July 21, 2009



That girl at twenty-

her black hair ripples

through the comb

in the pride of spring —

such beauty!

(sono ko hatachi kushini nagaruru kurokami no

ogori no haru no utsukushiki kana)

– Yosano Akiko, Midaregami: The Poetry of Yosano Akiko, 1952.

2005. THE L’OREAL SALON in Chennai. I was at the eye of a storm, all because Susan (one of the head stylists) and I had bonded instantly over the fact that I wanted my hair cut, as short as possible. Something with an edge, I said. Susan’s smile on hearing the word “edge” was the biggest I had ever received in a salon. She went to work with razors, clippers and two vats of colour, one copper, the other fire-engine red. Considering every other female there was getting a “trim” with the odd blonde highlight or two, Susan and I had unknowingly provided entertainment and conversational fodder for the next two and a half hours. From that day onwards, the fire-spikes got me more than just a little attention. A nun at my college (yes, it was a catholic institution) hinted that I might be setting a bad example, but found it hard to explain herself when I asked her why.

It confused the good people of the city. The look and my behavior didn’t fit into the virgin-whore dichotomy which was applied by locals to all female inhabitants of this South Indian urban village where gender is reduced to male and female, with every other identity broadly mocked, shunned or witch hunted, depending on what the mob had for breakfast. So though I never received comments fueled by either rejection or revulsion, I was broadly given to understand that I was an outsider. A strange anomaly that was ignored in the hope that it would disappear.

What’s a girl to do?

I always had short hair. My parents figured it was cheap and easy to manage. Growing up, this made me happy because I never had to deal with well-oiled hair or lice; infernal attributes of long-hairiness I observed my compatriots struggle with.

The happiness turned to angst soon enough. What my parents hadn’t told me was that there exists a direct relation between the length of a woman’s hair and her perceived attractiveness and femininity in the eyes of a majority of the human specie.

I first thought it was an Indian male thing. A thousand apologies, my countrymen. I have wronged you. You who are woefully unenlightened in terms of female sexuality, ye Freudian frou-frous! Scared of strong women due to your unaddressed mother issues, God how I love you all! Group hug.

However, time and travel has taught me otherwise. Men—and women—are biologically programmed to perceive hair length as being significantly correlated to female attractiveness (Grammer et al., 2002)

According to the Second Annual Sun/COMPAS Sex Survey (1999), the following attributes are what men seek in a potential mate:

  • Average body type over 20 lbs above average
  • Any kind of smile
  • Brown hair over any other natural colour or dyed blonde
  • Long or medium length hair over short
  • The same height or slightly shorter but not taller
  • The same education or more but not less
  • The same income or more but not less
  • A kindergarten teacher or perhaps a businesswoman but not a lawyer, and
  • One who liked to wear jeans or perhaps fancy apparel, but not mini-skirts.

Sure, the sample’s limited generalizability needs to be taken into account, and the culture, education and religion of the survey participants might have influenced their responses. Perhaps these answers only relate to the male readers of the Toronto Sun for the year 1999. But I would humbly proffer the opinion that demographic differences despite, optimal hair length is a pretty engendered idea in our collective awareness.

Women (and men) across cultures have written about the emotional connection they have with their protein filaments. Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase, assistant professor of Japanese at Vassar College, has written on female sexuality in the poetry of Yosano Akiko. According to her,

Hair is another important symbol of femininity. Long and black hair has been admired and depicted in works of art for centuries… it is part of women’s identity. Long black hair symbolizes the nobility, gracefulness and sexuality of aristocrat women. The image of hair is a significant motif in the depiction of romantic situations in Japanese literature.Yosano Akiko, who grew up reading classic literature, had a romantic attachment to the traditional image of hair and a longing for the passionate and romantic love which is associated with beautiful long hair.

Measures my hair a full five feet
And washed and combed so soft and fair
As is my heart virginal and sweet
I cherish with a tender care
[trans. Honda Heihachiro]

(Kami goshaku tokinaba mizu ni yawarakaki
Onnna gokorowa himete hanataji)

The girl’s soft, black and tender hair is cherished by the girl herself. Just like her cleanly washed hair, she is pure and innocent… In ancient court poetry, hair was often used to express the inner feelings of women. The movement of hair was used as a perfect means of expressing such feelings as anger, frustration, confusion, and jealousy which were caused by romantic relationships with men. Izumi Shikibu, a female poet from 11th century, presents a wonderfully emotional hair image:

My black hair tangled
As my own tangled thoughts,
I lie here alone,
Dreaming of one who has gone,
Who stroked my hair till it shone.

(Kurokami no midaremo shirazu
uchifuseba mazukakiyarishi hitozo koishiki)

Black tangled hair implies the confusion and uneasy feeling caused by love relationships. Tangled hair also suggests erotic beauty and implies the intimacy of men and women in bed… The flood of emotion and overwhelming feelings of love are expressed through hair.

Why did no one tell me this?

Oh, wait. Perhaps they did. Except their stories never included women with beautiful, long hair who did much more than tend gardens or their families, cast spells and then get kidnapped and rescued in equal amounts. Instead of embracing this idea of femininity, I decided to go another way. Would I have had the same personality and received the same attention, positive and negative, if my hair had been of a different length? I have no way of knowing this.

I do know that during my two year experiment with long hair, I received far more compliments and admiration from both sexes than ever before. Men I hadn’t spoken to in a while saw my picture and made amusing attempts to re-establish contact. Women began discussing how they ran their household and took care of their kids with me. Cosmetic counter girls stopped ignoring my presence. “Uncles” and “Aunties” began asking me about my future, if I had “found anyone” yet.

Maybe it just got to be a bit much. A drag act that didn’t have a curtain call.

Reger, Myers & Einwohner, the authors of Identity work in social movements, write about the song “I Am What I Am” from the musical, The Bird Cage

In drag shows, this song becomes a ritual not only because of the frequency of its inclusion but also because the manner in which it is performed is highly predictable. During each performance of the song, Margo removes her wig at the end of the number, breaking the illusion of femininity by exposing her underlying short and thinning hair… Removing the wig at the end of this song is a common technique institutionalized by drag performers across the country… Describing her feelings the first time she saw a drag queen perform “I Am What I Am”, a focus group participant stated: “… I always get choked up now when I hear that song because there was a thing of acceptance…”

Hmm. The end of an act, then.

I do love the rituals of having long hair, though. The oiling, shampooing, conditioning, the rinse and repeat. The towel turban I could wear high on my head. Flicking it over my shoulder just when I knew that adorable lad who got off at Kendall Square was looking. Hell, I’ll say it– I loved the admiration. Years of keeping the hair treatment-free had resulted in the long black silk that is the gift of my mother’s genetics.

But it got hard to deal with, on windy days and late nights back on a long train ride. The hair was tied up when I had to work. The more I had to work, the more annoying the mop got.

Whimsical Assumption #1: Women in positions of power or who commute at a high rate have shorter, more manageable, practical do’s.

Corollary to Whimsical Assumption # 1: Women with shorter, more manageable, practical do’s have to work harder to allay perceptions of them being dominating, mean-spirited, hard, butch, gay, a misandrist or given to hard-line radical feminism.

There’s a great article on Divine Caroline regarding Michelle Obama and her hairstyle choices:

In her own role as potential First Lady, Michelle Obama’s hair is politically correct. America expects the wife of Barack Obama, the man who wants to be president, to project an image of sophistication and near perfection. That image includes having hair that doesn’t make waves.

The article goes on to illustrate the troubled relationship that hair and politics have in the U.S. Throw in racial stereotypes and it turns into a Molotov cocktail—

Mainstream America considers styles that reflect the European aesthetic more acceptable and less likely to offend. Hairstyles with African roots don’t get the same respect. To say someone has a nappy head is considered an insult, and the word “nappy,” which merely describes the kinky texture of hair, is practically considered a profanity. In polite circles, the word is euphemistically referred to as “natural.”

Natural hair wearers have seen their politics; patriotism and even their hygiene come under attack. Their Afros, braids, locks and twists have been considered unprofessional, and many who have worn the styles have been demoted or have lost their jobs. Wearers of natural hairstyles also have not escaped being labeled subversive or being perceived as social misfits.

Jessica Lyons over at AlterNet has an article on why female hairstyles in politics benefit from being unchanging. Read it here.

According to Connie Koppelman, a professor of the Women’s Studies Program at SUNY Stony Brook,

Hairstyles can signify conformity, for example, to army regulations, monastic celibacy, or any group-determined aesthetic. Hairstyles can also signify rebellion. Today many women choose to shave their heads as a sign of female bonding and sometimes as a form of protest against the beauty myth. Whether they go bald for personal or political reasons, bald-headed women are often perceived as threatening, perhaps because of the negative connotations associated with baldness as a sign of age, punishment, illness, or rebellion… hair ’s sexual attraction is controlled by society-or we should say patriarchy–as it has been for thousands of years. According to many polls, hair remains one of the six most sensuous parts of the body.

This is all very interesting, of course, but where does that leave all of us, the ones who aren’t running for government any time soon, who aren’t starting a revolution, the ones who left the confines of Indian tradition seven seas behind, the ones who cut it on a whim, cut it because shampoo costs too damn much, cut it or shaved it clean because it was less painful than watching it fall off in clumps or two strands at a time?

What happens if you live in a country like India, where it doesn’t matter how liberal, educated or well-traveled you and your parents are, where everything about your appearance is judged as you grow up, and then judged twice as much once you approach that brutal phase referred to in the vernacular as “the marriageable age”?

Walking back from my hair appointment, my neck feeling colder than it had in a long while, I considered what I had given up, if I had given up anything at all. The stylist kept pausing to ask “Are you okay?” Apparently she is used to women bursting into tears mid-snip.

I thought back to that long ago evening with Susan in Chennai and laughed. I remember how I tossed my head, a rockstar now, getting high on every look of shock, disgust and admiration. I remember wearing a sari that matched my copper-red highlights for a college ceremony. I remember spiking my hair carefully, wearing a sardonic look with humility and grace, and feeling incredibly left out of the female collective of my colleagues at the end of that day. Still alone, that strange anomaly.

Walking through the front door, my other half greeted me with a smile and the following words—“You look just like you did the first time I met you.”

And just like that, my neck was not cold anymore.

Do what you have to do, ladies and gentlemen. Wear your hair in a way that fills you with pride, comfort and sexiness at anytime of the day or night. Cut it to make a statement, cut it because you are tired, cut it to donate to Locks of Love. Fight that niggling urge to explain yourself.

And if you lose, like I did, go blog, and send me the link, will ya?

9 comments to Hair

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    This issue has been on my mind so often, but not for the usual reasons. I’ve always found it interesting that older Parsi women (family, friends, acquaintances) not only maintain short hair but urge me to cut mine because “long hair is so old-fashioned”. The length of my hair has see-sawed through the years but it’s mostly been longer than shoulder length, to which my grandmother would say “Cut it, cut it, it’s so long!”
    Friends say you can recognize a Parsi woman from the back of her head and I believe it’s so easy because of the usually shorter hair. I don’t know whether it is convenience or social acceptability or the belief that it’s “modern” that makes the older generation do it, but I’d be hard put to find a Parsi woman over 40 with hair longer than shoulder length. Mostly, it’s bobbed or cropped.
    And from my experience with Parsi men, it’s not like they appreciate it!

  • Alankrata Seth

    I can so so identify with the writeup… im glad somebody has written about an issue ive always felt very strongly about. I have always had short hair (“boy cut” – as referred by the people including June, my hairdresser for almost 10 years in the small town where i grew up). My parents had all 3 of us sisters keep it that way. My father loves short hair and was mighty disappointed when both my younger sisters grew them. For my mother i guess it was more for a practical reason. I can understand her not desiring the additional work of combing 3 heads each morning 🙂

    And though my sisters grew their hair as we grew up, i never did (except once in college all because the guy i was seeing that time loved long hair and i was naive enough to do it just to make him happy). In fact, for the last four years, i have had a crew cut. And yet, im doing so now, at the age of 26, and all because of my mothers reason – how will we put up a bun on your wedding day if you dont grow them a little bit!

  • Dilnavaz, that is interesting– I understand that in many cultures, women cut their hair as a sign of their “maturity”. Not sure where this originated from: was it to send a message to their men saying hold off on the impregnation, I’m older now and done with that, and can now start the business of life, i.e. managing a home, my personal interests etc.? Was it to ward off men other than their mates or family members? [Assuming that female long hair and male attention are indeed directly proportional to each other]. Or maybe this is over thinking the issue, and short hair is just more manageable and has more volume as one gets older 🙂

    Alankrata, you story sounds very familiar! And– buns are as good a reason as any other 😉

  • Sasha

    I like the different angles of this “hair investigation” piece: long hair gives women sexual power over men, yet it cuts woman’s power as an individual and restricts her freedom for self expression. I have cut my hair very short for the first time in my life at age 15 without my parents’ consent, and it drove my parents into a state of shock, an equivalent of their “teen pregnancy” news. I come from Russia – a more advanced country in terms of women rights, as compared to India, but the fundamental public perception of the role of long hair as a symbol of virginity and an attribute of female sexuality is rather strong there as well. It is guarded by both men and women. I just remember, how happy I was once my knee-long heavy braid was gone. It was like getting rid of the burden or flying out of a cage. It had nothing to do with sexuality, but it made me feel as if I didn’t have to wear some costume to please the people around me, I got a choice to chose my own style. It was priceless.

  • youmna

    Priyanka…It is a one of a kind piece…it not only symobizes the idea of long…or short hair…it is about embracing freedom and self-expression

  • This was an issue that I had thought about several times, you have given a great expression to it. Hair, I think, not only symbolises femininity, but cultural affiliations and societal status. Remember that Bollywood movie (forgot the name) in which Preity Zinta plays a prostitute hired for becoming surrogate mom to the child of Salman khan and Rani Mukherjee? Initially she runs around with curly hair and bright colored dresses and then she gets a ‘respectable woman’ makeover – she starts wearing pastel colors and straight long hair. In Princess Dairies, Anne Hathaway’s curly mop is straightened as part of giving her ‘royal’ look.
    “America expects the wife of Barack Obama, the man who wants to be president, to project an image of sophistication and near perfection. That image includes having hair that doesn’t make waves.” And that means a no to curly hair.
    Having thick black ringlets all over my head, I have always had my doubts. I have resisted straightening it, despite a lot of pressure from friends who say I would look much prettier if I did.
    One more thing, Halle Berry has short spiky hair. But she is considered attractive..

  • Can I tell you how much I love this article? (Yes.) Ok, I love this article 🙂

    I’ve hated all my life, how the men in my life (father, boyfriends et al) have always *advised* me to keep it long. Never quite got it and annoyed the hell out of me.

    Ever noticed how the struggling single women are shown sporting a short crop? And how the wives in the tellies wear a bun? I really hate the media for doing this to us.

    * Group hug* LOL, Love the piece.

  • My hair goes from long to short and short again, but most of the times I wear it in what I would call a chin length U-cut (the hairdresser calls it something a lot more sophisticated) because it is the most manageable.

    But guess what, my five year old son who has me for a mother, and the TV for a teacher has been after me to switch shampoos so my hair gets ‘long and strong’. I hate the media.

  • Hi priyanka. You have just described what i went through. Even i had a ‘boy cut’ till i was 17, and till then no one considered me a girl. the moment i grew it longer- shoulder length- i was in the league of girls for once, with guys admiring, with girls saying that i look like a girl now. though i felt that i did lose my identity a bit when i turned into the ‘typical girl’. I’ve recently cut it again, but another style, not ‘boy cut’.
    The part of theorising about hair, well, i’m doing my MPhil in Cultural Studies in EFLU at Hyd, and wanted to work for my thesis on the semiotics of hair, on the sexual gendered meanings of hair. but no prof here seems to be able to guide me in this area. they all seem to have a problem with it. nevertheless, i still think of hair as an important site of control, resistance, sexuality and politics as u have rightly pointed out. it gave me so much pleasure to read your piece. thank you!

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