Hair

Never let it be said that I keep my readers in the dark about the contents of my posts! Why not say it like it is? Yes, people, this post is about HAIR.

I think we spend too much time thinking about it. How to grow more of it on some parts of our bodies and how to remove it from others. I also think hair (I’m now talking specifically about that which sprouts from your scalp) is a cultural artefact. Why do I say this?

Remember Samson, whose strength lay in his hair, so that when it was cut off he grew weak? Remember the Manchus and their pigtails which were signs of servitude and how they cut them off to signal their freedom? Remember Rapunzel, whose hair formed first the reason for her continued imprisonment and then the instrument that started her on the path to freedom? In all these situations, fictional or not, the hair is not just hair. It is an important symbol that encodes cultural messages which get transmitted everytime the stories are told.

In Singapore in the 1970s, I used to see signs in post offices to the effect that long-haired men would be served last. It was a signal of disapproval of all that the long hair represented – lack of respect for authority, disinclination to conform to social norms. At that time I just wondered about the logic of this, considering that new people kept joining the queue all the time. My modus operandus under the circumstances would have been to enter the PO just before closing time! Hair, I learned very early, is not just hair. It is a zone of contestation that does not seem to only belong to the person on whose head it is situated.

This was brought home to me in a very personal way over the years. Growing up Indian in 1970s Singapore was not easy. You stood out. Big time. A brown spot in a field of Chinese people, you got called names. People didn’t want to sit next to you on the bus. And this was just the external discrimination. Far more damning was the prejudice that you internalised, based on the differences you saw between yourself and your Chinese classmates. Of course you saw them as representing the standard, and yourself as falling short. Their fair, yellow-tinged skin was your ideal. So your healthy brown tone was ugly. Their short, straight hair was sporty, fun, convenient. Your oily black plaits which hung to your knees made you stand out like a sore thumb.

Growing up, I hated my hair. All I ever wanted was to cut it as short as it would go. But my parents had come to Singapore in 1960, and brought with them the cultural values of 1960 India. And, as with all immigrants who find themselves rudderless in a new land, froze those values in order to preserve their culture. Apparently, one of the ways in which those values were embodied was through the hair. Indian girls, it seemed, did not cut their hair. Every weekend my mother would wash my hair for me. I was 13 before I was able to do it myself. She put so much effort into maintaining the tresses of her four daughters, a symbol, I suppose, of well brought up Brahmin girls who would make good wives.

I had a stable home, a loving family, a good education, a wealth of social capital. At that time, I would have traded it all in, in the blink of an eye, for the freedom to take the large pair of scissors that was always in the kitchen and chop that hateful braid off. Ungrateful child, yes? Poor parents

I begged and pleaded as I grew up. I cried angry tears into my pillow after every argument with my parents. I dreamed of losing all my hair in an accident. Finally, when I was 15, I cut a little bit of it off, and felt dizzy with the liberation. No one noticed it. I kept cutting it a little more everyday. Of course it helped that I had an older sister who started the trend. She got into so much trouble that I sort of slipped into her shadow unnoticed.

And so started a pattern. Everytime my hair grows beyond a certain length I feel the need to shorten it. It is irksome for me to have any reminder of a time when I couldn’t make the choice for myself. My husband likes my hair long, but even for him I cannot bear it. If he cannot be happy for me when I cut my hair then he will just have to be unhappy. It took me a long time to come to this stage. Many arguments, many tears, many moments of disbelief that I could be so educated, so strong, so articulate, and yet so imprisoned by my hair and the meanings that other people felt they had the right to attach to it.

I am happy to report that my husband likes my latest hairstyle. It has taken 40 years for me to feel free.

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