Why the World Can’t Handle a Bald Woman


Why the World Can’t Handle a Bald Woman

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

Oh, what a luxury getting a haircut is! The whole ritual of walking into a salon, being asked what look you want, trusting the stylist to make the better choice, relishing the pre-cut hair wash, savouring each cut, and feeling the tiny hairs on my neck prickling with each snip. The hair dryer’s heat sends waves singing through my body. All the anxiety comes to rest when I take a final look in the mirror at my transformed self.

This luxury has eluded me in the last year. A bout of dengue here, the after-effects of hair colour there, accompanied by a cocktail of different hair oils and shampoos, has meant that I’ve managed clumps of balled-up hair strands on the floor without having to sit in the hairdresser’s seat. Looking at those black orbs, floating into oblivion every day led to further stress, and in turn induced even more hair loss.  

When I first began to lose hair, people around me began to think that I was also losing my mind, because there were times that I wished I could shave my head. Grappling with the idea was a favourite pastime. But my idea of female beauty and notions of womanhood were so deeply entrenched that it ensured that for a long time, the idea remained just that… an idea.

Every time I’ve taken one of those “Are you spontaneous?” quizzes in beauty magazines, my answer has always been: Can’t say. I consider myself free-spirited, but I am also an over-thinker. All that changed one wintry Sunday evening.

All it took was one more look at the floor for me to reach the tipping point.

After oiling, shampooing, and conditioning my hair, I sat preening like a shampoo model in my balcony. All it took was one more look at the floor for me to reach the tipping point. I straightaway announced my intent to shave my head to my mother; to my surprise, the only thing she asked was why I had wasted so much oil and shampoo if I only wanted to get rid of them.

Flush with the excitement of finally seeing my intent through, I walked into a women’s salon that promptly refused to shave my head. They cited non-availability of a trimmer, but I suspect it was because I’d sent them into collective shock. So I had to resort to the men’s salon next door, where I was greeted with even more shock — but at least, they didn’t turn away a customer. One staffer callously chopped my hair, as I attempted to look unperturbed. He then took an “ustraa” to my head, leaving me feeling almost naked. I could sense the discomfort in the salon, which mirrored my own.  

Once my head was stripped clean, I gingerly looked into the mirror. This… would take time getting used to. I didn’t realise it then, but the lack of my hair would become the concern of the world I was about to step into.  

Immediately after exiting the salon, I was plagued by buyer’s remorse. I headed straight to the mall nearby to buy beanies. I had to soften the shock; it’s not like you can spring this kind of surprise on your colleagues or fellow commuters on the metro. Back home I took several selfies, pretending to look like Doctor Evil and the Joker from the Suicide Squad. Could I get used to this?

Once the haircut happens, though, the relationship is well and truly over.

The following morning, no one paid attention to the girl with the beanie on the train. At work, however, there was an almost unanimous show of “what the hell happened”. After all, aren’t women supposed to take these extreme steps after a life-altering heartbreak?

In the absence of any such dramatic motives, I received hearty congratulations for my “brave” move from friends, who began to greet me with a customary head rub.

My relatives meanwhile, had polar opposite reactions. I had the endorsement of the tiny ones, the nephews and nieces, but the older ones seemed genuinely concerned about my mental health. One cousin considered my baldness such a challenge to normalcy that he refused to be seen in public with me. I wish I had asked him why this embarrassment was missing with other family members who are also bald, but are men.

I am pretty certain none of those men have had to defend their baldness to complete strangers. A bald head on a man draws sympathy; on a woman, it draws curiosity. My answers varied from “A rat ate it” to “I was in Sudan on an assignment and did not want to waste time grooming.”

On my commute, I was routinely mistaken for a man, and pushed or brushed aside. I was perplexed over how to react to that. Should I be happy about the diminishing of gender stereotypes? Or be enraged by the total disregard for another human being’s space? Should I feel thankful for being treated as a man in a man’s world? Or was it yet another manifestation of how women are expected to look?

Finding the answers to that nearly did my head in. But at least, my hair began to grow back.

I now have a decent mane. I could be a shampoo model now — except for my greying hair. This new issue has again left my relatives in a tizzy. My hair, just like my marital status, is of concern to every single aunty I meet. They’re now devising amla-shikakai-henna hair concoctions that will help me tide over this new episode of life.

As for me? I’m resigned to the fact that a woman’s hair is never really her own. For now, I sport a short crop of hair that is in most places a cringe-worthy orange, owing to incessant beseeching from my mother to put on the henna-laden hair mask.