“Because hair is political,” was how poet Yesenia Montilla lunged into her reading at the Empire Reading Series, a monthly curation of the most celebrated poets held in Brooklyn. As I listened to her, it dawned on me that in talking about the politics of hair, I’ve neglected to view it through the prism of my own brown experience, somewhat stupefying considering my experience of hair has been completely politicized by that very posture. In absorbing Montilla’s burning lines, “Her hair has not been straightened like a ballerina’s back” or the lyrics of both Knowles sisters, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” / “Don’t touch my hair”, I reflected that the common denominator for women of color has always been the Eurocentric benchmark.
For me, my relationship with this benchmark is like the proverbial Spanish bullfight. I have charged and chased at the red flag that has been waved at me by all of the style magazines, TV commercials, the sharp features and fair skinned finalists of beauty pageants, the media, the list goes on. I have bought into the western aesthetic dream and thrown copious amounts of time, money, and mental energy at it. All without challenge or question. It has literally felt like a violent pursuit of an unreachable ideal; a mad rush in which I am not only set up to fail, but to be entrapped in a spiral of diminishing self-esteem. The use of present tense as my fingertips punch out these reflections is itself an awakening to how long the pull to meet this ideal has stayed with me. It stares back at me from physical mirrors as well as my subconscious mirrors. No doubt, an entire anthology could be dedicated to how all brown women experience the relentless haunting of this ideal (seriously, let’s dog-ear that project). For now though, let me focus on voicing its impact on my experience of hair.
It’s true that some South Asian girls with our “Indo-European” genes have straight, finer hair. It’s also true, that many of us, myself included, don’t. At the age of fifteen I abandoned my thick “Manjula” braid and pleaded with my migrant parents to cough up the $300 dollars to have my hair chemically straightened. It was an hour and a half long bus journey to the Blue Star salon in Chinatown, I would spend an entire day sitting in a salon chair permeated in chemical fumes. But once that was all done, the verdict was out. Finally, my newly tame and lifeless hair just about fit in with the sea of golden swinging pony tails of my diversity starved High School in northern Sydney. I actually started getting more attention from the opposite sex after a part of me aligned a little closer with the Eurocentric prototype. There was nothing like that Anglo-male adolescent feedback to cajole me into thinking I was really on to something.
The floodgates were open, by college I had my sights set on the next project – lighten.
No, not your standard drugstore bought dye in bathroom sink job (my hyper-critical hair lens could tell the difference between a bottle job and a salon job), I mean I took all of that hard earned cash from my part-time retail gig while studying my ass off in law school and funneled it to an ultra-chic coloring salon on the north shore. Ah the beauty of capitalism, you get what you pay for, another three to four hours of weaving fine foils of bleach throughout my dark mane and I emerged with highlights that were a match for Giselle Bundchen – or any of the brazen babes walking the Victoria Secret ramp for that matter. If I kept my skin out of the sun long enough, this brilliant combination would have me resembling the fairer Bollywood beauties, or better yet pass for a “mix” or person of Mediterranean origins. The goal posts of my experience of Australian beauty standards had only shifted so much between high school and college. Beyond blonde beach babes, there was a growing appetite for more “exotic” appearances, and I mean exotic in the most limited understanding of that word, the same way “darker features” means brown irises instead of green ones, and olive skin tone instead of deep brown. Essentially the beauty lens had innovated from Aryan to more salacious Mediterranean model. That’s all to say that there remained no prototype of beauty that embraced my South Asian origins. And if you think Bollywood was any saving grace, guess again. In many ways, the skin bleached shimmying divas on India’s silver screens were far worse to aspire to, a perfect recipe of delusion and hypocrisy to the common appearance of Indian women.
At the time of my very first bikini wax I wasn’t conscious of the double entendre behind this fairly standard routine question from a beauty therapist. Undoubtedly, the majority of South Asian women grapple with another dimension of hair politics – the politics of body hair. It’s safe to say that South Asian women tend to have more body hair than our other ethnic counterparts. I was raised within the Sikh faith where hair is seen as a divine bestowment that you should not be messing with. Long and unshorn hair is encouraged and for the conservatives, mandated. You can imagine the frustration and confusion of growing up between, on the one hand an upbringing where your community would often look to the length of your braid as a sign of whether you were a “good” and “traditional” girl, and on the other hand, an experience of young adulthood where you couldn’t run around in PE class without being called gorilla legs. When it came to rising to the Eurocentric occasion, my body hair game was even fiercer than my efforts for the hair on my head. From chemically bleaching my face to lighten the facial hair, to waxing my lady parts when I wasn’t even sexually active yet, to spending thousands of dollars over the years on laser hair removal to zap away my monobrow, sideburns, lady moustache, underarm hair, and any other remnants of my hairy brown-ness. The hair on my body was a political liability, more evidence of my origins, more ammunition for being stereotyped, more cause to be undesirable. I had never even considered it an option to do otherwise.
For brown women, there’s an additional connotation to consider when it comes to body hair. As well as the expectation on all womankind to not possess a trait that is deemed only natural and appropriate on male bodies, this very trait is also pinned as an innate and defining un-desirable quality of brown people. White people, especially in Australia, tend to focus on a fairly natural quality of a minority and weaponize the ability to bluntly point it out as an offense against Eurocentric standards. Racial slurs like “you hairy Indian”, “black/brown/[insert other nonwhite color] bitch” and (my personal favorite) “curry muncher!” are the bi-product of this tendency. It was therefore a double offense to firstly have more hair on my body than any man, and secondly to have more body hair than any white person.
In all the waxing, and shaving and lasering, I thought I was making things easier for myself, but in essence I was simply making it easier for society to legitimize the prescribed expectations of beauty that I simply do not measure up to. So now when my more “woke” and older self walks into a salon and is met with the routine question,“Everything off?”, I can’t help feeling like the whole process is a metaphor for stripping me of my body hair and my brown-ness.
As Tasnim Ahmed so eloquently put it back in 2014, the third wave of feminism grossly under-represents the brown experience of hair. I could say that the white patriarchy owes me an apology as well as thousands of dollars in what I’ve expended in de-politicizing my hair. I wouldn’t be wrong in maintaining this but I’ve actually racked up a much heavier debt against myself. I owe myself an apology and I can give myself a more inclusive definition of beauty. We are so swiftly seduced by the standards of beauty the media presents to us that we overlook how disempowering the buy-in is. I could have been the example I was missing. I look at the celebration of body hair in the art of visual thinker, Ayqa Khan, or the proud way that fellow Sikh Harnaam Kaur carries her “lady beard” as she calls it. These women are both younger than me and literally embody the change that they want to see in the world. It’s far easier said than done and I won’t lie, the roots of my hair habits run very deep. I still get my hair colored (although these days it’s more of an effort to cover my grays) and make routine visits for a bikini wax, but I am at the very least alive to what these actions reflect about the world I grew up in.
I’d like to say that my self-grooming is more about my own preferences for how I want to look, and perhaps there’s some truth in that, however I know that these so called preferences are inevitably wrapped up in the earlier Eurocentric ideals that have been instilled in me. It’s not easy to bow out of these overnight. I’m glad to have dismantled the political connotations of how the hair on my head and body appears, but my relationship to my hair may always be, on some level, tied up with the ideals that I felt oppressed by.
It’s not all doom and gloom, I’m slowly learning how to reclaim that power back in my own ways and on my own terms. For example, after going through a difficult time in my personal life, I decided to cut my hair very short and have been wearing it in its natural glorious state of curls and thickness. Despite the knee jerk reactions of society when a woman drastically changes her appearance, the big chop was not in complete response to my emotional turmoil, but it did feel powerful to shed a part of me that has typically represented how “feminine” I appear, how desirable I am and how much I conform to not only the mainstream western prescription of beauty, but the traditional Indian ideal of virginal long hair. Even for Frida, while her “self-portrait with curly hair” and “self-portrait with cropped hair” echoed her feelings of estrangement from her husband, they also represented her sense of surrealism about her space in the world and a reclamation to a self-defined orientation.
Our natural state of hair as women of color is surreal and beautiful, what we choose to do with it of our own accord and even in response to any ideals or political triggers is also surreal and reflects how we choose to orient ourselves. In coming to terms with what hair means for self-identity, I’m not insinuating that every coloring or styling effort has to be dismantled and over-analyzed. Because this awakening only struck me so recently, I’m inviting other brown women, if they aren’t already doing so, to think about how their hair is also unavoidably, political. Start by asking: Why is your hair styled to look and feel the way it is? Is it because that is physically appealing to you? Where did your idea of what hair is physically appealing come from? What does that same idea say about the world you grew up in? How does that idea reconcile with the natural condition of what grows from your body?