The Buzz About Women With Shaved Heads: Combatting Questions on Femininity

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
So many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

– Elizabeth Bishop

My best friend captured an intimate moment in a picture when I was getting my head shaved for the first time. In the picture, a perplexed hairdresser is delicately holding my head in his hands as he carefully removes the last clump of hair on my head. I am wearing my favourite yellow t-shirt and shorts. I still remember the sensation of his hands on my bare head as I realised while looking into the mirror that life was going to be a difficult yet exciting adventure from that point onwards.

I remember stepping into the street without anything to complement my face except my dark, apprehensive eyes. There was liberation, joy, and a visceral sense of vulnerability in that moment. However, that was only the beginning. The misgendering began as soon I stepped inside the metro station the next day. I could see the poorly-hidden relief flooding people’s faces as soon as I spoke: they could tell that I was a ‘normal’ woman. Others who still doubted had to only spot my breasts beneath a loose, oversized t-shirt. And bingo! The puzzle was solved. As a cis-heterosexual woman, I felt unsettled by the assumptions that people were making about me.

Since then, I have shaved my head quite a few times. I have grown used to the staring, constant judgment, snickering or pointing, or the sighs of hairdressers when I ask them to shave my head. I also grew to like people for not obviously staring at me: the ones who thought I had cancer or some alien disease and sympathised with me in silence as they tried to get a peek at me through the corner of their eyes. I tried to understand people’s emotions and reactions as they saw me, and that helped me to not despise them for their unthoughtful comments or ways.

I have never considered beauty as an integral part of my identity. So, even when I was struggling to make sense of those new, insightful experiences, I felt that talking or ranting about my pain or apprehensions would be vain. How could I complain about hair and beauty when the lives of millions of people hang on a citizenship card?

I told myself that it did not matter that I no longer looked attractive to men. It was alright if they judged me – at least, I am middle-class rich and that comes with privileges. I could afford things that the a majority of people can just dream about. This is why everyone who talked to me always assumed that I was not bothered with the way I looked and that I completely owned every aspect of myself without any inhibitions. They are correct in some ways – a lot of work goes into “owning yourself”. Nobody needs to know about the countless stream of tears, the sleepless nights, and the unproductive days when I could not stop obsessing over my hair; about all those hours that I could have spent writing, reading or chasing opportunities but I spent examining myself in the mirror or surfing internet to suppress my emotions. I told myself that I owned myself because everyone else thought I did.

Also read: Why Do Boys With Long Hair Upset Society?

But what about desire? I never asked myself that question until I met a boy, Imran, in Ajmer. I was travelling solo and he was travelling in a group of eight people. I was enjoying qawwali in the Dargah sharif when he came to talk to me. We went for dinner but I noticed that he was not wearing slippers. When I asked him about that, he told me that he could not risk fetching his slippers from the main gate as his friends were there. If they saw him with a girl, they would judge him. I wanted to ask him what kind of judgment he feared but I decided to put a pause on my feminist mind for a while and just enjoy my time with this hyper-masculine, muscular, broad-shouldered guy. He was wearing rings on his fingers and he sat with his legs stretched apart.

Remember, I had paused the feminist part of my mind. We talked for an hour until he asked me whether I had a boyfriend. I said no. He then asked if I had ever been asked out by other men. I said yes, as I sensed his next question coming: “Why did you tonsure your head?” Fair enough. I repeated the same words that I had repeated countless times to people: dermatitis, scratched my hair out, tired of treatment, low maintenance for someone like me who has less patience for this sort of stuff etc. etc.

But that day, in addition to my confident answers, I instinctively put my hand over my head. I understand now the apprehension Dhrubo Jyoti might have felt as he attempted to hide his scarred ankles from the scrutinising gaze of people. I was experiencing a similar disconcerting feeling as Imran looked at me with desire in his eyes. After dinner, I hugged him, and we went separate ways. Solo women travellers should not invite men to their hotel room in an unknown city, no matter how much they want to.

Imran reached Calcutta and I reached my home in Delhi, but we stayed in touch through calls and WhatsApp. On one such call, he informed me that he would come to Delhi to see me. I balked at his suggestion as I had not made any relationship commitments. I firmly told him to not do so as I was not his girlfriend. He insisted on coming so that his friends could meet me. He would come in April as by that time, my hair would have grown longer and I would look “more feminine”, according to him. I did not say anything as I felt tired and irate. I simply cut the call after wishing him good night.

But I asked myself this with a hint of irritation: What were you expecting? Had Butler, Morrison, Walker, Menon and all other feminist authors that I have read not warned me against this? Why did I feel so dejected when I had experienced very similar reactions of men towards me? Menon claims in her book Seeing Like a Feminist that each identity is not situated at the intersection of two identities but is rather an “unstable configuration that is more than sum of its parts”. However, it is difficult to see yourself as more than your parts when there is so much emphasis on one uncanny and unconforming aspect of your identity.

That day, I felt taken aback not because I desired a man who was wrong for me in so many ways but because I realised that I am a woman who is unwilling to compromise on my terms of existence to fit a man’s or rather anyone’s idea of womanhood. From choosing to play with HotWheels cars rather than Barbie dolls to shaving my head, I have always decided to be my version of whoever I want to be. And in this journey of self-reflection, I expect to lose, learn, love and grow as I introspect more.

Paritoshika Singh is a law student who is passionate about feminism, travelling and politics. She loves books, Coke studio and mountains. Her instagram handle is @singhparitoshika