair
October 2015
illustration

Bad hair day

It seemed to have happened overnight. Yet, as I stared at the face looking back at me from the bathroom mirror, my panic growing over the past months, there was no point denying it any longer. I had a full-blown-real-life-black-haired moustache! I already had a complex relationship with my hairy arms and legs, but thankfully I could hide those under long-sleeved school shirts and thick tights, which I wore even in the heat of summer. My moustache, however, was in plain sight and out in the open to be made fun of.

Thus began the daily torture of going to my secondary school and sitting in every lesson with my elbow leaning on the desk and chin in hand so that I could cover my upper lip with my fingers. Not the ideal, long-term solution for a brainy, square student, who instinctively raised her arm when the teacher asked a question.

I endured this torture for a whole year before I had the courage to ask my mum if I could use her hair removing cream. As I'd predicted, she said no, and kept insisting it was bad for my skin to use the cream, which from my perspective was clearly unfair. Why could she use it and I couldn't? Unfortunately, when I finally decided to get my own cream, there was the added embarrassment of admitting what I had done when my friends noticed my obvious moustache-less upper lip.

At fifteen, I braved the ultimate feminine grooming activity and shaved my legs. The razor was stolen from my elder sister and I did not actually show my smooth legs to anyone for six months for fear that my mum would find out and shout at me, thereby piling more embarrassment on top of me in front of my sisters.

Due to my genetics, for better or worse, I had longer, thicker and blacker hair covering my arms and legs than most of my girlfriends at school. At the time, it didn't occur to me to question my lack of common sense. Coming from an Asian culture, it was normal that I would look different. However, as I had enough ‘hidden’ physical changes to deal with in puberty, I just wanted to belong. I wanted to be like the ‘cool crowd,’ the popular girls who kissed boys, smoked cigarettes, and swore in the playground (This was the height of rebelliousness in the early 1980‘s). For a while, I achieved the ultimate accolade of being allowed to hang out with the cool crowd, not because I was rebellious, but because I was skilled in tying French plaits. I could do them with my eyes closed and every break time, I had the most popular girls in the cool crowd lining up to have their hair braided. I had made it. I belonged.

Inevitably, when French plaits went out of fashion, so did my status. The same girls, who I thought were my friends, simply stopped talking to me and I went back to being a boring square.

At home, once they got Saturday jobs, my two older sisters experimented with all sorts of hair styles. From my perspective, the constant fights with my mum that came with it, simply wasn't worth the cool factor. I waited until I went to university, and then let loose. I had a white European boyfriend and chopped off my long hair into a pre-Victoria Beckham ‘Pob’ (way ahead of my time). It was the biggest rebellion against my tradition that I'd ever attempted. And it felt so cool that a couple of years later, while living in Berlin and being inspired by Sinead O'Connor, I shaved it off completely. The tough, hard-nut, confident image I wanted to emanate backfired when everyone who saw my shaved head told me I looked like a cute Buddha!

During my shaved head phase, I once visited my family in the UK. My mum opened the front door and the first words from her mouth upon seeing me for the first time in a year were, ‘How on earth are you going to find a husband with no hair?’

Needless to say, I grew it back when I returned to the UK and settled into professional work. Within the bounds of looking presentable for my job, I continued my relatively-late-to-appear rebelliousness via my hair styles. Some of the more extreme experiments were: a corkscrew perm (though it was already curly); long extensions glued to my scalp that were more suited to Afro hair than my rather delicate strands, which fell out in clumps when I removed them; and straight hair, proudly achieved with a clothes iron (when buying a GHD flat iron was still expensive), which stripped it of all its nutrients that I had to cut it short and start again.

As I've grown older, I've come to appreciate that women have a complicated relationship with hair. Not long after moving in together, I decided to put Denis to the test as well. I went to a barber's near our flat and asked for a Grade 2 shave all over. Subconsciously, I wanted to prove to my mother that I was worth more than the look of my exotic skin and hair (Of course he passed the test, and we are happily married, and I have grown my hair long again).

I understood more about my mum's horror stricken reaction at my skinhead when I travelled in India. On one occasion I had my Grade 2 and was surprised to find the women were more shocked at my shaved head than the men, especially when they realised that I was of Indian origin. For an Indian woman, her hair is her power. As my grandmother did for me, mothers begin to massage oil into their daughters’ heads from a young age. These are loving and cherished moments of care, that somehow gets skewed into ingrained beliefs of Indian society and its cultural conditioning as girls grow to womanhood. Then, it is not enough to have long luscious hair. A respectable, upper class woman must keep her hair groomed in neat plaits when out in public, because to have it loose or unkempt is connected with lower class women, who have to work as goods sellers in the streets or under the blazing sun on construction sites. Having a shaved head is the sign of a widow, an outcaste of society. So they were thoroughly baffled that I would shave my head from choice.

As tends to happen when women friends get together, I could write about hair stories for a long time. What is the moral of this story, I hear you ask?

I learned a very important lesson about hair in my early 30s. I once admitted to my wise and playful teacher that I didn't like wearing sleeveless tops and dresses because I still felt insecure about my hairy arms. After this conversation, having thought about it for a while, I decided to shave them. I started wearing sleeveless dresses and felt sexier, more confident and attractive. Some months later, when we met again, he noticed my hairless arms. He looked at me with his let's-cut-through-the-bullshit gaze and asked me if I now felt secure. I nodded. No, of course I didn't. I was still battling with so many doubts and questions about who I was. He laughed and hugged me, and in that moment, I realised I could have been as hairy as a gorilla and it had no bearing whatsoever on how good or bad I felt about myself.