I recently had my hair cut very short and it led to some very interesting revelations. I have always had longish hair, except for some period when I had a short hairdo, with the length ending at my ear lobe- as my Tambram mom would call it “boff cut” (I think it is meant to be Bob cut!). Growing up in a conservative small town in Karnataka the norm was to have long braided hair, and longer the hair, the more pride one took. At my full height of 5’6” I had waist length hair. It was my mom who took care of it: homemade oils, specially made shampoo, and a lot of time and love went into its maintenance. However once I stepped away from home for studies, there was no one to care. I had no patience for the upkeep and chop chop, it came down to half the length.
And as years passed, due to various reasons, biological, social and practical, it got shorter and shorter, but mostly it was at least shoulder length. Then one day I decided I needed some change to my appearance and maybe the “boff cut” could be an option. But for some reason, my hairdresser was reluctant to go as short as I wanted and gave me something in-between. I wasn’t too happy within a few days. The husband too felt something about it didn’t look alright (may be it was my discomfort!) and suggested why not cut it a bit more short.
The same evening en-route to our dinner, off I went to the hair dresser, just to check if she was available and could fix my hair. She again tried to dissuade me… and asked if my husband would approve. Since we had actually stepped out for dinner and this was just a pit stop, the husband was sitting in the parlor glancing through glossy tabloids. Even though it was he who had earlier suggested, I wasn’t going to ask “permission” now. This was my hair and I would do what I wanted. So chop chop it went till it was more like a “boy cut” as my mom would say.
After this, I encountered some of the most surprising reactions. As I walked down to the reception to pay for the haircut, all the women staff of the parlor started complimenting me, saying it looked really good. I was a bit nervous as I had never imagined having such a short hairdo and wasn’t sure if I would be able to carry it off. However most of the women who had seen me before and after said it looked great. Starting from my neighbor’s maid- she was the first person to see me next morning and said “didi bahut accha lag raha hai apka hair style”. By the way, this was the first time she had spoken to me in the 3 years that I had lived in that apartment. At work all the women said “I dig”. And the best compliments were from some of my mom’s friends who just loved it and said they wished they could go that far.
But the men had different reactions! My boss who had never commented on my looks (I guess it wouldn’t have gone down well if he had) looked very disappointed, asking what had made me cut my “lovely hair”. A neighbour of mine said he was shocked at what I had done and if everything was ok. (It wasn’t like I had a Mohawk in pink colour!). A senior board member of the company at a meeting asked if it was “approved” by my family, and if my in-laws were ok. (And to my in-laws credit, they had made no comment. However their young neighbor’s reaction was appalling- this is a well-educated lady who asked, if I could talk to her husband to allow her to get such a hair do!!) Of course there were a few men who had “liked” the picture on FB and one or two others who said it looked good.
Somehow the first few days of this new hairdo turned out to be quite a revelation. All the women thought it was a cool thing. However men had different reactions. Change in my hairstyle seemed to reveal the different outlook men and women operated out of. May be for women my choosing to do what I did with my hair, was a sign of liberation, one of independence and a symbol of freely doing your own thing. To the men it seemed to say something else- from being aggressive, losing my femininity to even not being the ideal Indian woman.
Well, in reality I didn’t feel any less feminine. In fact I felt more so and a bit more youthful. I did have to worry a bit about the clothes that I could wear. I could carry off a sari just as well, but some others I had to avoid, to not look like I had a “Tirupathi mottai”(despite best efforts my orthopedic, who was seeing me after 8 months, asked this. He probably attributed Tirupathi as the reason for my reduced visits!). Other than that it didn’t change much. Deep inside, I didn’t experience myself as any different than before.
I am intrigued by the varied reactions and often wonder why. I don’t have all the answers. I could speculate some. But in all it was a simple personal choice that elicited such strong responses from people that I hardly even knew. Change seems to have a way of exposing our mental models: the beliefs and the assumptions that are deep seated in us. Wonder what will happen if I actually went around with a pink Mohawk, now that would be a real social experiment!