- Annya Pabial
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
I think the compliment I’ve received most in my life is “Your hair looks gorgeous!” which is really ironic given how much grief my hair gives me. Since the pandemic started, all of us have been more stressed out than usual, maybe the most anxious you’ve felt ever, and one effect of this stress I’ve seen manifest physically in me was through hair loss. I’ve always had long hair, I’ve never cut it shorter than to my shoulders and I honestly don’t mind the upkeep that comes with maintaining good looking long hair, especially unruly Indian hair, but I know that I haven’t done nearly enough to keep it as healthy as it could have been. Oiling it feels like a pain to do, it was easier to straighten it everyday in secondary school rather than learn other hairstyles and I probably wash it too much but all the ways I preserve and renew my appearance are done using the quickest and most convenient methods possible. Why? One, I’m too tired for long skin and hair care routines most days; two, I don’t have the money! However, these excuses don’t matter to the centuries of traditions and perceptions surrounding South Asian hair that come before me. For SAs, hair is a defining symbol of beauty, strength and virtue, definitely in the Indian community, so it felt completely demoralising when I realised mine was falling out.
In a frenzy, I started researching vitamins for hair growth and thickness, hastily buying whichever looked the best and taking them in the hopes that my lost hair would magically grow back. I went to my doctor and asked if there was anything they could do to help … there wasn’t but I did find out I’m anaemic. I was in a state of calamity over my hair for around a year and a half and knew that by languishing over it, I was creating even more psychological burden for myself which would only increase my hair loss. Being stuck in a wicked cycle that is only partially influenced by your own insecurities and knowing you’re stuck in it just feels so hopeless. I was lucky I had the pandemic to blame for my constant feeling upset over something that felt so ridiculous and miniscule when I compared it to some of the horrors people were suffering through everyday in 2020 but it still didn't alleviate everything I felt. What’s worse is that to everyone else, my hair looked the same. There wasn’t any noticeable visible change in its thickness or volume, but I felt how much lighter it had gotten. I knew.
Last year, I realised a lot of my heartache over my hair loss was because of the expectations, or more accurately, previous depictions of South Asian hair has had. And I know how dramatic that sounds but it really took a toll on me in a way I didn’t expect anything could. I thought I was above comparing myself to other people, that I could just be happy with who I am and the way I looked - I mean, there was a point in my life where I couldn’t go on Instagram without being envious of every single person who appeared on my feed and I taught myself to dismantle those kinds of thoughts but this hair thing was completely different. When the little representation of your people are defined by specific positive features and you lack those features, I suppose it makes you feel like you're not the “right” type of that person. Which, again, is ludicrous I know, but I really felt like I was being defined by my hair as a person because all Indians have to have good hair, right?
Being a diasporic subject, you don’t feel ethnic enough as it is, if such a thing exists, so I can see where I was coming from in my turmoil over losing hair. It felt like my Indian-ness was falling out with each clump that I watched swirl down the shower drain but I really couldn’t see how all this was a detriment to all the progress I had made in being comfortable with my identity as a whole. I thought I had to look a certain way to be considered good or brown enough. If I didn’t have thick, flowing hair like all the Bollywood actresses I had watched growing up then what was the point? If I didn’t match their silk and shine then am I considered less? Right now, I think I was having those thoughts because Indian actresses are often presented in a way where their femininity is elevated to the absolute extreme and I thought I had to equal that. I’ve searched for good Indian role models and icons in the media all my life but maybe those Bollywood films left too much of an impression on me, one that is superficial and actually opposes the kind of person I’m trying to be. Again, it such an odd things to me looking back because I’ve never felt compelled to act on my femininity or be more feminine in response to figures in the media, I’ve expressed it however I felt it to be most comfortable for me but for some reason, that I wasn’t aware of until I had this crisis, my hair didn’t escape that idea.
My overall point of writing this is that I felt so constrained by expectations of my appearance and its reflection of my ethnicity that it inhumed itself into my subconscious and stayed there for years until that very notion was threatened by something out of my control. That is an incredibly harmful thought to carry around with you and I’m glad I was forced to confront it and cast off something that now feels so shallow. I wouldn’t have had this vivification had the thing I subconsciously dreaded not happened and for that I’m glad.
I don’t know how many other people feel this way about their hair, regardless of what gender you are, but I’ve personally chosen to at the very least try not let myself look or act a particular way in the name of “being Indian”. I’m not going to burden myself with these cultural expectations I think I always need to consider. There really isn’t any one way to have your hair or any part of you, even if you feel overwhelmed by the history that precedes you. It's one thing to acknowledge and contemplate that history but another thing to let yourself be defined by it, and sometimes shedding some of the rituals that feel ingrained in you is the best thing to do.