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A Hairy Situation

March 24, 2009

In spite of my initial idea that my issue-based blog would be separate from my personal life, it is perhaps inevitable that my personal experiences are mentioned here. What we understand of the world is, after all, is an amalgamated set of personal observations and value systems, shaped by the mundanities of our lives.

‘There’s more to life than just hair, but it’s a good place to start’ The Aussie Philosophy

Growing up, I had always been identified among various circles as the ‘curly-haired one’. As a child and then as a teenager, all the way till my first year in college, I always maintained a close crop of hair, because of the inherent difficulty in maintaing long, curly tresses. I accompanied my mom to the quintessentially Indian ‘beauty parlours’, run by Punjabi ladies, if not taken along with Dad to the local barber salon or have the military barber wield his tools most efficiently on my dad, my bro and then me. Mostly, it fitted well with my one-of-the-boys image so I didn’t mind but as I entered my late teens, I resented my parents’ insistence on what was then unfashionably called, ‘the boy cut’.

As I entered my late teens and moved to Singapore, I finally gave fruition to my desire to grow my hair out, only to be faced with daily frustration and despair with hair that, literally, seemed to have a mind of its own. My stubbornly unkempt hair became a source of endless amusement for friends and a fabulous source of jokes for my self-deprecating sense of humour.

‘Some people have bad hair days. I have a bad hair life.’

‘I always look like I have just had an electric shock – suits my charged up personality.’

‘Who needs dishwashers? My hair is naturally coarse and thick, like the coconut fibres used to scrub vessels in some parts of India.’

‘I’m a born nature lover – my hair makes for fabulous birds nests.’

Indeed, my hair became so central to my personality that even after a decade of not having seen me, friends would scan crowds for curly-haired girls, when looking for me. Whenever I parted ways with friends and rued the possibility of things changing, people would express fear that I would change fundamentally, and how my new personality would have straight hair.

In my tentative forays into femininity, sometime in the final year of high school in Singapore as an eternally broke student, I decided to stop waiting to head back to India for haircuts and to splurge a bit in the decidedly more expensive but seemingly more sophisticated hair salons in Singapore. And this is when my hair started becoming something bigger than myself, something akin to the colour of my skin, something I had never been self-conscious about until I had stepped into the ‘multicultural’ realm of Singapore, only to be hurled racist insults by people who deemed themselves superior to my brown-skinned self by virtue of their somewhat more fashionable yellow-tinged epidermis.

“Too curly. Too messy. Troublesome. Needs to be straightened. You should rebond your hair, you know? It will make it straight and beautiful. This Indian hair, ah, not good, leh. Must treat it – we can do it for you, do you have time now?”

Hailing from the pre-2000 India where my middle-class sensibilities had not exposed me to the wonders of hair extensions, rebonding and myriad chemical treatments which are so ubiquitous today, I declined any such offers. “Just a trim, please, or if you could layer it up to de-volumize my hair? Thank you.”

Moving on to college life, I noticed increasingly that my Indian batchmates and seniors instantly upped their hotness on campus by rebonding their hair. It seemed as if the only way to earn the prized tag of ‘beautiful’ was to adopt the local template – rod-straight hair and stick-thin bodies, coincidentally also characteristics of most Chinese girls in Singapore.

At every hair salon, it always played like a script and always had the grating quality on my nerves which other beauty tips did not. Perhaps, it was because straight hair was the natural prerogative of the Chinese race or that the idea of beauty was modeled after the majority race, I started taking these tips rather personally even though I learnt to shrug off such suggestion with quips on how I like the character of my curly hair and how I did not want to look like a carbon copy of just about everyone else. It was sometime in my second year of college that I finally gave up on Singapore hair salons – they seemed to have an inherent issue with the Indian texture of my hair and I did not want to change myself, so it was a no-go situation.

I wore my mad, unkempt hair as my badge of honour, my symbol of pride in my race. I fought with it daily, gave up on it, shed tears over it but refused to straighten it. At various points, I wondered if I was going overboard in ‘racializing’ a non-issue – most others were not overly bothered by what I sensed to be a constant undercurrent of racism and hostility which, admittedly, has toned down over the years in Singapore as Indians have grown to be an economic force to reckon with. But I do remember flinching when I heard someone call curly hair ‘unprofessional’ – right, so now you can deny me promotion because my hair doesn’t fit into your blueprint for perfection?

It is hard to summzarize the complex relationship between physical appearances, race and politics, but has it not always been the case that our physical likeness, along with what we wear and show of ourselves, is a symbol of our political being? I remember a Palestinian friend wore old Palestinian coins as earrings to assert her political identity. Sikhs have been singled out and persecuted, identified clearly by the turban they choose to wear. Under the Nazi regime, Jewish physical characteristics were identified to pick out people and persecute them. I felt an immense sense of validation when Obama, in his book, Dreams from my Father, expresses disappointment at one of his female black classmates wearing green contact lenses – he felt saddened that women of his race felt the need to mask their natural characteristics to feel beautiful. Watch an excellent documentary on African-American women’s dichotomy of beauty vs what they are naturally and how even kindergarten kids define good and bad by the colour of the skin of their dolls.

Recently, I discovered the wonders of the GHD flat-iron straighteners and even while enjoying the convenience of tangle-free, bouncy hair, I grappled greatly with the idea of letting go of an old ideal. Before I bought my straightener, I introspected and agonized for a month on whether I was selling out after all, if I was giving up the ‘fight’ as a lost cause, by toeing the party line, so to speak. I even actively resented the enthusiasm with which my friends welcomed my straight-hair look, as if they hadn’t liked my erstwhile curly look. But I now live in London, and I am merely fighting ghosts from the past by stubbornly standing by my unmanageable hair. At some point, I reconciled myself to the fact that if I stopped fighting my hair, I could start fighting the system which allows even blatant racism. Yes, the same system which allows room-for-rent ads in which the closing line reads – ‘No Indians, please.’ (Ad now taken down, screenshot here)

Thanks to Aman for the room-for-rent link which inspired me to come back and complete this post. It’s easy to dismiss this antagonism I held over the years as some sort of teenage angst or resentment at my own looks, but there’s no two ways about that ad – if you’re Indian, beautiful or not, straight-haired or not, you’re not welcome. And for the record, I do love my curly hair. Just that on some days, a little bit of coaxing by a straightener makes it easier to handle 😉

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Aman permalink
    April 11, 2009 4:03 pm

    I feel overwhelmed, nobody had ever mentioned my name on a blog before. haha sounds like a borderline case of low self esteem 😀

    Good luck with work, i envy you for being in London. My time will come too!

  2. April 19, 2009 10:34 am

    I think it’s safe to say that you have no self esteem issues, except perhaps a bloated ego 🙂 But do you find yourself any better received in Singapore for that? You’re Indian, so suffer what you must.

  3. April 26, 2009 4:52 pm

    Wow great post on hair! But I must say straight hair looks great on you!

    • April 26, 2009 5:42 pm

      Thanks 🙂 It was good to get it off my chest – this hair thing has really been gnawing at me for years!

  4. t33lu permalink
    May 3, 2009 7:53 am

    Charming post 🙂 Nice to read such blogs which intersperse public commentary with personal life.Hope you continue writing…

    • May 6, 2009 3:24 pm

      Thank you 🙂 We are nothing but the sum of our pasts, aren’t we? Hope to continue writing! About time for another post, I’d say…

  5. May 10, 2009 1:10 am

    Re: opening comment, personal posts are always the best especially when well written and that are ‘direct dil se’. The Indians and hair conundrum reminds me of the Russell Peters joke that god decided to have some fun when he put lotsa hair on people living in hot climes. Sounds much better than when he narrates it 🙂

  6. May 10, 2009 1:15 am

    In Singapore, somehow, the hair issue, to me, was more than just a matter of aesthetics. I gave it political weight, the burden of which has been lifted off my shoulders after getting here!

    I think I’ve heard the Russell Peters quip, heh. It is indeed a cruel joke, and counter-intuitive, given the climes.

  7. The Cydonian permalink
    May 17, 2009 4:35 am

    Don’t worry, we Southies with our bushy unibrows and curly hair will take over the world shortly: among others, Padma Lakshmi is already on the job. It’s taking a bit longer than expected though, and I blame Aishwarya Rai and her straight hair for the delay.

  8. May 17, 2009 9:38 am

    Heh, I score on both counts – I’m too lazy to thread my eyebrows like just about every Indian woman (Ha, the feminists might cheer me on, but it’s sloth more than feminism which is the cause of this) and curly hair is a keeper, for sure.

    Oooh, Padma Lakshmi is pure hotness. Seriously.

  9. Vino permalink
    January 17, 2011 2:02 pm

    Loved your hairy post. . . I am intrigued as to who in the world had time to look at your hair. You are too engaging a person to merely sit and look at your hair.

    • January 21, 2011 3:55 pm

      Thanks 🙂 What can I say? Singapore has weird people 😛

  10. December 18, 2013 8:57 am

    I just found this post by accident while looking fo hairstylists good at cutting south asian hair. it’s incredible how much I agree with everything you have written. I have been in raging arguments over the racialization of hair, the whole good hair vs bad hair argument that black people have been dealing with for years!
    I moved to singapore earlier this year and coincidentally one of the first few posts in my illustration blog was this :http://mysketchbookproject.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/things-i-heard/

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