This 3-year-old I once knew had such tight curls people would ask her parents if they’d gotten her hair permed, as if anyone would do something so ridiculous to a child. Children have the privilege of looking cute no matter what. To add to that, this girl’s wild hair that was as big as her head and whose gleeful twirls contained the inexplicably unending energy of a child, looked exotic and enviable because it hadn’t yet learnt to hate her, or maybe it was she who hadn’t learnt to hate it. Curly hair is only pretty when it’s not frizzy and only friendly to its bearer when it’s short and/or straight. If this sounds like an opinion I hold willingly, it’s not. And if I started about society and the buckets of conditioner that pour onto us like they do overhead in waterparks, I might get onto a tangent I’d take far too long to return from. So before it’s too late, back to the hair.
“Hair is everything,” says Fleabag. And she’s right. There’s no such thing as a bad face day or a good posture day. I’d noticed this before, how a girl’s long, silky, perfectly wavy hair got enough attention and envy-fuelled admiration to make up for any societally perceived lack in the rest of her appearance. Hair not only saves, it defines. It’s so big it may almost be the first thing people notice. And even if we were able to look past the perceptual gaze of the outside world, we do not feel good about ourselves if our hair doesn’t sit or stand the way we want. Again, this is a self-criticism we were taught, and I keep wondering what the world would be like if we simply erased every existing standard of beauty and started over.
Maybe then I wouldn’t have had to cower behind the washing machine, screaming as my father quite literally dragged me out of there, walking quietly on the street with tears heavy with resentment for my parents but mostly for my hair, rolling down my cheeks as we made our way to get my ears nicked at the barber’s. My hair was so unmanageable my mother refused to comb it for me every day. I remember quite vividly the stinging awareness like a thorn in my shoe of the whole school watching, but especially a crush who sat near the front, as I came on stage dressed as a boy in our class assembly. When I was around 11 or so, I was deemed old enough to take on the responsibility of growing my hair out and I attempted this eagerly. I soon realised growing it too much meant wearing a pony tail so bushy you could see it from the front. And nothing could soothe the frizz that had settled angrily like a crown of weeds. I used to shave off the baby hairs on my forehead until a friend asked me about it and that embarrassment exceeded the other.
T with the nostrils that permanently flared sideways that he never got teased for because he was mildly popular sat behind me in 8th grade and overheard A, who showed me how to draw anime eyes, talking about my freshly cut hair that had reduced my shapeless bush of a pony tail to a “poof-ball”. He said something about how it looked like the kind of hair found elsewhere. Boys just entering their teens often developed, among other things, an obsession with being disgusting. I didn’t know much about male anatomy back then but I understood the joke. A didn’t and I feigned ignorance to avoid having to acknowledge the shame I felt. “But it’s so cute and poofy,” she said as she held my hair in her hand and squeezed. T shook his head with the laugh of a man very pleased with himself, “now you’re just making it worse.”
Friends didn’t understand why my hair always, so blandly and stubbornly, stayed tied up. “I like it away from my face,” I say. “Let it down just this once, come on!” It’s not that easy. I recall pointedly the first time I gave in. How critically I perused the photos taken that day. It got a little easier after that, but not even one of those times has it been my natural hair in all its unimpressiveness that they saw.
Even now, when I manage to overcome my inhibition of stepping out for a walk or some such thing regardless of the state of my hair, my mother calls out before I reach the door and insists that I comb it. “You can’t go out like that!” Do you not see mother, that I’m trying to do away with this nasty preoccupation that really only starts and ends with me? But now that I’m Old and Mature, I suppose I can forgive her for having, and continuing to push her own awkward, self-conscious relationship with hair onto me. I’ve chopped off my obnoxiously tangled locks in a flurry of emotions thrice since this lockdown began, and I hope either I or society progresses enough for it to be acceptable when a woman shaves her head because maintaining my hair annoys me that much.
Erasing existing beauty standards and undoing ideas like what constitutes masculine and feminine beauty is not a particularly urgent effort and I can’t expect, or hope for the world to join me, but I do like to challenge myself to get as far away from society’s reach as possible so I can think and feel for myself a little more every day. Although I try to like my hair, I still call it “fixing” every time I straighten it. I think it’s so much harder to love yourself because the rules of the aesthetic that come in the way of loving things about other people are distant and impersonal whereas you’ve had a lifetime of subliminal instructions to dislike something about yourself, that specifically catered to and fed your already unsteady opinion of yourself into a healthy being of its own, that you then have to try and wilfully starve to the point of insignificance.