Source: Pexels by Karolina Grabowska

Trigger Warning: transphobic slur, censored, references to anti-semitism.

Introduction: Hair as Parenthesis

I’m watching a hair tips YouTube video of a pale, blonde, white girl taking me through her resources, research, and hair oils. I zoom in and click the slower speed as she lathers her scalp in rosemary oil, coconut oil, and amla.

I’m reminded of my Indian family members who were bullied as children for having greasy hair, even though hair oil helps our scalp and makes our hair shiny, without damaging chemicals. I can only imagine how, in a few months time, the once cheap, all-natural hair oils may find themselves being simultaneously toxified by additional ingredients and driven up in price.

“This is my natural routine,” she beams. “I learned from books: TikTok recommended it to me.”

I’m really happy that people have found time after the first lockdown to take care of their health and then share those tips online.

However, I do take issue with seeing these same people share ‘secrets’ which are ubiquitous in South Asian cultures call themselves ‘trendsetters’ and pat themselves on the back.

It feels a little like they should read the room.

I’m not trying to gatekeep castor oil. I do think it prompted me to think about my own shame, my own relationship with hair, and how this guilt can be projected onto others. It’s true that the same people I see online aren’t the same people who bullied me for having ‘too much’ body hair.

It does, however, feel the same sometimes, and it hurts.

That being said, I do wish those who idolise Wednesday Adams would stop throwing paper balls at the emo girl in their class or calling the acne-prone boy next to her an ‘incel’.

I also wish people could grasp nuance more so that they don’t mock things they do not understand, only to imitate it later once it is made palatable. First, they hate, then they imitate, I say as a joke to my friends.

I personally think that hair should come after everything else: it keeps us warm, looks nice, and is soft and textured. It should be parenthetical – an afterthought – and something observed in passing.

This article recounts my journey with selfhood, hair, and beauty.

Part One: Growing up Indian

I’m half-Indian. I have pale skin and freckles. My hair is coarse and black; my natural hair colour is so dark it’s almost blue. When I moved schools abruptly in 2007 (ish), I was the new kid in a really small, predominately white town, and my birth name was one typically used for men. I had quite a bit of peach fuzz because I was a child.

To my knowledge, I was the only non-white girl in my class. I remember sitting at a table in my primary school, reading a big book about Egypt (I loved to read and still do). Although many of the other children read before class, most of them tended to chat amongst themselves. However, on this occasion, one of the other children came up to me and said:

“Are you a man?”

This innocently posed question made me feel sick. I am assigned female at birth, why would they call me that? This was pre-Caitlyn Jenner, who, for all her faults, brought a big conversation about transphobia to the mainstream. Pre-Pose. Pre-Munroe Bergdorf.

“Are you a tr**ny?”

This is when innocent curiosity boiled into hatred. A quiet shrill laugh. I felt sick, honed in on, and targeted.

The questions kept coming, but I stopped listening. What were originally posed as sincere soon became invasive questions about whether I’d had gender assignment surgery (I had no idea what this was) and who I was really, all because of my name and my body hair.

Everything about me that made me Indian, made me become ‘Othered’.

I remember crying to my mum about wanting to look like the other girls, with unique noses and acceptable body hair, or like my cousin with curly blonde hair. There were other instances too, like being singled out for having leg hair at eleven, but another poignant memory was joining my secondary school, and immediately – once again – being honed in on.

My difference was my hair. It had become an object of scorn.

The kids didn’t know better – I’ll give them that. It was 2009, and before Cara Delevigne, when pencil-thin women and pencil-thin eyebrows were in vogue. A popular girl pulled me aside after lessons ended for the day and suggested I try waxing.

I wish I’d told her exactly what was on my mind that day.

For years afterward, my mum epilated the hair on my upper lip and I would cry, loudly at first, then it would descend into silent, resigned pain.

Beauty is pain, right?

They also thought it was funny to call me Hitler, to Seig Heil in corridors whilst the teachers ignored them doing it. Every boy in my year either ignored it or took part.

People ask why I wasn’t boy-crazy as a teenager. It was because I was scorned by them during the first three years of school.

“It wasn’t that bad”‘- my friends at the time would say later. They don’t know – can’t know – how entangled my ideas of body, girlhood, hair, and shame would become. I decided from then on that I would prioritise my education, loathe popularity, dislike people who were ‘followers’, and I would also become an independent person.

Part Two: My Sinead O’Connor Moment

From the ages of about 11 to 18, I think I changed my hairstyle twice. I always had a full fringe or side parting cut to just below the shoulders and dyed slightly redder than my natural colour.

In January 2018, I was recovering from an abusive relationship and decided on something extreme. I made the decision to donate my hair (then just past my waist) to charity. All of it.

I was sick of being defined by my hair!

My closest friends at uni were openly queer and/or trans, and they had shown me what life could be like if I stopped caring.

I went to the hairdresser and they shaved it off for me.

I got told I looked like Sinead O’Connor, Sid from Toy Story, or Sophia Loren… I’ll take it. It took me so long to get used to it that once it started growing back, I realised that I’d hardly even looked in the mirror for about five months.

I’d step out of the shower, moisturise, dry myself off, and BAM: my hair was dry and ready to go.

I used hair gel, spiked it up, experimented with bandanas, grew it to a bob, and had a mullet. I never thought I’d have a pixie cut, let alone around five hairstyles in a year.

The removal of my hair was like a celebration of it.

Shortly after this, my close friend shaved her head too – and grew out her mustache. This was a mutual rejection of beauty standards that we had been told to adhere to for all of our lives. I may have long hair now, but I’ve never forgotten this period of my life.

Part Three: Hang on a minute

My hair grew back to its original colour and texture during the first lockdown in 2020. Ironically enough though, whilst I had short hair I was very content with my gender and presentation.

However, with only the mirror to look at and my rapidly changing weight, I became uncomfortable for the first time. I hated the social pressures of what to wear, how to dress, and what to be interested in. Then one of my closest friends (who is transmasc) confided in me about their desire to revert back to feminine presenting because of how their beauty was perceived back then, and the positive reinforcement they were given both online and by close friends.

I told them this:

“Anyone who prefers your previous gender presentation loved a lie. I believe beauty lies in where you feel most comfortable and safe. Even though both women and men are viewed in terms of convention, such convention relies on being skinny, able-bodied, white, and straight. If you move away from these categories, you will either be invisible to most people or detested (as I was). What needs to change is how you see yourself, and what you place value in”.

I had the exact opposite experience to that of my friend.

People were much more enthusiastic about my appearance when I had short hair. When I was single and on dating apps, I got lots of messages asking if I still had a buzzcut. A prompt block was my response.

At the end of the day, if you change your appearance or gender presentation to suit the needs of others, you will never be happy.

I’ve found a presentation that suits me, which is far removed from what people expect. However, it is more normative than my short hair, but it suits me just fine. I’m also much less afraid to show my legs if they haven’t been shaved, or my armpits. Peach fuzz doesn’t bother me now! Because I know that the kind of people who would judge me are completely irrelevant to my life now.

If you are shallow enough to judge someone else for their appearance, the things they cannot help, change, or are out of their control: maybe you are the problem.

To finish off

I started this article by talking about others and how I felt triggered or irritated when the same types of people who mocked my family, or were rude about my body hair, start taking care of theirs. But who knows? Those are different people. Maybe they would have stuck up for me at school or asked me for beauty tips, instead of giving them out. I’ve learned that people are more than just a composite of their appearance. Those who act like you are somehow behind may get left behind themselves eventually.

In my opinion, you will always be ‘behind’, if you are a follower.

Published by kayleighjayshree

My writing specialisms are: body image, literature, history, film, pop culture, contemporary media, and beauty/cosmetics.


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