Hair Length

by Anhoni Patel <anhoni@yahoo.com>

Just as some people wear naturally-dyed organically-harvested locally-produced cotton clothing, while others wear black thrift store threads, leather collars, and gritty bicycle chains to indicate their political-cultural leanings, there are those who dye their hair green and purple as well as those who sculpt their manes into liberty spikes and dreadlocks. Personally, I utilize the length of my hair to poke at the status quo.

Depending on its length, my hair has screamed at my parents, my boyfriends, my co-workers, my community and numerous strangers. As a South Asian woman, I was raised with the notion that a woman's hair is the essence of her beauty. But not just any type of hair, I mean long hair. I was continually told that long hair is exactly what makes a woman, particularly an Indian woman, feminine. Until I was seventeen I had hair cascading down my back; sometimes it reached towards my thighs. But the night before I began my senior year in high school I made the fateful decision to chop over a foot of it off.

As my hair fell to the bathroom floor that night, I realized that I no longer needed to agree with my family's notions of Indian beauty ethics. It was as if the mangled, now discarded hair was years of cultural programming telling me that women are supposed to have long hair, and that the only ones who don't are lesbians.

But here I was, an Indian woman with a spunky bob, and I was still beautiful. I was no longer a young girl who abided my parents every wish; who kept her hair long just so that they could be proud of such a beautiful product of their genes. It was I who was going to decide what was beautiful and feminine. After I cut my impossibly long mane, there was no turning back.

When I had my hair in a bob that year I began to challenge other social as well as political norms. I began my political development through something as seemingly simple as a hairstyle. If my parents and the media were wrong about women's hair, what else were they wrong about?

After finishing high school with a bob, I was ready for another challenge. I wanted to have the back of my neck buzzed and my hair short, sleek and tapered. My politics had already shifted from moderate to liberal. The liberal in me wanted to cut off all that excess hair. Striding into the barber shop/salon I had the power to redefine who I am.

My father shed tears twice over my hair, both times at the dinner table during supper. The other two times I have seen him cry were when his older brother and sister died. Every time he looks at me, he is reminded of something which is lost to him. Once, on a trip to India, several people whom I encountered on my travels believed I was a young man. They, both men and women, were more inclined to think I was a man in full drag rather than a woman with short hair. When I was at a cousin's wedding several year ago, seventeen people thought I was a boy due to my short hair.

Eventually, my politics glided to the left (where they have stayed). I represented this viewpoint to the world by shaving my head. Never have I encountered such direct hostility as I did while I had this hairstyle. People would stare and make rude comments, and those who were once helpful neighbors refused to assist me any longer. Being called a man, bitch and psycho did not contribute very much to my self-esteem. But it definitely made me realize who I was and what was important to my growth as a woman.

Of all the elements of my sense of style, the length of my hair has the most meaning for me. It has served as the catalyst for some of my greatest challenges. I hope to keep experimenting with my hairstyles and hopefully, I will never stop learning more about myself and the world around me.


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