'Strong, thick and shiny’: a story of hair and beauty ideals

With hair salons closed in many countries under lockdown, reports say there is a boom in "bootleg home-visit haircuts". We revisit this lovely post from Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra in 2018, exploring the significance of hair.

Will you please put a comb through your hair? You look like a madwoman’. This admonition from my mother, which echoed through my teen age years with troubling regularity, was delivered in a tone filled with exasperation and incredulity. That an otherwise seemingly reasonable young girl would want to pass as insane, was beyond her understanding.  

But I get ahead of myself.

When my respectable, middle-class Bengali parents left India for Europe in the early 70’s, they packed a few essentials otherwise not found across the seven seas. These included some mundane items, such as a terrifying screaming pressure cooker and carefully folded silk saris guarded by moth-balls. But more importantly, they brought with them the norms, standards and traditions from the motherland, deemed particularly scarce and inadequate in the West.

Strange rites

As a child, it struck me that in our house, the norms around hair (among many others) were different and quirky. I grew up in a small town with very few non-native inhabitants, where no one else looked like me, spoke my mother-tongue or ate with their fingers. However, during our summer vacations in Kolkata, all these rituals felt more familiar. Here, it was apparent that the practices around hair were not a set of standards that my mother had dreamt up, but part of a well-established, inherited choreography intended for all girls my age, and to a certain extent, most women around me. When clocks slowed down in the summer heat, hair rituals punctuated our days with reassuring regularity. A first, pre-bath session involved copious amounts of Dabur Amla Oil , generously rubbed across the scalp. We were then allowed a few hours of ‘letting our hair down’, allowing it to dry while we went about our midday activities and post-lunch nap.

Come to think of it, all my memories of India are laced with a waft of Dabur. A company set up in the 1880s, Dabur’s hair, cosmetic and dietary products soon became household names. Advertised by glamorous actresses and models, Dabur embodied the ideal for Indian hair: long, thick, silky and dark. For the right kind of hair was not just about beauty, it represented beautiful, feminine and virtuous women.  My friends back in Europe ingested daily doses of shampoo advertisements, promising volume and brightness. That’s the ideal they aspired to. The Indian target was taming, in view of a greater good. We were expected to work through hundreds of self-inflicted ‘bad hair days’ in order to achieve divine hair. The lady on the Dabur bottle, with her improbable silkiness, smiled at us from the corner of the bathroom shelf, as if to say: ‘you might be walking around with oily scalp now, staining pillows with grease that no amount of earthly shampoo can remove, but here is the heavenly ebony shine that I promise you in the future’. Many of us never quite escaped those rigorous childhood traditions. To this day, my mother-in-law attributes all headaches and other minor ailments to failing to put oil in her hair.

Dabur knew its audience well; as our mothers sought to discipline us with the magic of Amla, the product came to symbolize the mother-daughter bond and a secret to be passed from one generation to the next. Afternoon naps were followed by a hair combing and tying session, delivered with love and vigour by our mother or another female relative, and signalling the beginning of playtime.  The rhythm of the comb, its harshness or gentleness spoke to us in a secret language: terms of endearment and admonition that we learnt to recognise at an early age, and that would otherwise have scarcely been uttered in a respectable family. We could decipher our mothers’ moods from the bite of the brush and we knew instinctively how much indulgence and discipline to expect that day.  The younger ones were spared these sessions: very young girls often sported short hair, marking a gender fluidity celebrated in younger children, but that was closed off to those nearing puberty. Days of particularly active play were closed with another hair tying session around bedtime, so that no errant locks slipped into our dreams.

Celebrated filmmaker Satyajit Ray captured these snippets of Bengali culture with particular flair. In a touching scene in one of his best-known films, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road), the family, who have meagre means, gather around a flickering oil lamp to attend to their evening tasks. The mother combs her daughter Durga’s hair, in a rare moment of tenderness and intimacy in their otherwise difficult life: ‘Your hair has no relationship with oil, does it?’ the mother complains. This moment also signals Durga’s coming of age: she discreetly informs her mother that arrangements are being made to find a suitable groom for a neighbour’s daughter. The statement lingers in the air, with a tacit acknowledgement between mother and daughter that such a bitter-sweet inevitability also looms in their near future, only to be interrupted by a funny question by Durga’s younger brother, who fails to grasp the implication of his sister’s remark. The scene is particularly poignant to viewers who know, having read Bibhutibhusan Bandhopadhay’s original story, that Durga will catch a deadly cold in the monsoon rains and will not survive to reach adulthood.

Rites of passage

At some point, usually in infancy or early childhood, many South Asian children also have their head completely shaved, a penance-like, liminal phase, which brings the promise of even darker, denser, silkier, and stronger hair. A few months before my eighth birthday, my mother, nudged and harassed by helpful friends, finally took my father’s electric shaver to my head. Disastrously, I also fell from the swings that spring, breaking my left clavicle. And so, to the mirth of my classmates and brother, I went around looking like a little alien monk, with a funny brace on my collar tightly pulling my shoulders back, and a shaven head. My mother looked at me with tender pity, but I mostly took this as my punishment for not reaching the hair ideals she had given me ample time to achieve, and of course, for my unforgivably boyish antics on the swings. I must say I had it easy. For about 10 years, my cousin had her head shaven every single year. Every summer when we visited, she would come to our door as if begging for alms, and we were both grown women before I discovered, on a visit from University, that her head was capable of growing long hair.

In Perfect Me, Heather Widdows writes that beauty ideals are far more than just about beauty, that they represent a moral ideal. This resonates with me, particularly when it comes to my history with hair. Because of course, as soon as I hit puberty, my hair rebelled. It was, I hasten to add, the only part of me that dared to rebel at the time. Overnight, my head went from Dabur poster-child into a mass of unruly, thick frizz that no amount of hair oil could possibly contain, and that defied all sense of decorum. Despite all the family and community virtues that had been thickly deposited on my scalp and carefully bound in plaits, something in me seemed to have veered from the path of righteousness. I can only imagine how my parents felt at this wholly unexpected brazen manifestation of defiance. 

Needless to say, my mother came down with a vengeance on what seemed to be a personal affront to everything she had accomplished as a parent. Untamed hair was not only a failure of beauty; it was a failure of virtue. Her worries were carefully stoked by comments from friends: ‘I combed my daughter’s hair every day, until she left for University,’ she was told. ‘Her mother-in-law couldn’t stop gushing over her hair at the wedding’.  In Dislocating Cultures, Uma Narayan writes about the contradictory message middle-class Indian mothers often impart to their daughters: Encouraging us to succeed in our studies, and in all the areas that had been traditionally closed off to their generation, they would like to see us become successful and independent, while nervously watching out for any signs that would signal our inability to become submissive and compliant wives and daughters-in-law. This comment from my mother’s friend came to embody many of the expectations I felt growing up. That we were to aim for and achieve everything our parents fought hard to secure, only to be strongly bounded by the limits set by traditional expectations. My rebellious hair seemed to signal all the ways I might otherwise go astray, should I fail even to contain the most ‘malleable’ part of my body.

In a TED blog post, Sharmistha Ray describes how in India, choosing a certainly kind of hairstyle is seen as a social revolt, and that society will act in subtle and overt ways to get you to conform to feminine beauty standards. As a second-generation immigrant, I felt equally bound by certain expectations. Transgressing hair norms (like transgressing dressing etiquette) were often seen as a mark of other impending far more deleterious, social and moral transgressions. As Ray writes, we didn’t always need to be forced, or told. Sly remarks from ‘well-meaning’ peers and elders (and even strangers) did the trick. Nor were their exhortations confined to the head. As in many other families, I was also taught not to care about body hair, of which I had more than I cared for, and in all the wrong places. Waxing or shaving suggested an awareness of the body and one’s sexuality that was unbecoming of a young girl whose head should be filled with books, not boys. It took me all of 18 years and impeccable final exam scores to hide in my bathroom and thread my upper lip. My mum’s eyes grew wide at my bold, bald lips, but she knew that such a desperately defiant act on my part would be immune to her reaction, and so she kept mum. At dinner, my father, previously nudged and primed, looked up from his plate nonchalantly and with feigned surprise, asked what-on-earth had happened to my upper lip. I explained. He then returned to his meal and, in a calm but annihilating tone, said inexplicably: ‘you look like a man’.  

Beauty and violence

Not all transgressions are met with solely verbal admonitions, however. Satyajit Ray had a keen eye on the tough-love underlying the Bengali mother-daughter relationship. In another Ray classic, Samapti , The Conclusion, (based on a trilogy by Rabindranath Tagore) hair comes to play a particularly symbolic role in the coming of age of the protagonist, Mrinmoyee (Meenu). Meenu, known as the mad girl of the village, loves to roam free, to climb trees and to care for her pet squirrel. Her freedom is curtailed as she catches the eye of newly returned, city-educated Amulya, whose widowed mother is intent on bringing home a suitable daughter-in-law. Meenu’s mother, who cannot believe her fortune, sits Meenu down: ‘Look at your hair' she says, 'it hasn’t seen a drop of oil, nor a comb. What will your in-laws say? ’ With this, she exhorts her daughter to remain housebound, in the weeks leading up to the wedding.  What better way to tame a free-spirit than to marry her off to the most respectable bachelor in the village? In an ultimate fit of rebellious rage, and as if to ward off the impending marriage that will put an end to her freedom and to everything she is and loves, Meenu cuts off her long locks. She cannot of course ward off the rage of her mother, who beats her relentlessly with a broom. Screams are drowned by ululation as the frame cuts to Meenu and Amulya’s wedding. Meenu will eventually fall in love with Amulya, who tenderly guides her to the maturity and self-censorship essential to being a virtuous wife and daughter-in-law.  

The norms and standards of beautiful hair are so closely linked with femininity and patriarchy that it is difficult to imagine a context in which they are not also linked with violence, even in its more subtle and structural forms. Growing up, our worlds were filled with hair-related imagery that spoke to standards of proper conduct, praise and punishment: the flirtatious flick of the courtesan’s braid and veil (not to be emulated); the flowy hair of the virgin heroine (to be held on to); the covered hair of the dutiful bride (to aspire to); and the short, rough hair of the widow, who, having been so careless and callous as to lose her own husband, should be shut off from all things good in life: colour, hair, beauty and sexuality (to be avoided at all costs). Both Meenu and Durga, in Ray’s films, are hurled by their hair to be beaten by their mothers. My parents found  corporal punishment incredibly distasteful, and so the common Bengali threat: ‘Chul er muthi dhore…’ (I will grab you by the hair and…) , sometimes uttered, thankfully never came to pass. But such violence is not uncommon in other intimate settings. In a viral video made by a domestic violence helpline last year, a young woman requests that her hair be cut so short that it ‘can’t be grabbed anymore’. 

In Hindu traditions and stories, female hair depicts beauty, vulnerability, madness and vengeance. Hindu deities are depicted with long, dark locks, even in their more fearsome avatars. In the Mahabharata, one of the great Indian epics, a woman’s hair plays a particularly crucial role. In this tale of warring cousins, princess Draupadi is married to five brothers, the Pandavas, considered the righteous brothers in the story. The eldest of the Pandavas, who has a weakness for gambling, loses his kingdom, wealth, his brothers and eventually their wife, to a game of dice. In a supreme act of violent dishonour by the evil cousins, Draupadi is hurled into the game hall by her hair and disrobed, despite her supplications. An act meant to shame the men, of course, the woman being merely instrumental. All the men present in court remain bound by stronger demands of duty and propriety, and so no one comes to Draupadi’s rescue until, so the story goes, God himself appears. Cursing the entire family and their lineage for her shame, Draupadi vows to never comb or tie her hair again, until she has washed it in the blood of her attacker. This marks the beginning of the end of the epic, which will culminate in a war between the cousins that will destroy both kingdoms and families. 

Small acts of rebellion

My parents once told me they had wanted to name me Draupadi, after the heroine of the greatest Indian epic, but had ultimately felt that Draupadi’s life was filled with too many misfortunes, and they couldn’t possibly tempt fate by choosing such an inauspicious name. Just as well, given that my acts of rebellion were far more mundane than Draupadi’s and I couldn’t possibly have lived up to her name. 

Just before my own daughter was born, I cut my hair short. ‘It will never grow back’, lamented my mother. By this she meant that the Universe would find a way to reverse the laws of nature in order to punish me. My father sighed at this additional sign of feminism gone-too-far. 

My hair had its own ambition and personality however, and had started greying well before my 25th birthday, almost a decade before my daughter was born.  Indian friends emitted pitying sighs: ‘Aren’t you going to dye it?’ By which they meant: ‘Why would you insist on looking old and ugly?’ Pity makes me even more uncomfortable than discipline. I won’t dye my hair black of course, that would just be giving in. Nearing 40,  I have dyed it  purple though. And I can’t wait for my mum to see. 

Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra is Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh Law School, and Director of the JK Mason Institute for Medicine, Life Sciences and the Law. She is also a member of the Wellcome Trust-funded Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society at the University of Edinburgh. Dr. Ganguli-Mitra’s background is in bioethics, with a special interest in global bioethics, structural and gender justice. 


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