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Storm in a haircut

Can a woman sport short hair and escape being judged?

No, this is not a life-altering, earth-shattering matter. In fact, it’s quite the opposite though it could be misconstrued as a “rant” because apparently women expressing their opinion have to be labelled and undermined as such. However, as the title indicates this is how a storm can brew beyond a tea cup if you are a woman, that too one who does not fear to reclaim the rights to her own body.

Let’s ask ourselves this: “How long should a woman’s hair be?”

Now, the moment you read that question, you would have pictured a woman with silky black hair, or a shiny red mane flowing down her front, or a curly haired blonde — it’s unlikely you would have pictured someone bald or with a fade cut. News flash: there is a glass ceiling when it comes to the acceptable length of a woman’s hair.

Once a male colleague said jocularly that women with a boy haircut are mentally unstable. I could not see any logic in the statement but it helped me become aware of deep-seated social beliefs regarding the length of a woman’s hair and the consequent (mis)interpretation of her character.

Recently there was a furore on social media as a meme circulated by a misogynistic Bengali joke page tried to pass off an image of a female cancer patient on a sexist “joke”. Abuse would be my choice of word but I don’t get to choose: I’m a woman, remember. In fact, in South Asia shaving the head of a woman is either a mark of her being a widow or being promiscuous or being accused of being a witch!

This hair length debate has existed in my life since my birth; apparently I was born without a single strand of hair on my head and I did not show signs of hair growth till I was around six months. The prayers of my well-wishers worked so well that the gift of hair growth became a virtual curse. So my mother, the first feminist I met after I was born, decided to chop it off. In fact she decided to go all the way; she made me shave my head. I, who had and still do have a problem of sweating profusely, could not thank her more as I could play without my hair getting in the way or my sweat.

She felt so inspired she also went under the scissors herself and got her own hip-length hair chopped to a nice funky shoulder length. This was back in the late-1980s, even though the style was in vogue and most female celebrities were flaunting it with aplomb. But my mother was immediately reminded about the folly she had committed, a crime for which society will frown on her perpetually. But as they say, revolutions were not brought about by women who conformed, and she maintains the same hair length to this day.

My head was shaved off many times post-kindergarten, but I let it continue only till the age of 12. It was then that I realised I had been too deaf to hear the judgments, or rather I had not let myself become a “woman” in the eyes of society, so to say. Just as I hit puberty, I suddenly realised that cutting the hair beyond a certain length was a social taboo and was an indicator of lack of “femininity”. At an age when one discovers his/her sexuality, having a shiny mane became the sole purpose of my female peers, who would discuss at length about hair masks and household beauty tips handed down through generations on keeping the “hair” healthy. Yes, healthy hair. As we all know hair is composed of dead cells, so there was no bigger oxymoron than that.

Enormous amounts of money, time and energy spent on pampering these dead cells to make them look lively! It is astounding, really. Even though I continued to wear my hair short, I started revolting against my mother who wanted me to cut my hair beyond the permissible length. Even though I was not conscious of it, I was wanting to fit in and ready to accept the rules that one needed to follow to become a likeable, dignified “woman”.

As I struggled with my sexuality, I thought I would go all the way. So I started growing my hair, spending time to pamper my dead cells, putting in a lot of thought behind how to make them l

But just as the fever to fit in had raised its ugly head, it got decimated real soon when I decided to get rid of my dead cells and save myself the time and effort. I went to the nearest beauty parlour and said I wanted to cut off my hair. It was as if I had uttered the unspeakable. Everyone right from the beauticians to the customers, all were aghast as to why someone with such long “lively” hair would decide to part with it. So after much argument and with utmost reluctance and against her will, the beautician decided to do as I had asked.

Since then, I wore my hair shoulder length and never tried to grow it longer even once.

But that was a long time ago and I had forgotten all about it. But a sudden change in my hairstyle last week brought all these dormant memories surging back. Last week I decided to go for a low-maintenance and comfortable hair cut and my stylist (a guy) suggested I could go for a variation of a fade cut. (For the uninitiated, this cut is being sported by most European footballers nowadays.) I loved the idea and decided to go with it. When the trimmer touched the area above my ear, my hairstylist asked if I was prepared to be judged. I told him, “It’s my hair, I can do whatever damn well I please with it!”. He said, “That’s the spirit and I wish more people would think like that.” I came home feeling very satisfied with my new haircut. Considering that I live in an area where temperatures soar past 45 degrees C in the summer, I felt really comfortable in the hair cut and wished I’d got it sooner.

As I did not think I needed to take anyone’s permission to cut my hair beyond the permissible length, I was in for a rude shock when I went to work the next day. The stares with pretty audible whispers accompanied by suppressed laughter made me realise I had unknowingly hit a nerve with society’s patriarchal norm and its claim on my body.

However, no one had the guts to come up to my face to express their judgment, with the exception of an elderly man in a department store, who evidently did not think a woman could be in charge of her own body. He decided to pass on his judgment to my husband, the current owner of my body as society would want to believe. Quite suddenly in the middle of the store he decided to tell my husband, who was standing right behind me, that which everyone else had wanted to say out aloud: “You know meye-chele (women) should not wear their hair so short, it does not look good.” And my husband retorted, in his smug style, “It’s really breezy, you should try it yourself.” The elderly man did not wait to hear the reply. It was ironical as I had just been telling my husband it’s unfair that men have kept all the good things for themselves, staying half-naked in sweltering heat, keeping their hair short, and so on.

Given the deep-seated association between the length of a woman’s hair and her compliance with patriarchal norms and her character, in a strange way a hair cut knowingly or unknowingly becomes a woman’s way to make a powerful statement by reclaiming the power to her own body.

Feminists in the west are up in arms to reclaim a woman’s right to her own body and fighting for her right to abortion. People here are arguing whether citizens should have total right over their own body or not. I just wanted to point out that, women in this region still need certification of the society to get rid of dead cells from their body, thus, the fight has only just begun. Even though apparently it seems like you are free to do what you want with your body but the moment you decide to move you realise the chains.

That being said, I would just like to rub it in, with a smug smile on my face, that even with periods, that take away our potential productivity for a few days, tending to household chores and beautification process that takes hours, women still kick ass when it comes to playing the game of equality. Might I add, if you have not figured it out already, all the rules of this game are weighed in against us. — Sanhita Chatterjee

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 8:35:45 AM |

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