It’d be hard to picture Halle Berry without her signature short hair. Or Victoria Beckham without her asymmetrical bob. Or Emma Watson post her Harry Potter franchise. The list of Hollywood celebrities with short hair runs long, with constant additions.
While I was closely dissecting the numerous reactions that spawned the web after Beyonce’s announcement, a comment left by a reader on a popular fashion website made me snigger and then, pause to think. Replying to the article that attempted to decode ‘the meaning behind her short new style’, the reader wrote, “NOTHING. She is trying to say nothing. It’s a haircut.”
Fame aside, for decades, a woman’s choice to go short has been subjected to ample questioning and age-old cliches.
Popular website BuzzFeed recently had a piece on what not to say to a woman with short hair. Aside from obvious queries like ‘why’d you cut it’, others included ‘do you like girls now’, ‘but boys like long hair’ and ‘you’re in that experimental phase of your life,’ all questions that short-haired women have encountered at some point.
Stereotyping is the norm
While the West has been more receptive of its short-haired women, India is yet to get there. Exceptions in popular society like Gul Panag and Mandira Bedi are only
a handful. Celebrity hairstylist and self-confessed madcap Sapna Bhavnani is as known for her numerous tattoos as her eccentric hairstyles.
From full mohawks to blue hair to a complete silver crop, Bhavnani has done it all, “I’ve had short hair since school. I was tired of society preaching what an Indian woman should look like at 13. I cannot live my life based on false principles and decided long ago that I would do anything in my power not to mould to that idea. I’ve stuck to my guns to this day,” she says with a laugh.
Today, even in metropolitan cities, short hair elicits stares and uncomfortable questions about well-being and sexuality, feels 24-year-old advertising professional Lavira Fernandes. She deliberated for months before sporting a pixie cut.
“I finally decided to take the plunge, but was not prepared for the reactions that followed." Her father, who admired her sister’s long hair, did not speak to her for a week. “While my girl friends loved it, a couple of my guy friends poked fun saying I just needed to get tattoos now to look like a lesbian.” She was also asked if she’d gone through a breakup or was suffering from a disease.
Socio-cultural conditioning in India is mostly to blame for perpetuating stereotypes in women, including popular reference points like mythology and Bollywood. There's Goddess Kali with her long black hair and Sanskrit writer
Kalidasa’s detailed descriptions of Shakuntala’s hair in his poems.
With numerous Bollywood songs paying an ode to reshmi zulfein, having cascading tresses has long been symbolic of femininity and beauty. Rarely do Bollywood actresses experiment with the length of their hair. Years ago, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das broke a traditional mould when they shaved their heads for Deepa Mehta’s Water, a movie on the plight of widows, which was later made with Lisa Ray.
"It’s about time one gets rid of the goddess-like image of women as pure and beautiful. With pollution, bad water and stress, it’s impossible for women in metros to sport lambe ghane bal. This notion of beauty lying in the hair needs to be changed,” says Bhavnani.
She thinks that most Indians including Bollywood stars, don’t experiment fearing acceptance. “I love cutting Mandira Bedi’s hair and to see her glow in a sari with that short hair, breaking myths that Indian outfits demand long hair.”
Gul Panag says that she loved her short hair, never caring about what people said or thought. "Besides, it halved my
'getting-ready' time," she grins.
Driving home the message
Women who sport short hair speak of a certain attitude: unconventionality, a breakaway from the herd and a sense of self-assurance. They have made their peace with the criticism they get. In fact, not all the attention they attract is unpleasant. Some women report that they actually turn heads!
It’s a look that says “I wish I had the guts to chop off my hair!” says Bangalore-based lawyer Shraddha Srinath.
Desiree Alemao, a social media writer in Goa, chopped her curly locks a few years ago as a rebellious decision, to move away from society's conventions. While she was mistaken to be a guy on numerous occasions, she doesn’t harbour any regrets.
“It was one of the most freeing things I’d done. Like tattoos, going short is addictive and also low maintenance. But the one thing I was grateful for was that lots of men were staring at my head instead of body,” she states adding that ‘edgy’ and ‘cool’ were only some of the compliments she got.
In Edinburgh where she is currently as a part of Nirbhaya, a play on the Delhi gang rape by Yael Farber, Bhavnani says that her short hair and tattoos have baffled so many people worldwide who feel an Indian woman needs to look a certain way. “I’m glad that through this play, I’m breaking their visions and convincing them that being Indian is not just a look."