Updated: January 17, 2021 9:26:33 am
“Hair is everything….” states a visibly affronted Fleabag to Anthony, a hairdresser, in the award-winning series Fleabag (2019). This scene has been playing in my mind on a loop for the past few weeks, ever since I shaved my head. 2020 was a year that took a toll on my health, with multiple hospitalisations and countless medications. To top it, I contracted Covid-19 as the year drew to a close. After the initial hysteria subsided and it became apparent that mine was a ‘mild’ case, other worrying symptoms flared up. The floor of my home bore testimony to the fact that I was losing my hair in chunks.
My poker straight hair had always been a source of some vanity for me. My mother, always the pragmatic problem solver, decreed, “Let’s shave it off” and “Sow a new crop”. So one evening, after I had tested negative for the virus, and the avalanche of my hair fall still hadn’t abated, my mother and I, equipped with a men’s shaving razor and women’s shaving gel, shaved my head. Now, every wisp of air registered on my bare scalp, every drop of cold water made me shiver. As I am the last of the millennials, I did put all of this on social media.
Later, through responses on social media I realised what I had done was ‘newsworthy’. People who hadn’t spoken to me in years, old colleagues, an ex-boyfriend, and even old college classmates, reached out to me. ‘Are you ok’? ‘Why did you do this?’ — was the common refrain. Many saw it as a cry for help, some as an attention-seeking move, others were hesitant, as a shaved head may speak of a tragedy in the family.
Hair, especially for women, has almost always been sacrosanct. Medusa, the female monster from Greek mythology, had snakes for hair locks, and anyone who looked into her eyes turned to stone. In Mahabharata, Draupadi took a vow that she would only tie her tresses after washing them with Dushasana’s blood, following her cheer-haran. Even the phrase ‘let your hair down’ has its roots in the story of Rapunzel being cloistered in a tower.
The responses to my new look had a clear distinction on gender lines. The men were taken aback at my ‘life-altering decision’. My women friends on the other hand were very encouraging. Some even suggested that this can be a permanent thing, as they could now “see my face”. A dear male friend elaborated: “It’s ok for now but I hope this is not permanent”. I got the innuendo. A woman with a crew cut, leave alone a shaved scalp, is often perceived as being ‘edgy’ and ‘badass’. Juxtapose this with women with long, tamed hair. These are women whom men think easy to manage, amenable and adhering to traditions.
My look also triggered debate about my sexual orientation. Some men asked if I was “planning to play for the other team”.
Politically, shaving one’s head has often been a medium of protest. Hindu widows were made to shave their hair to ensure they did not have any adornment that could make them attractive to the other sex. Many religions and communities have strict diktats regarding hair. Think of the Hasidic Jews, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhist monks.
The pandemic also saw men shave their hair and grow their beards. The man bun didn’t look out of place in official zoom calls. Why can’t the acceptance be extended to a woman who has shaved her head on a whim? But maybe Fleabag was onto something when she said “hair is everything”. She had continued “… We wish it wasn’t, so we can actually think about something else occasionally, but it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day….” From the looks of it, I am in for a number of bad days.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 17, 2021, under the title “Pandemic: Of split hairs and close shaves”.
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