I once bought a beige shrug, a snug, long-sleeved number that did all kinds of things for me that I liked, including covering me up. While I have never been actively ashamed of my body, no matter what my weight has been, I’ve had -and continue to have – body image issues that sometimes get in the way of one way of expressing myself: the way I dress. This shrug allowed me to wear whatever I wanted to work and that was all kinds of freedom. I worked in a conservative country, in an environment where I stood out for no other reason than that I wasn’t a middle aged malayalee man or a local.
Once I bought it, I wore that shrug everywhere. Everywhere. One night, on an evening assignment at a hotel, I took the shrug off (in a minute I was transformed from safe office dressing to a slightly more glamorous version. Oh I loved that shrug). And that was the end of it. In my usual absentmindedness I left the shrug at the hotel and went back home, and I never found it again. The 10 days I spent after that almost felt like grieving. And not just because it was relatively new. You see, as a person with breasts, I get stared at. As do most owners of breasts. And as with most of them, I too had developed indifference, and gotten on with life. Till this shrug arrived. The shrug gave me a new sense of freedom, and in epiphanic moment I understood what many hijabi Muslim friends had told me: that their hijab gave them a greater sense of freedom than when they didn’t wear the hijab. While that freedom has largely to do with the world outside and how it viewed women, it made a huge difference to their own sense of confidence.
For a week or so after my lost shrug, I was acutely aware of my body, my movement was awkward, I didn’t want to inhabit the space I was taking up. I used my hands less freely, I walked a little more folded into myself. I realise it sounds strange, even superficial maybe, to equate the religious hijab with a mere covering but there it is. The shrug offered me protection and I suddenly understood the hijab.
At the end of last year, which is about three weeks ago, I lost a figurative shrug again. This time on purpose. I tonsured my head in the last week of December and it was just like losing the shrug. At first. Back in June, to mark my daughter’s fifth birthday, I wanted to donate her very long hair. I talked to her about it and told her we’d shave our heads together, if she was uncomfortable doing it alone. But the vain little miss she is, she refused outright and I was left with a vow to myself that we’d donate hair. There began an everyday nag. Every week, if I were to put an average to it, I’d think I need to do it now. I need to go cut my hair and shave it all off. But cold feet were fast coming, and vanity still sat strong on my shoulders. Ever since I grew my hair out as a teenager, I’d been told it was my best feature. I started believing it myself, and maintained at least waist-length hair at all times, if not longer. But since June, the thought refused to go away. Every day, it would enter my consciousness and be driven out by fear and vanity. How would I wear a sari with a bald head? I didn’t have the bone structure to carry off a bald head. How awful would my chubby face look without hair framing it and taking away the width of my jaw a little? All questions of vanity, of course. Luckily enough, I have an accepting family. Or perhaps a resigned one, considering the things I put them through. So it never occurred to me to find out from them if they’d have a problem with it. It was my hair, after all.
The last Sunday of December I woke up and magically knew that day was the day. I decided I would go for it, and waited all morning to turn chicken and put it away for another time. But this time no doubts, no cold feet, no voice telling me I’d regret it in a week, as I have done the few times I’ve cut my hair short. Out of habit, I’d gather all the hair to make a bun at night and there would be not enough length to twist it. I’d feel a sense of regret, a faint flurry of loss, put my hair in a ponytail and go to sleep. But today, the path to the salon seemed bright and clear, my resolve shone like my shampooed hair.
The first snip after the sectioning felt like finding out unexpectedly that you’re pregnant; there was no turning back from here. The hair is partitioned into four or six sections, depending on thickness and length, and then bound in bands. The scissors then go deliciously through a lock of hair where you want it cut. In my case, an inch from my scalp. I saw the first bunch in the stylist’s hand, in the mirror, and loudly said “ouch”. I couldn’t take my eyes off that bunch he was holding, freshly shampooed, dried, (required before donating) and 18 inches long. The other five sections were a blur and once they came away, I was left with an inch or so of hair on my head and my very worried stylist said, “Ma’am, funky banadega. Shave mat karo.” But I’m not a funky woman, and I don’t know how to carry off funky hair. Besides, any change in action apart from the one I had decided on would result in my crying bitterly into a jar of Nutella two days later, so I told him to stick to the plan. The rest of the work, a very close buzz leaving almost nothing on my head, was a quick process.
I walked out of there with my hair neatly wrapped and put away in a plastic bag and wondering what the hell I’d just done. I had those big shades on and I remember wondering if I looked like The Fly from the movie of the same name. The repeated stares from people on the street was no help. But I’d asked for this, so I chinned up and went about like I was an everyday bald woman. I went home. I waited for it to hit. Two, three, four days and I still wasn’t missing my hair. Waking up to a bald head in the mirror was strange as hell, sure, but did I miss my hair? No. Three weeks later, I still don’t. What has happened inside me, however, is huge.
One of the reasons I have body image issues is my arms. Ever so conscious of all those slim, chiselled, perfect arms I see around me, I’ve always semi-hidden my upper arms in the length of my hair, when I wear clothes that don’t cover them. They’re heavy, and they carry stretch marks, as a kind male colleague once pointed out so helpfully. On warm days, my hair was the perfect cover-up. On the days my skin looked tragic, and no matter what I did to my face, I still looked like I’d been sitting in a room breathing in cigarette smoke as a beauty treatment, all I had to do was wash my hair. Instant glam. Love bites? No problem. Undo that bun and let your hair curtain that treacherous neck. Women know these tricks. In bed, a toss of long hair that splays across your back, or a cascade of gentle waves down your shoulders, sexy. After a blow dry, the luxury of the silk that you keep running your hands through, the satin that slips onto your shoulder. The twist that you give it when you want to reflect a certain mood or style of dress. Hair makes all this possible and I’m probably limiting its uses by quoting from personal experience.
As my days played out, I found more and more ways that my hair added to my (now i realise) massive vanity. I wasn’t sad it wasn’t there anymore and I didn’t miss it but I was aware of all the things it did to me, for me. Through this process of realising what I had only read about, ie. what hair means to women, vanity and beauty, there was another transformative experience occurring subconsciously. One that I realised as I laughed a little more freely, as I chose my clothes less carefully, as I found a greater liking for myself. Somehow, and I cannot explain clearly, though I will try, I was becoming more me.
I remember discussing cutting my hair before shaving it all off and saying, “I enjoy having long hair and it is very me.” I honestly believed that, that the … romanticism, if you will… of long hair was me. I don’t think I’m traditional but the idea of beauty and grace I associated with a woman always included long hair and by choosing to keep it long, I was trying to emulate that image of grace and physical beauty. But having taken it all off, the hair that is, I felt as if I’d shorn off layers of myself. Last year was tough, and it affected my confidence and my self esteem to such great lengths that I found it difficult to like myself. With this act of mine, I found a person from three years ago emerging: the person who didn’t hide, a person who spoke without worrying too much if she’d be disliked for it, a person unafraid to make mistakes. I liked this person because I felt she was closer to my knowledge of myself than the person I’d been living with for the past three years.
I had nothing to hide behind anymore. My blemishes, literal and figurative, were there for everyone to see. No hair to hide my bad skin days, no hair to cover chunky arms and stretch marks, no hair to look elegant in a sari. No hair. The past three weeks have been a revelation to me. I’ve seen how much I’ve hidden for the fear of being less than perfect. I’ve also seen what I’ve hidden. And it didn’t deserve to be. Even as I write this, I sense I haven’t been able to do justice to the transformative experience this has been. I realise I haven’t been able to describe the slow emergence, sunrise-like, of the person that I like more. This change, this slow, steady washing away and emerging of clean, bright river stones, has been as much about my body as it has been about my mind, soul even. I cannot tell you how liberating it is to say I am not afraid, again. I wish I could do better than this because I want to take you with me on this incredible trickling that I’m caught in, this gentle current of cleansing and revealing. I want you to feel, selfishly, this joy and clarity and freedom. It isn’t fireworks. It isn’t loud and ecstatic.
It’s something else. It is the golden light of an oncoming dusk in the monsoon, where the afternoon sun gives way to a gold that is molten and diluted, losing it’s brilliance but still gold. It is a gentle light, a gentle transformation that I hope is permanent.
That said, man, the thing that annoys me the most now is being asked if I went to Tirupati.