as part of my research for a story i’m working on, mostly in pursuit of potentially interesting sources, i attended a screening of chris rock’s “good hair” last night. if you’ve never heard of it, it’s a documentary that looks at the beauty industry as it relates to black women’s hair products and services in the US. and if you’re unaware on a deeper level, what it’s really about is a matter that’s as loaded politically as it is cosmetically and economically: at the crux of what chris rock is exploring - following his toddler daughter asking him ever so earnestly why she doesn’t have good hair - lies the question of why the textured hair characteristic of people with african roots is popularly deemed as the diametric opposite of ‘good’ hair. looking the right way has serious implications about social norms, acceptance and belonging, and even citizenship; black hair in many of its natural states, from poofy afros to tightly braided cornrows, has been shaped in mainstream culture as uncivilized, oftentimes criminal, and certainly unamerican.
okay so what does this have to do with india or indianness, since that’s kind of what this blog focuses on? well a few things… one is obvious if you’ve seen the doc, and that’s the part about how a lot of hair used for weaves and extensions comes from india. but the other, and more important, is that while many of the indians who came to watch the film were horrified at the lengths to which black american women go to achieve a certain look, this practice and the beliefs behind it mirror exactly what we as a community do to ourselves. forget the whitening, i won’t even go there cuz it speaks for itself, but HELLO we are obsessed with hair. obsessed i say! one woman at the screening even said that what the women depicted feel and do is a sad result of the pressure put on them by their male counterparts in the black community. really? a little navel-gazing is in order.
i have short hair. you know, the kind that people in india call ‘boy’ hair. they like to believe it signifies that i went through a bad breakup or that i am some kind of rule-breaker. the friends, colleagues, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, waiters, etc of my bombay life don’t know any other me (except of course for the lovely man who lopped off my very luscious locks). but yes, i too was once the right type of girl, with hair falling anywhere from my bra strap to my butt for most my life, and alternating between just below my chin and way down my back again through my adult years. it’s fair to say i’ve nearly done it all except for bald. at all of these stages, i’ve been straight and wavy, ironed and curled, tamed and wild, banged and unbanged, ponytailed and french braided, natural and dyed, and even once shaved kind of accidentally to look like a little indian punk rocker (it was actually, as meghan boyle coined it, a “reverse mullet”). it’s been fun. but the more interesting part has definitely been experiencing the reactions of people, both close and distant, to the way i’ve chosen to wear my hair. they have lots of investment in this you know. it’s highly personal to them. people very much want you to look how they want you to look. f*cking fascinating.
more than that, seeing how this plays out in different societies has taught me a lot about who values what in which places. what is seen as beautiful in this or that gaze? and do i care?
about a month and a half before i did the big chop, i mentioned it at my family’s annual thanksgiving gathering at my parents’ house. this happened:
me: “i’m thinking of cutting my hair.”
me: “like REALLY short. like all of it.”
one cousin: “don’t do it. remember what happened to keri russell? she cut all her hair off and it ruined her. it will ruin you.”
okay now i think that’s a bit dramatic, no? it will ‘ruin’ me?? am i a somebody enough that i can be ruined? if so, hell yeah. let’s do it and see.
so i did it, and even having endured more than a few tragic haircuts, i can report back that i don’t think it has ruined me. guess why…. this will be a shock to some, but my hair is not all of me. yes, it sounds like a radical thought, but it’s true.
the reality though is that we put so much as a society onto hair and identity and how what’s on a woman’s head defines her beauty, femininity, and sexuality. and while my life is still mostly intact after butchering the main indicator of my health and fertility - cuz you know, i have small boobies - i can still say that a lot of people, mostly here in india and indians in the US, really enjoy telling me how pretty i’d be if i grew my hair out. some like asking me if i’m gay or kind of gay or why i’d do such a thing when it makes me look so leeeeesbian. i generally love dealing with such people.
a friend who got groped on the street said i haven’t been physically harassed here because i’m not ‘attractive’ enough. due to my hair, or rather, lack thereof. kind of funny, but a little odd. to the crudest of men who act on their basest desires, i don’t look enough like a woman. what makes a woman look like a woman? this really struck me as something worth thinking about.
in india, i am the wrong type of girl. i am not a good girl. i can see it on the faces of the aunties in the stores and in the eyes of men at the bars. they seem to prefer that girls be nice girls and keep their hair long. this might sound silly; after all, bombay is modern and cosmopolitan and sophisticated, right? but go to any ‘sophisticated’ place in the city and i guarantee you, the females* will look mostly the same - clothing and heels by identifiable labels, designer bags in tow, and long, flowing, silky hair. did i mention straight? it must be straight.
on that note, let’s be straight up. though i argue that i cut my hair purely because i actually just thought pixies were cute, i think it’s clear from the type of person i am that more is going on here. and no, it was not rebellion or life crisis. it was simply that i wanted to believe in us. i wanted to have faith in our ability to see through our snap judgments and assumptions. i wanted women to look how they want to look. i wanted to be beautiful even when i was ugly. i wanted to see if i could.
here i see that a lot of women (not all of course) are tied to an idea of what the proper way to be is. there is a body of great work on what it means to be a ‘good indian girl,’ but little research touches on how standards of appearance aside from skin tone factor into this, and i believe hair length is a big one.
as indians, to look at how black american women chemically relax, press with high heat, and thicken with weaves their god-given tresses and say, “oh, how strange" is being utterly blind. i see women at bombay salons with already straight hair spending thousands of rupees on keratin treatments, spending time on oil massages that are supposed to stimulate hair growth, and doing every little thing in their means to ensure not only that their hair is black and bountiful, but that curls and kinks begone. and ‘boy’ length?? girl, you cray cray.
i finally chose to approach the one other young woman i’ve seen around frequently with a cropped cut and asked to speak to her for my piece. her decision to go short? not a decision at all: she had cancer.
*note: this entire analysis refers to women at a certain life stage, at their sexual prime and of marriageable age, which is when it’s most important to be the ‘right’ type of girl. i’m aware of all the smart and powerful older indian women out there (and even a few more younger ones willing to be a little bold) sporting short dos and kicking ass.