In India, hair and femininity are inextricable. The trendsetting industries of film and television, firmly in the grip of conservatism, haven’t shown much interest in broadening our understanding of femininity ― on or off screen, no A-list actors sport hair that isn’t well past their shoulders, and an artfully waved lob is considered radical. Popular fashion designers like Sabyasachi, who premised their careers on challenging conventions of femininity, are now associated with deeply traditional iconography that features women in long, demure hairstyles.
Quick to co-opt this idiom, the makeup and fashion influencer communities mimic these looks with relish. The country’s biggest national pageant has been panned for selecting candidates with bizarrely identikit hair.
In ads and in movies, short-haired women are either mouthy tomboys, athletes or staunch careerists. They are almost never mothers or love interests. Short hair is for feminists and intellectuals ― a shrill, frumpy archetype devoid of softness and disinclined to pander.
The renunciation of hair is acceptable only when sanctioned by religion or custom, not when it is a political statement or an act of self-love. Class and caste readings of hair throw up depressingly predictable themes. For example, when Priyanka Gandhi, scion to the first family of India’s oldest political party, cut her hair, she became the subject of fawning press that likened her look to her grandmother’s, the first female prime minister of India.
Hair diversity is a problem, too. Big banner movies and commercials almost never feature curly haired leads. Curls do not feature in hair product ads and do not get the kind of care they need at most salons, because stylists consider kinky hair difficult. Curly brides seldom wear their natural hair and go pin-straight on their big day; mainstream bridal fashions simply don’t factor in curls. All of this underscores a cultural obsession with straight, “proper” hair. Shockingly, the country has only just begun to wake up to hair diversity.
We talked to eight Indian women about their fraught experiences with their hair.
Priyanshi Jariwala, Surat, Gujarat (Western India)
Jariwala owns a sustainable fashion line that champions a hardy hand-spun fabric with ties to India’s freedom movement. Growing up, she struggled with her curls. “I wanted to straighten them all the time only to be accepted. I remember a morning from my fourth grade when my teacher asked me if I’d combed my hair enough. She suggested I do it multiple times to get rid of the ‘shabby look.’”
Jariwala has strong feelings about her community’s grooming expectations of women, considered attractive only if they are “tall, fair, slim and have long hair, even if the man has none on his head.” She’s glad for a dear friend who was so fed up she “cut her hair short to avoid marriage proposals. Women with short hair don’t qualify for Daughter-In-Law of the Year,” she said.
Jariwala believes that women in visual professions, such as modeling, can sometimes pay for asserting their individuality. “I know fashion models who lost work because they decided to chop their hair. I think this bias is deeply rooted in the idea that long hair hides the ‘less attractive’ features, like chubby cheeks and an undefined jawline.”
When it comes to her own profession, she plays it safe. “I work in a creative field where people are more accepting of your choices and appreciate nonconventional haircuts/colors, but I find myself at a crossroads when it comes to a conference or business summit. I do not remember ever leaving my curls open in a meeting. They are either tied in a bun or styled.” Then, colored hair signals sexual adventurism and could get women into trouble. “Women with crazy hair colors are [believed] to be asking for it, just how they’re asking for it when they wear short skirts or tops with deep necklines,” she told HuffPost.
Despite comparisons to Maggi noodles, she’s found peace with her hair. “I think my hair is a representation of my wild and carefree side. People tell me that my hair makes me come across as a warm, approachable individual.”
Rachana Iyer, Mumbai, Maharashtra (Western India)
Tamil by origin, Iyer is a mental health advocate and heads corporate social responsibility for a private bank. Fair skin and long hair are prized in her community and Iyer wrestled with her wavy curls, first growing them to waist length, then chopping them off to make a political statement.
“I felt compelled to challenge the notion that I could look my best only in long hair,” Iyer told HuffPost. “I went from blunt to pixie and finally a beautiful red faux hawk! I absolutely loved the feeling of buzzing my hair and almost got quite addicted to it. Most people were shocked and upset that I would even take such a drastic step. This made me want to keep cutting my hair. I wanted people to realize how narrow their view of beauty is. People link femininity to having long hair and assume things about you based on its length. Although I do identify as bisexual, most people saw my short hair and called me names like ‘butch’ or ‘tomboy.’ They assumed that my sexuality and hair were somehow linked.”
Iyer doesn’t care. She has attended weddings in traditional saris sporting buzzed hair, a vision undoubtedly jarring to her conservative community.
“People assume you are a ‘junkie’ or a ‘punk’ when they see you with a buzz cut. I think coloring longer hair does not evoke the sort of response that coloring shorter hair does. I remember walking into a very popular bank and the lady at the counter openly mocked me to her colleagues and treated me poorly because of my hair. It got so bad that I had to escalate this to the manager. Society, especially women, can be really quick to judge you based on your hair. People also tend to slander a woman’s character, and although very subtle, I have personally experienced people thinking I am ‘very open,’ ‘forward thinking.’ They have taken the liberty to flirt even when I was clearly not interested.”
Iyer believes that workplaces aren’t hair-inclusive. “A lot of companies have a policy about the types of colors allowed on women’s hair. Advertising agencies and the entertainment industry are a bit more relaxed, but there are still clear assumptions made based on the length of your hair. Medium or long hair that is straight, not frizzy and not colored, is considered the most professional. Most Indian corporations definitely consider buzz cuts unprofessional. It is assumed that you will not take your work seriously if your hair is fun!”
Theyie Keditsu, Kohima, Nagaland (Northeastern India)
Keditsu teaches at a government college and advocates for the revival of traditional indigenous textiles and local artisanship. “Nagas (from the northeastern part of India) in general hold long, black and thick hair as the gold standard of feminine beauty. This beauty standard is both a result of racial prevalence and patriarchal notions of femininity,” she told HuffPost.
Keditsu’s hair journey straddles the personal and the political. “I started shaving parts of my hair as a teenager,” she said. “And then completely when I was 27. And then in parts from 2017 onwards. My parents disliked my latest experiments so much that they even prayed for me! For them, my mohawk was unbecoming of a mother and a responsible working woman. For some others, it clashed with their idea of Naga beauty and femininity. My husband loved it, as did most of my friends. The most recent experiments with my hair were simply a personal quest to explore what being beautiful meant to me. I’d reached a point of self-acceptance ― realizing that hair and other accoutrements of beauty were at once superfluous and vital to one’s personhood. With my mohawk, I wanted to challenge ideas of what a mother should look like, and what made a woman my age beautiful. In a very deliberate way, I chose to sport these hairstyles because they expand the idea of what it means to be feminine.”
Keditsu would like young women to “see hair as a means not an end, not as an extension of oneself or one’s sense of worth but as a tool to express one’s politics or worth.”
Niharika Chugh Vali, Nagpur, Maharashtra (Central India)
Business owner Chugh Vali runs a children’s play area that encourages experiential learning. Her parents are Punjabi and Parsi, two cultures that value conformity in appearance, so she has only just now leaned into her big, curly hair.
“I have worked before as a television news anchor and my hair was always a concern for everyone. It was gelled and tied back most times and when it was left open, it took twice as much time as anyone else to straighten it. The option of enhancing my natural hair or going curly did not exist,” she told HuffPost. “Like all curly-haired people, I’ve been advised by stylists and well-wishers to ‘do something about it,’ to get my hair smoothed or straightened or treated with keratin, as if the sight of my natural hair could hurt someone’s eyes,” she said.
Shame around hair was learned in early childhood. “The volume was unmanageable, so it was cut in a short bob. Once I did decide to grow it out, I made sure it was tied back real tight and pinned well so nobody ever had to see what it really looked like,” she said.
Today, Chugh Vali credits the Curly Girl Method and Indian actors like Kangana Ranaut and Taapsee Pannu for throwing out notions around “curly hair being an inferior hair type. It is also finally leading to a conversation about curly hair, and how its care is so different from the default straight-hair regimen we all follow blindly.” Mother to a 7-year-year old, she loves that animated children’s heroines like Merida (“Brave”) and Moana have curly hair.
Daminee Benny Basu, Los Angeles/Kolkata, West Bengal (Eastern India)
Basu is an actor and acting coach and comes from a family of theater veterans. Steeped in the politics of performance and the performance of politics, she’s clear-eyed about concepts like beauty.
“I grew up in the Bengali community. Bengali culture has so many references to feminine beauty ideals in literature, song and poetry. Like ‘Lokkhi-meye,’ good girl,” referring to Lokkhi, the goddess Lakshmi. “It’s the typical understanding of girls being pretty ― cascading hair, dark hair like clouds, skin tone like Lakshmi, well behaved,” Basu explained to HuffPost. “These have been the ultimate paradigms for Bengali girls ― big eyes, beautiful nose, golden complexion.”
She points out that hair has always been weaponized to various ends since the beginning of time. And that even though shearing your mane off feels radical and original, it really isn’t. “I’ve seen my friends rebel, do so much with their hair ― turn it into a canvas, turn it into a war zone of self expression the moment they go through a revelation or heartbreak. Aren’t these learned behaviors, things we have seen, heard, been around? ... Using hair to protest is rooted in ideas of sexualization and desexualization. It’s a power struggle. And it will happen for as long as both genders fight over equality.”
Basu has been witness to the friction hair can cause in families. “I’ve seen friends who wanted to get a particular cut or color their hair. But they couldn’t, because they were afraid of what their mother-in-law would think. They’d have to discuss it with their husbands, take their permission. I remember asking a friend if her husband would ever think twice before getting a haircut, coloring his hair or joining the gym. Recently one of my closest friends got a really short haircut. She was excited about it, but her brother got pretty upset even though he has absolutely nothing to do with her lifestyle.”
Perhaps this is what drew her to Janis Joplin, even as a child. “She was my hair icon. I loved her hair because it was big and free. I’ve never seen a Janis image where she’s done something fancy with her hair. It looks free and happy.”
Naina Redhu, Gurgaon, Haryana (Northern India)
“I don’t do salons,” said Redhu, a photographer and visual artist who likes cutting her hair herself. “The last time I went I asked for a men’s hairstylist and told them to shave my head with a trimmer. I said they’d better charge men’s prices! I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of 35-year-old women with buzz cuts in India. With mine, I was trying to say that age is just a number.”
Her first buzz cut was inspired by a male model she saw on Pinterest. “People think you’re aggressive if you have short hair ― butch, unfeminine. Which works for me, because they leave me alone,” she told HuffPost. She acknowledges that things would be harder if she lived in a smaller town. Surprisingly, she’s faced little resistance to her choices in her parents’ villages. (Known simultaneously for its gritty, incredible sportswomen and its chauvinistic khaps, an extrajudicial, community-based system of moral policing that punishes women cruelly for their transgressions, Redhu’s home state of Haryana is a living dichotomy.) “Mostly, people have just been curious,” she said. “I don’t think they’ve judged me. I think when I was in college it was a little more on the nose because they’d harass you and say things like, ‘Oh, are you trying to be a boy?’”
She’s gone bald in the past and received unwelcome attention for it. “I’ve had young girls ask me if someone had died. (Tonsuring is a common mourning practice among Hindu men and boys). People have messaged on Instagram or asked me, ‘What if it doesn’t grow back?!’ And it always came from women. I blame things like Bollywood and television and not being guided better as children,” she said.
Natasha Noel, Mumbai, Maharashtra (Western India)
Noel is a yoga teacher and body positivity activist. In her Malayali culture (Noel’s family has origins in the southern state of Kerala), long hair is considered beautiful. So when she first shortened her hair to shoulder length in high school, her father didn’t speak to her for a week. She attributes his anger to patriarchal conditioning. “I went bald eight months ago and that was pretty wild. Didn’t care about the consequences because on this journey of self-love and acceptance, I realized that I was using my hair as protection. I would untie it to take a picture because I believed I looked more ‘beautiful’ like that. And I didn’t want a crutch, so I just did it,” she told HuffPost. “Some friends said they didn’t want to look at me. I said great, thank you, next.”
She hates that shorter cuts signal that it’s open season on a woman’s sexuality. That “she looks like a boy. That her femininity is in her hair and that that’s what makes her a woman. This is bullshit. A woman is whoever she wants to be.”
Today, Noel feels liberated after consciously refusing to feed her hair anxieties. “Once I relaxed my obsession with my hair, I realized that beauty is on the inside. When I think of what I can do with my body and how I have inspired so many people and changed their lives, l realize my worth.”
Ghazal Qadri, Baltimore/Jammu & Kashmir (Northern India)
Qadri, an illustrator from Kashmir, was considered a tomboy for rejecting girly pursuits. “When the girls were busy wearing makeup, I played with trash or drew on my notepad. It was my mom who cared about my hair.”
When she was little, her mother had her hair cut in a short bob for convenience. Baby Ghazal would tie a black cloth to the back of her head and pretend it was a ponytail. Today, to her mother’s frustration, Qadri has decided she wants it short all the time. As it is, her faith endorses modesty in attire ― women are expected to cover their hair and not keep it short. She’s received unpleasantness from relatives on occasion. “When I leave my hair half-open they consider it indecent,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter much to me what others think of me or my hairstyle. I trust my parents’ wisdom and guidance on what’s proper.”
Qadri believes that beautiful hair isn’t overcoiffed, but “casual, free and natural.” She would like television to be honest about women’s hair, not just put “silky straight hair” on the screen. “Nobody’s hair shines so much in real life. When I was little I always wondered why mine wasn’t like these women’s.”