“Awww, she is so cute.”
“So you have one boy and one girl.”
“How old is your little girl?”
These are just a few examples of the comments I received whenever I stepped out with my kids. One supposedly ‘modern’ working friend even said, “But if you keep his hair so long, won’t he grow up to be gay?”
I looked at her and wondered whether I ought to tell her that my son’s sexuality is none of her business or that hair, just like clothes, is not a marker for gender. Or to simply ghost her forever.
My younger son had lush, long hair since birth and I was in no rush to get those beautiful tresses cut. Little did I know that people would only take a look at his long hair and presume a gender. Not only that, they would try to convince me to get his hair chopped because, duh, he’s a boy!
Assigning gender to clothes, hair and makeup is not new. Almost every advertisement of hair care products showing women with lustrous, long tresses while men hawking anti-dandruff shampoos in their short hair is just another form of gendered social control to stabilise the gender binary concept. It’s the same with clothes and makeup. Whether it’s a roadside shop selling kids’ clothing or in any top-notch branded garments store, there are clear demarcations between the boy’s and girls’ options.
One can easily find shorts, jeans, and shirts in the women’s section but for the life of me, I have never ever seen a skirt in the men’s section. Helpful salespersons will steer you around if you wander away in the girl’s section while shopping for a boy. “Ma’am, this is the girls’ section.”
Yes, I know that it’s the girls’ section, but why aren’t there sequins, pearls or unicorns on my boys’ shirt?
In India, we have ancient traditions of dreadlocked yogis, Sikhs with their long hair in turbans and every mass-produced photo calendar showing Hindu male gods with long, flowing tresses. The act of shaving one’s hair in mythology and culture is a mark of worldly detachment – like the tonsure of Jain monks, the sign of mourning when shaving one’s head while performing the last rites of a family member, and a sacrificial offering to deities at Tirumala Temple or alike, or as a purification ceremony to get rid of negativity like the mundan performed on toddlers. From deities to kings, we have a culture of men with long hair.
The insidious creation of the gender binary has resulted in every little thing clearly demarcated as belonging to either ‘boys’ or ‘girls’; whether it’s the pink/blue colour, toys, clothes or even the acceptable length of hair.
Every relative, neighbour, school teacher and even random person I meet in the park had an opinion about my son’s hair. Once, a grandmother accompanying her grandkids in the park accosted me and demanded to know whether I had let my son’s hair grow long due to some ‘mannat‘ or vow, while her little granddaughter was busy playing on swings in short hair, jeans and a shirt, but the irony was quite lost on her.
I saved my son’s ponytail for five years by turning a deaf ear to every but of unsolicited advice offered to me, but owing to a medical emergency in the family, when there was no one to care for his hair, I took the tough decision to get his hair cut for the time being. And how the society rejoiced! There were delighted squeals of, “Finally, you look like a boy”, which has made me determined to give the agency to my son to decide the length of hair he wants and to not bother about what people say.
And oh, I did ghost that friend too.
Kanika Dua Ahuja is from a small town near NCR.