How a Haircut Helped Me Untangle My Identity as a Queer Indian Woman
They defined beauty. They defined womanhood. And they felt so, so far away from the woman I felt myself becoming.
My best friend at the time could not have been more opposite of me: She was Mormon, all arms and legs, with blonde hair that went halfway down her back. Even on mornings when we had volleyball practice at 6:15 a.m., she woke early enough to wash and blow dry her hair, put it in curlers, let it set, then shake out and hairspray the living daylights out of it. Her hair, her ice-blue eyes, and her pert, turned-up nose made her the queen bee at our school—the standard that all the other girls aspired to. One that I, brown and bowlegged, with my weird, hair-sprayed bangs, knew that I could never reach. But maybe, I thought, being proximate to the object of every boy’s desire would somehow make me more desirable.
I watched her execute her morning beauty routine after sleepovers. I envied it, and also knew it was something that would never fly in my household. Not the hairdryer, not the curling iron, not the make-up, not the ninety-minutes of beautifying before leaving the house.
My classmates’ ideas about beauty, based on the country music singers and Hollywood stars of the day, revolved around pale skin, light eyes, light hair—features that were a biological impossibility for me. No matter how big I made my hair, how tight my jeans, how shiny my cowboy boots, I was never going to look like Reba McEntire or Dolly Parton. And trust me—I still have the cowboy hat in a box somewhere to prove that I once tried.
What was I supposed to look like? If neither the beauty standards of my classmates nor those of my mother and her beloved Bollywood stars felt like the right ones, then what models existed in the world for me?
My hair came to symbolize this effort to figure out who I was supposed to be in the world: what look was right for me in a world where the looks that existed simply didn’t seem to fit. If you were to flip through an album of photographs of me between high school and now, you would see that I have had my hair at every possible length, and cut in every possible style, since that first cut in seventh grade. Pageboys and ponytails, pixie cuts and bobs, and at some low moments, haircuts that ranged from looking like a mushroom to a mop to a mullet. Yet none of these cuts made me feel desirable or desired.
Beyond appearance, deeper questions also tormented me: Who was I supposed to desire? Who was supposed to desire me? Many of my white classmates were of the opinion that I should date the only Indian boy in our class. But he and I grew up together, slept at each other’s houses, treated each other’s parents as our own. This idea bordered on incestuous.
I, meanwhile, thought I was supposed to desire the clean cut, football playing, all-American boys who ended up being Homecoming King. The ones who were kind to me, and not hurling racist epithets, but who ultimately saw me as some kind of asexual being, existing outside their schema when it came to dating and desire.
I didn’t date in any serious way until I was thirty. I tried half-heartedly, went on lots of first dates with dorky Indian boys I found on online dating sites, but never found a relationship that fit, in large part, I think, because I was still trying to heed the mixed messages about gender and attraction that I absorbed growing up Indian in West Virginia.
Until I realized that the reason why neither my mother’s beauty standard, nor my West Virginia peers’ beauty standard, felt like ones I could fit into—because I didn’t. I didn’t conform to the gender norms of either of those cultures—not in my clothing, not in my mannerisms, not in my way of being, and not, ultimately, in my decision to spend the rest of my life with the woman I love, instead of with a man I was expected to love by both of those societies.
In 2015, I cut my hair off for good. After thirty-five years on earth, I finally settled upon a hairstyle that feels right to me, even if it doesn’t look like anything my Indian family, or my West Virginian peers, would ever condone.
I’ve gone to see my sweet Colombian stylist, Luis, every five weeks for the last five years. Each time I sit down in his chair, he begins by asking, “So, what do you want me to do this time?”
And each time, I answer the same way: “I trust you.”
When he puts his hands in my hair, there is none of the discomfort that I associate with those childhood braiding sessions in my parents’ bedroom. Instead, there is this incredible sensation of freedom that fills me.
Like me, Luis is gay. He has no expectations of what my hair should look like, or what I should look like. His only goal is that I feel good about how I look. And when I’m done with a session and he spins me around in the chair to get a look at my head in the mirror, for the first time since those past-life ringlets, I actually do. I look cute. My hair looks sharp. These are not words I ever used to describe myself growing up in West Virginia.
My hair is short and cut close to my head, a spiky crew cut when it is at its shortest, a pixie cut with a stubborn cowlick shooting up from my scalp at its longest, with salt and pepper streaks at the temples that are increasingly more salt than pepper. And occasionally when I’m walking in Jamaica Plain, the neighborhood of Boston where I live with my partner, Laura, I will see a younger Indian woman dressed like me, in a t-shirt and jeans, with short hair and a gender non-conforming swagger, and my heart will skip a beat. Because suddenly, I am not alone in this style. There are more of us. And through our very existence, we make the existence of more of us possible. We become our own Shabana Azmis. Our own Reba McEntires.
There are still pangs sometimes, though—still moments when I feel as though my decisions have put me at odds with my culture and my family. My mother has told me I “look weird” when I wear saris because of my short haircut, and I can neither muster a retort, nor seem to erase that message from my mind. When I look at photos of myself from weddings, and see the combination of sari and short hair, I, too, feel that it looks weird. My hair does not mirror the flowing locks of Nargis or Madhubala, or my mother, or my sister. My hairstyle doesn’t fit. And neither, in those moments, do I.
I wish, sometimes, that it had been easier to default into my mother’s definition of beauty. To wholly embrace that Indianness, that notion of femininity, which feels most like home to me, even as I don’t feel fully at home within it. Indeed, the sweetest memories I have of time spent in India are still those when I sat on the floor, braced by the shins of my Umamamior my Manjufoi, and played with the folds of their sari while they worked oil through my hair. I haven’t been back in seven years, and I still find myself missing that connection, that intimacy.
But every time I visit my twelve-year-old niece, whose long hair rivals that of her mother’s, she will inevitably snuggle up beside me and run her hands through my short hair, form it into peaks, and then smooth it down again. Scrunch her fingers through it and massage my scalp. Get rubber bands and clips and style it into ridiculous, tiny ponytails sprouting from all sides of my head. I don’t have to ask—she does it in a way that feels both habitual and intentional. As if to say that I, her short-haired masi in this family of long-haired women, the only of her masismarried to another masi, am enough. That my hair, though not like hers, or her mother’s, or her grandmother’s, is still enough.
I was born and raised in southern West Virginia, the daughter of Indian immigrant parents who moved to Appalachia in the early 70s so my father could work in the chemical industry. I've lived and worked in Boston for the last 17 years as a Civics teacher in a public middle school. My writing has also appeared at The Bitter Southerner, and is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review Online.