By Isha Singh Sawhney
I was 16 when I first hacked my almost waist-length hair down to a GI-Jane buzz, what they called a number 2 on the electric buzzer. The next time was at 25, when I decided to go completely bald. The first was in a fit of teenage angst, the second during what I call relationship rebellion. Yes, such a thing exists, and no, it’s not called rebound.
Let’s start with the first. Back then, I was just the girl with short skirts, chubby knees and buzzed hair – no big deal. But then, teenagers in the ’90s were a far cry from the hypersexual kids of today, obsessed as they are with pop icons, sartorial choices and salon visits. No one really cared if you cut your hair shorter than most boys, wore an ugly sweater and unfashionable nail polish, or didn’t wax your legs till you were legally allowed to vote. Especially if you were the wild tomboy (not on any top-ten-hottest-girls lists), who was the first to be suspected when a bomb went off in the school bathrooms before Diwali.
But in your twenties (and then in your thirties), things are different: sexually, emotionally, intellectually. I had just come out of a physically abusive relationship and gone headfirst into another messed-up, albeit nicer, one. Not quite healed, I was a ticking bomb waiting to combust, and I desperately wanted, nay needed, some kind of transformative action (insert bald head here).
The morning I decided to shave my head, after a night fuelled by Kamikaze shots, I didn’t have a hint of trepidation as my cousin, who was deputed to do the job, picked up the shaver and got started. As long, ponytail-sized clumps fell off and strips of white scalp began to show through, after the first twinge of apprehension in my gut, euphoria set in. I felt lighter, not just because of the actual physical weight of my hair, but almost as if the political, spiritual and emotional burden that came with it had lifted. I felt my sadness and baggage leave me with each lock.
In the days that followed, when I ran my hands over the fresh stubble, there was a big dose of panic mixed in with the liberation. Once that wore off, though, there were a bunch of joyous, more mundane, utilitarian positives: No more shampoo, curling irons or hair dryers. Washing your hair doesn’t need a well-planned itinerary. Bad hair days are a figment of your imagination. Hair ties, obsolete. You can run, do yoga and cycle without getting annoyed by that one obstinate strand that always, always gets in your eyes.
It’s the reactions that were most striking then – when you’ve been relatively easy on the eyes for a while, with a mane people enviously gush over, the shock when they see your now shining white pate is painfully obvious, and pretty much unanimous. Once they get past the fact that you haven’t done this for Tirupati or to donate it to a cancer foundation, you get everything from “WTF! Why would you? You’re such a pretty girl! Why would you purposely get rid of your hair to look like a dyke?” to “You go girl, one million points for women’s empowerment!”
Missives of concern come wrapped in a host of compliments. Not even strangers will hesitate to display a full range of emotions, ranging from pity and surprise to pure revulsion.
In the conservative, traditional, conformist view shared by many in this country, men (and women) see a woman with long, flowing hair and think – subconsciously and sometimes out loud – that here’s a woman who can be loved by a man. You just have to see how men react to women with shaved heads or short-cropped hair to know this to be true. Women without hair are unsexy. They’re threatening.
And so we conform, and spend hours on braiding, straightening, curling, colouring and blow-drying our obsession, ego and vanity. Yes, such obvious womanliness may get you out of a speeding challan or score you a free drink at the bar, but shaving my head gave me the chance to discover an inner, stronger femininity. The day I went bald, I bought myself the boldest pair of earrings I own: huge silver disks with bald, tribal men on them.
For I suddenly had this testosterone-filled attitude that’s kosher in boys, but not girls. When you take off your hair, says a cousin who’s also gone bald twice, you shed the weight of expectations. Men talk to you without being distracted by their subconscious associations with hair: long hair = girl = sex.
My cousin first went bald as a teenager after dating a series of women in New York, to conform to her queer community, where every second person was a bald or buzzed lesbian. The second time, she was getting over a guy “who had destroyed my heart at 22”, and she felt free. “From being a tiny and girly queer girl, suddenly I was all attitude,” she declares.
In me, this same “attitude” stemmed from overcompensation. I lived in a far more conservative Delhi. Feeling exposed without hair, I’d developed a swagger to contend with the stares and comments. What I put out was an androgynous, boy-girl kind of sexiness, interpreted as mental, brave or gutsy. And I loved that badass-ery.
Hair is energy, and when you take it off, you let go of both society’s diktats on conventional beauty and your own ego – the latter as important as the former. And when it grows back, if you’re lucky, it’s natural, stripped of years of wear, with new strength to take on the world – just like you.