"It’s super sexy,” Roger said, as he unsnapped the black nylon smock from the back of my neck and pulled it away from me, clumps of black fuzz falling from my lap to the floor. “You carry it.”
Just minutes earlier, his clippers glided slowly over the curve of my head, the electronic hum deepening as they entered the brush.
“You hear that?” he said. “That’s because of how dense your hair is.”
I gave myself one last look in his mirror before stepping out of his chair. My eyes were wide and worried; I was unsure of what I had done and why. Despite only having cut about an inch of hair from the top of my head, maybe less, and tightening already buzzed sides, Roger had left me with a look that was jarring. Perhaps, as much as one can, I did carry it, but I was still a woman with a shaved head. In that singular glance, I saw myself momentarily as I knew others would, and I felt a flash of deep discomfort.
When I was a little girl, I had coarse wavy hair that fell in thick separated sections down my back and past my waist. Girls touched it with sticky fingers; boys said “ew” when it grazed them during chorus concerts on the bleachers. I have no recollection of when I started to challenge the mandatory long-hair requirement imposed by my parents as a child, but I do remember distinctly the trouble I got in for trimming my ends liberally with the scissors from my dad’s office, making crooked DIY bangs while sitting on the bathroom counter.
There was no justification, cultural or otherwise, given for the rule—which was technically an unspoken one. That we were not to do things to our own bodies was a notion my sister and I swallowed daily like a Flintstone vitamin. My Indian mother, with her own buttlength black hair tied in a low ponytail no matter the occasion, simply asserted: “Long hair is pretty.” With that, her statement was made fact, and the supremacy and righteousness of a certain brand of desirability was ingrained in us.
But as with the vitamins, which I spit out behind my bed, I had my own ideas.
I was in India when I did my first big chop, a cut dramatic enough that I feared the prominence of my nose and the stark visibility of my bodily flaws. I was twenty-eight, 8,000 miles from home, and alone. In an apartment in Mumbai that belonged to a family I didn’t know, I checked out the shape—longer on top, softly textured on the back and sides, emphasizing the bend of my skull into my slender neck. While a part of me wondered, Who is this person? for the first time in my life, I saw myself. I had been warned I would feel naked and exposed. And I did: I had removed a cloak, a uniform that I had worn my whole life but never actually chosen.
It was exquisite.
And so I experimented, moving from that feminine pixie with a side-swept bang to more polished sleek styles that revealed my whole, bare face; then even shorter, edgier crops with details like razored ends and undercuts with meticulous fades. I know well all the things people say to and about women with short hair.
“You could be hot if you grew your hair.”
“Wow, that takes guts.”
“Did you just go through a breakup?”
“Are you a man or lady?”
“Are you okay?”
So even though I got what Roger meant when he told me my new buzzcut was sexy—badass, bold, distinctive— I also heard the other connotations: crazy, weird, ugly, angry feminist, confused, sick. It continues to surprise me how, even in New York, reactions to a woman’s hair can vary from guesses at her sexuality to projections of mental illness. An Internet search of short hairstyles produces results from fashion and beauty sites as well as commentary in mainstream news outlets on how women who cut their hair off have given up sex. Seriously.
I’ve learned in the nearly five years since my first above-the-chin cut that women’s hair is never just hair; nor is it just the twisted and layered implications of rigid beauty ideals. It’s so much bigger than that—as black women who wear braided, afro’ed, loc’d, and other natural styles know well. It’s femininity. It’s womanhood. It’s virtue. It’s respectability. Certainly, to reject these things may reflect a sort of courage; but I doubt most women think of going short as a symbol of their bravery, independent of all else. I didn’t. I just copied the celebrities. Michelle Williams rocked her darling ’do so I wanted to as well. But somehow, the idea that I might actually like how I look is over the heads of those who have words for me. My short hair has to mean something.
“Why do you wear your hair like that? Are you ever going to grow it back?” an old classmate asked, without hesitation, at my ten-year Duke reunion a few weeks ago.
“Why do you look how you look?” I said.
He didn’t understand the question.
Maybe, though, I did have an intention, albeit unconsciously, as the once blunt bottom of my massive mane inched higher and higher up my back as I went from adolescence to adulthood. Was I claiming a clichéd liberation? Was I exercising choice? Creating possibility? Seeking transformation? All of the above?
I think we rarely do things with a single motivation. Once upon a time, I said I shed the security of my hair because I wanted to see whether I could be beautiful while giving up a major marker of beauty. But what I meant was that I wanted to see whether I could like myself even while the world tells me I should be different. And I do. As a woman, this, in and of itself, is an act of resistance. It’s powerful; it’s fierce; it’s sexy as hell.
Babu ’05 is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York, whose work has appeared in The Feminist Wire, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Racialicious, India Abroad, Open City Magazine, and more. She is currently working on her first novel.