Living life on the razor edge

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For a woman... an Indian woman... a south Indian woman from a ‘traditional’ family, shaving her's head is a no-no, unless under religious sanction. So, naturally, it's recommended.

I remember being in the ninth grade (January 2007) when Britney Spears, one of my entertainment idols growing up, shaved her head during her widely-publicised meltdown. To give you some context, Britney had then recently filed for divorce from her ex-husband Kevin Federline, had admitted herself to various treatment facilities (for drug abuse, most likely), and lost her aunt to a terminal illness.

I assume that the majority of society (and the members of a coven we call the Internet) is in agreement that nearly a decade ago, a woman shaving her head out of the blue would be characteristic of a mental breakdown. However, it would currently agree — from the perspective it has gained from all the diverse domains of knowledge it brings together — that all human beings are free to alter their physical appearance and body according to their will.

Incidentally, after shaving my own head in October last year (a decision I took after years of contemplation), the reactions I got astounded me. I found that certain people I interacted with on a daily basis — people who I assumed were non-judgemental and liberal — treated me with the same antagonism people would have treated Britney almost 10 years ago. This shocked me, because the intent with which I did this was far from how people perceived it.

What made me shave my head

I was about eight or nine years old when I discovered that a disease called cancer existed, wherein those who had it lost their hair due to the treatment they received to combat it — something called chemotherapy. I sympathised, more than my tiny brain would have liked to. But I was 11 years old when a friend of mine from school, someone whom I was in the same bus with back home and whom I played with on the journey, was diagnosed with leukaemia. It shook me up.

Over the following months, I constantly received news of her condition, and finally, she came back (after months of gruelling chemotherapy at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London) to speak to the students of our school. She wore a wig with a plait dangling off it, and she seemed healthier, but that day remains embedded in my memory. Of course, given that leukaemia is generally a delayed, yet inevitable, death sentence, Leanne Fernandes died on December 8, 2004. It pained me to see what she had gone through, and I knew that somewhere down the line, I would do something to honour her memory. And so I did, on October 20, 2015.

All human beings are free to alter their physical appearance and body according to their will.

Apart from honouring Leanne’s memory, I had always wondered what shaving my head would feel like. Having dealt with self-esteem issues for a good deal of my life, and attempting to tackle them even now, I felt that shaving my head would be a good chance to feel more comfortable in my own skin.

How people reacted

Given that women shaving their heads is not uncommon in Chennai, I received little-to-no lingering looks or stares on the street, when I would commute to and from work. Some people, like delivery-boys and cab-drivers, hazarded to ask whether I shaved it during a religious pilgrimage. What surprised me, however, were the negative, and even double-sided, reactions of people I considered liberal.

I recently discovered that someone I interacted with everyday attributed my decision to a mental breakdown (when speaking to a relative of mine), whereas in my first conversation post shaving my head, the same person had reacted positively and told me that they supported my decision. Of course, people who disliked or still dislike me saw an opportunity to snigger, stare, and make fun of what I had decided to go through with.

Friends, as friends usually would be, were incredibly supportive. Most of them complimented me for taking such a step, and even told me it suited me, since it seems to be a look not a lot of women can pull off.

What disturbed me — and still does to this day — is my parents’ reaction. I knew they would be upset and possibly subject me to a long lecture, but I had a lot more waiting for me. My parents lamented (an understatement, mind you) about how my chances to find myself a husband had been drastically affected and possibly ruined. They believed I’d had a major nervous breakdown, and did all they could to hide what I had done (not letting me leave the house until it was utterly necessary, and even when I did, I had to wear a monkey cap). They believed, and I quote, that I looked like I had leprosy. How could a TamBrahm girl from a respectable middle-class household even consider such a step? Shameful, they still believe.

Taking a step back

Women have a multitude of reasons for shaving their heads. Alopecia areata (spot baldness), damaged hair, chemotherapy, inability to manage and maintain the hair, the list goes on. Whatever the reason may be, the first thing to do is TO NOT STARE. One may not be able to help staring, but staring is impolite and in certain legal debates, cause for arrest.

Over the last decade, probably since Natalie Portman’s buzzcut in the immensely popular film V for Vendetta, women shaving their heads has become socially acceptable. What a lot of people from the present generation are unaware of (or possibly refuse to acknowledge) is that the late Persis Khambatta, an actress and the Miss India winner in 1965, shaved her head for her role as Lieutenant Ilia in the 1979 Hollywood production Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which catapulted her to global fame. Funnily enough, I happened to have received a comment that I looked like Persis after shaving my head.

However, I don’t see why society needs to wait around for a prominent woman figure to significantly alter her appearance to affirm what she has done. For a woman, shaving her head is more than just picking up a pair of electric clippers and buzzing her head with them. It is, in my belief, taking control of her appearance and body and not letting people around her, and society at large, dictate what she can and cannot do with it.

Spotted at the Gateway of India in 2002, this band of women chanted We Want A Change, sporting bald looks. | The Hindu Archives

Indian society has this awful tradition of attaching a woman’s beauty to her hair, largely thanks to print and broadcast media. Countless advertisements promoting long and beautiful hair have bombarded our screens, newspapers and magazines since time immemorial. The model or actress expresses sadness or regret for having lifeless or damaged hair, and that the hair product in question has brought back its former ‘beauty’.

A bald woman is not ugly; a woman with hair is not necessarily beautiful. Beauty is no longer defined by conventional standards (as the coven mentioned earlier would attest to), so that rationale goes out the window. Let us all take a step back and understand that the reasoning behind women retaining their hair is flawed and blatantly archaic.

How one must (ideally) react

So what must one do? Be as normal as possible around said woman. Feel free to ask why they did it. Most women who shave their heads expect this question, and most of them are happy to answer, as was I when I did it. If you do not like it, be honest (as respectfully as you can, of course). No woman who has shaved her head expects 100-per-cent acceptance.

I would certainly shave my head again. It taught me about what women who lose their hair against their will have to go through, and that I look amazing as long as I am confident enough.

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