For anyone who knew me in school, and for those who didn’t, I was close to a perfect school nerd for most of my school life. I studied and scored well, participated in extra-curriculars, and fit the ‘good obedient girl’ stereotype – physically too. I had long hair, which reached well below my waist, and was praised for it by teachers, friends, random adults. It was also extremely useful for, and a very important part of, my life as a Bharatanatyam student. I trained in various art forms that instilled in me a sense of devotion and respect for all that was traditional and religious. This included a very specific idea of femininity – of an obedient, docile, sweet-natured woman, who strived to be aesthetically pleasing in the eyes of all.
A year or two after puberty hit, I suddenly noticed a change that I hadn’t expected. In the 8th grade, my body started rejecting long strands of hair from my head, slowly and steadily. Of course, given the length of my hair, it seemed like a temporary phase that would pass. I didn’t pay much attention to the strands that collected in my comb, on the floor, on my pillow. I continued dancing and plaiting my hair in complex ways for performances; after all, only those lucky ones with long hair could experiment with cornrows.
By the end of 9th grade, I realised the problem had only become worse. Teachers pulled me out of the line during the morning assembly to point out that my long tail had grown thinner. My mother, who lovingly plaited my hair everyday before school, was also visibly worried and recommended that we try various home remedies. Egg yolk, almond oil, different yoga poses – you name it, we tried it. Ma and I were a team with a mission: we would solve this and preserve my beautiful hair. Being the obedient and religious kid that I was, I offered my sincere prayers to the Almighty. Very seriously, 14 year-old-me made deals with God on a daily basis: ‘Please give me 10 new strands by the end of this month and I will forget the boy I like.’ This was to no avail, and 10 more strands would leave my head and fall to the ground, with my tears, over the next 2 days.
Crying was a daily affair. I stood in front of the mirror at multiple points during each day (when I woke up, dressed up to go to school, came back and changed, walked by the mirror, packed up for the night) and obsessed over how my hair looked. Does this hairstyle add volume to my hair? Does this light make my hair look scanty on top? Is this partition becoming too wide? Will the wind mess up this positioning? How many clips do I need to keep this in place?
Ma finally told me that we should cut my hair – taking care of shoulder-length hair would be easier. Yes, it was a fundamental part of my identity and appearance, but I could always grow it back. Ma always trimmed my hair at home, a few inches off the bottom, but this time she chopped around 2.5 ft of it. My hair felt light, bouncy and voluminous, and my heart felt optimistic. But in 10th grade, my friends and fellow students started noticing the state of my head and hair. I heard and (with a sinking heart) laughed off words and phrases that unthinking adolescents threw around everyday – bald, balding, scanty hair, bald spot, weird-hair. As if this wasn’t enough to make me feel bad and hurt by those around me, I was also constantly called hot, pretty, beautiful, and objectified by many guys in school. My body was stripped apart into individual components, to be labelled, described and judged according to the whims of those who observed it. I cried many times, every day, and continued to pray, every day. I also set my hair for hours before stepping out of the house or meeting anyone, every single day.
In the 11th grade, I decided that I wouldn’t comb out my hair anymore – I let my natural beautiful curls fall to my shoulders, and stopped tugging at them with my comb as I had done for years. Still, my hair fell, with renewed vigour. Ma finally suggested that we go to a hair doctor. The first one we went to shouted at me; she said nothing could be done, that I would keep losing hair, and that my mother had made a mistake in not bringing me earlier. I broke down on the road outside her office, after which Ma took me to another doctor. This man was kind, but said almost the same thing. He told me that I had inherited male pattern baldness from some relative (If one parent has it, you have a 75% chance of inheriting it. It can even skip a generation.) He calmly told me about teenage baldness, especially for girls, was on the rise because of our lifestyles and climate change. I was also diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which aggravates hair fall and weight gain. I was put on medication, which continued for years. Later, I used a scalp concealer to make my head seem more full of hair, to hide from the harsh comments I continued to get at school.
With such low confidence in my appearance, I know why I got into an abusive relationship with a creep in the 11th grade – and why I never left him. I couldn’t let him go and always had to forgive him – no matter how sexually and emotionally abusive he was, how drugged he was, or how much he bit me on my chest and made me bleed. I was convinced that I was unlovable because of the state of my hair. If someone thought I was physically attractive, and hadn’t commented on my hair, he was obviously an angel. Discomfort, unease and sadness were anyway daily emotions for me by now – at least, with him, I got some validation about my physical appearance.
By the end of 12th grade, no compliment I got about my physical appearance meant anything to me. I didn’t believe anyone thought I was beautiful. They were clearly lying. How could a girl not have hair? How was she still a girl?
When I went to college, I left the refuge of my home. I hid behind my cupboard doors every morning and night, setting and undressing my hairdo, terrified that someone would see me as I truly looked. The comments I got about my beautiful curly hair made me feel hollow; I could see the strenuous efforts it took to present myself as a full-haired woman to all my friends. No one saw the real me – at night, in my small cubicle crying myself to sleep, with my hair all undone for the walls to see. This double role took a toll on my health over years – I had bouts of anxiety, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts, none of which were directly related to my hair, but which clearly showed my desire to escape into alternate realities. I was diagnosed with severe depression, depersonalisation and derealisation in my second year. I was told I had lost a sense of self, detached myself from reality and was unable to express myself emotionally.
Enough was enough. I decided I had to dive deep into my worst fear, of losing all my hair and being ugly and un-womanlike, and get away from this double life. I had been bald at heart for years now, why not just look that way to others too? A week before I turned 20, I shaved my head in a fancy salon in Gurgaon. Ironically, it was the first time someone other than Ma had touched my head. With this, my definition of a hard life decision completely changed. I had to become okay with braving my deepest insecurity for the world to see, every single second of every day.
I’ve been bald for more than a year now, and have no plans of growing it back. I’ve learnt to care for myself better, shave my own head whenever insecurities act up, and be patient with myself. This (hair)style is extremely convenient for me and has really improved my mental health. It has also made me deeply think about and question my ideas of femininity, sexuality and happiness. I do not regret my decision, and no, I do not need your unsolicited advice on how to grow my hair back.
For those who want to shave their heads, for whatever reason: please do it if your heart tells you to. People talk no matter what you do, and trust me, it really is an interesting experience – to say the least.
For those who are raising children: please teach them how to love what’s inside them. Please use words that highlight their inner qualities when praising them – you look vibrant today, your spirit is strong, your smile is kind! These compliments are unifying – they help children understand that they are whole beings who are loved and can love in return, and help brave the hardships they face during adolescence.
For all those who have ever had body issues: you are the values you hold, the dreams you go after, the things you love, the empowering decisions you take. You are a spirit, not merely a body. I see your energy and vibrant existence, as I hope you see mine.
For Amma: I have learnt love, acceptance and kindness from you.
For Appa: you are my bald homie, I love you.
For Akka: thank you for always listening.
For Myself: you deserve to be comfortable, happy and loved.
Post Courtesy: Padma Venkataraman’s Facebook Timeline