There’s something about my hair that has always felt so central, so fundamental, to who I am. It can make me feel confident and powerful on good days, frumpy and sick on bad days. It can make me go to the gym just before it needs a wash, and avoid walking outside just after a blow dry. It can make me spend hundreds of dollars on products I’ll never use, just for the sake of the dream that I might look like the woman on the front cover of the bottle for an hour or two.
I have had lengthy WhatsApp chats with my girlfriends about their hair routines. The most instagram accounts I follow are about hair. Most Saturdays I wake up and tell my partner, “Today is about my hair.” My hair has defined me since I was a little girl, when my healthy roots shone a dark brown and my wavy long, dry ends, bleached by chlorine and a distaste for head massages involving coconut oil, reached all the way down my back.
When I was 10, I had a sitter named Dominique who was a runway model. She said I had beautiful hair but that it needed a perm to look healthy again. So I permed it. When I was 12, I had a haircut with a South Asian aunty who said I had beautiful hair but that it needed to be blow dried straight to look tamed. So I blow dried it. When I was 15, I read a magazine that said I had beautiful hair but that it needed to be colored to be trendy. So I bleached it. When I was 24, I had a friend who said I had beautiful hair but that the grays were showing and they needed to be covered. So I covered them. By the time I turned 30, my hair was no longer mine.
My hair had become a separate being, a monster that required daily taming, maintenance, touch ups, planning, and care. It ran my life more than I ran it. It was no longer fun. At some point in my late teens, my hair transitioned from being my personal canvas upon which I expressed myself creatively to a burden that held me down.
I worried about what men would think, what my family and friends would think, what my judgmental alter ego would think every time I stepped out the door and my hair was not perfectly coiffed. I worried about photographs people would take and how my stray grays might reflect at the wrong angle, how everyone would know that I was getting older and what it said about me that I had grays at 30. I worried about being in the public eye on my book tour in India and the clicking tongues of Indian women reminding me I was going off-script with my hair.
Then, a year ago, in an act of defiance and rebellion against my own vanity and society at large, I just stopped. I stopped coloring. I stopped straightening. I stopped touching up. I stopped just to see what it would look like, how it would make me feel, what it would do to my self confidence and self perception. I stopped to see who would win the battle between ego and acceptance.
I did not stop caring, though. Over the past year I’ve spent more time on my hair than any year before. I’ve watched as the grays grew longer and demurred as my mom lovingly asked me if I wanted to color it on tour. I’ve smiled as my friends told me they thought it was brave and cried as I looked at old pictures of my colored straight black hair. I’ve tried to believe when my partner told me he liked it, and tried to ignore when my uncle said I looked old.
Some days I love my salt-and-pepper naturally curly hair and other days I tie it up in a bun and try not to look at myself in the mirror. The battle has not been won; perhaps it’s one that will continue on until I’m old.
There will be days in the future, I am sure, when my ego will win and I will give in to looking a certain way, a way I once looked when I was younger, less experienced, and more normal. But for all the rest of the days, I hope I can say, fuck you, hair. You’re beautiful.