Why do women have such a complicated relationship with their hair?
It says something about Beyonce’s superstar status that even so mundane a thing as getting a new – albeit drastic – haircut sparks off a worldwide debate. It began when the singer posted a picture on Instagram, premiering her new gamine crop. Gone were the flowing, teased into curls, golden tresses. In their place was a punishingly short pixie haircut that perfectly set off her sculpted cheekbones and taut jawline.
With a certain predictability, the social media universe went into meltdown, with fans debating the merits and demerits of the new hairstyle on Twitter, Facebook and the many, many fan sites dedicated to the singer. Well, everything Beyonce does creates a media storm, so why should her hairstyle choices be any different?
But the flurry of ‘Beyonce chops off hair; what does it mean?’ stories just reminded me once again just how complicated the relationship between a woman and her hair is. Nothing a woman does to her hair is ever simple. How can it be, when we are forever looking for meaning in it?
Is she tiring of her sex symbol status and wants to try out a more demure avatar? Is this a sign of her reconnecting with her masculine side? Or more mundanely, does this mean that short, gamine crops are now ‘in’ and long, flowing hair is just a little bit dated?
Well, I am guessing that for a while at least, the short crop will become the trendy choice. I am old enough to remember just what a rage the ‘Rachel’ was (with Friends fans queuing up at hair salons with photographs of Jennifer Aniston to get the same layered bob; imagine their disappointment later when Aniston confessed that she had, in fact, hated the cut). And back home in India, we still call a style that involves a short ‘fringe’ or ‘bangs’ the Sadhana cut, after the 60s actress who first popularized it.
So, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if chopping off all your hair and going really short became known as ‘doing a Beyonce’. Well, it would be way better than ‘doing a Britney’; remember Spears’ slightly crazy phase a few years back when she shaved off all hair and emerged from the salon with a completely bald pate?
But even if you exclude spectacular breakdowns like Britney’s, hair is still a good way to gauge a woman’s mood. If it looks glossy and well-cared-for, then the odds are that she is a good place. If it looks limp, dirty of unkempt, then she is probably not feeling too happy (though that bad mood may just be down to the fact that she is having a bad hair day).
And then, there is the stereotyping that all of us are guilty of at one level or another. If she wears her hair in a demure bun, she must be a behenji. That one with the purple highlights in her hair; keep her away from your sons. Short, cropped hair with not so much as a whiff of hair gel? Must be a lesbian. Long, impeccably blow-dried hair? Has to be a vain, self-obsessed, lady-who-lunches with way too much time on her hands. Oh yes, there is stereotype to go with every hairstyle.
Speaking for myself, I can chart the various phases of my life by the way my hair looked during that period. The pig-tails and braids mark the decorous schoolgirl; the long, swishy hair left open to tumble down the back are a reminder of college days and a new-found freedom; that very unfortunate perm is a reminder of my callow youth. The shorter, layered style celebrated the beginning of my professional life; the gamine crop that followed was me trying out a new persona; and the blunt bob that I sport to this day marks the moment when I truly became comfortable in my skin.
Yes, you wouldn’t think to look at it, but hair is often telling us the story of a woman’s life. The moment of teenage rebellion when she chops off the long hair her mother has spent years oiling and braiding; the drastic change in colour or style that marks the end of a long relationship; the decision to eschew hair dye and embrace the grey as a mark of the inevitable passage of years.
Ah yes, to dye or not to dye: that’s the nagging question that most of my contemporaries are dealing with right now. And the only shades of grey in this debate lie in the roots of our hair; otherwise it is all very black and white. The no-dye lobby insists that this is the way to grow old: gracefully, with dignity, and with every white root on display. The dye-hard brigade scoffs at this defeatist attitude and promises that it is not going down without a fight (and some lovely highlights for good measure). Good hair, they proclaim, is worth dyeing for.
As for me, I am not ready to go grey yet. Or abandon the safety net of my bob. Or even give up the extravagance of having my hair professionally blow-dried. Because, like most women of my acquaintance, my self-image is inextricably tied up with my hair.