I was twenty when I shaved my head for the first time. After 15 years, I’d grown tired of keeping it long. So I began getting my hair cut every month, chopping my curls shorter and shorter until I felt brave enough to let a man sit me down in a salon chair, fling a robe around my shoulders, and buzz away the little hair I had left in my pixie cut. I looked in the mirror as he buzzed away, seeing my bare scalp for the first time: A little egg-shaped wonder with a birthmark above my right temple. When people asked me why I shaved my head, which they did frequently and unabashedly, I told them it was because I’d wanted to. And the truth really was as simple as that. I wanted to do something to my body, so I did. But shaving my head was a response to beauty standards instilled in me since I was young.
My father has told me many times that a woman’s beauty is in her hair, a belief that holds value in many households across cultures, including the Indian culture I grew up in. As a kid, I used to cry after haircuts, even those trims that strayed so far as to chop off half an inch rather than the quarter inch I’d been willing to sacrifice. I’d feel grief sinking into my bones, and as I’d lament the loss of each lock, my mom would express her sympathy. While normally she was the type of mother that rolled her eyes over skinned knees or scolded me for getting a cough, when it came to haircut-induced pain, she let me sob for as long as I wanted rather than pushing me to suck it up. “I used to cry after haircuts too,” she once told me. “My mother never let me, but I’m going to let you.”
When I was fourteen, I cut my hair from elbow-length to where it fell just below my shoulders. My mom and I joked in the car ride home from the salon about how my dad might not even notice the change. “Men don’t notice anything,” she said. That night when he came home from work, we waited for an hour before I broke and asked him about the ten inches I’d sacrificed.
“Dad, did you even notice I cut my hair?”
“It looked better long.”
A woman’s beauty is in her hair.
One night, when I was thirteen, my dad came into my room and shut the door. “I’m only telling you this because I love you,” he said. “But if you don’t watch your weight, you won’t be happy. People will comment and say mean things and laugh at you, and it will become an embarrassment for the whole family.” Apparently, a woman’s beauty was in more than her hair. Meanwhile, my skinny brother was force-fed Chips Ahoy cookies, pudding cups, ice cream bars, and cheese—all the foods I was discouraged from eating, foods that disappeared from shelves that were within my view.
Thanks to a middle school research project on eating disorders, I was able to recognize my own disordered eating early on: The constant worrying about food, the constant counting and measuring and weighing and worrying. I stopped eating when my family was present, and began hiding food or sneaking it when I thought no one could hear me rifling through snack drawers. I kept detailed logs of what I ate and how many calories to guilt myself over. My relationship with food and my body were defined by shame and guilt and the feeling of constant failure.
I went back and forth, fantasizing at times about being a size 00 like so many of my friends, and daydreaming on others about what recovery would look like for me if it ever came.
Would I be sent to one of those rehab centers? Would my family ever apologize?
Toward the end of high school, I was fortunate enough to realize my mental and emotional peace were worth more than whatever my body looked like. Maybe I’d always have a baby face and noticeable belly fat. Maybe I wouldn’t. But I would let myself eat pizza, and ice cream, and cheese, and I’d do so when I wanted, however much I wanted. Still, healing took time, and for a few years I simply went from restricted guilt-eating to guilt-laden binge eating.
Recovering was an ongoing process, until I went away to college, where my body issues diminished more and more. The healing manifested in a number of ways: No longer shaming myself about whatever size my clothes were, no longer obsessing over portions and calories, and no longer keeping my hair long. Shaving my head felt like reclaiming control over my body. I had proved (if only to myself) once and for all that girls with chubby faces (and bodies) could do whatever the hell they wanted.
By the time I hit college, I had almost fully overcome years of disordered eating, slowly unlearning the prioritization of what my body looked like over how my mind felt. Before studying abroad in India, I went from waist-length hair to a bob, to my first pixie. I cried and wore a baseball cap with a hoodie over it, and my best friend came over and held my hand and told me how we’d fix it. While in India, each time my pixie grew out for more than three weeks, I’d get an inexplicable itch—I needed to go shorter than I’d gone the haircut prior. I’d beg my aunt to take me to her beauty parlour. She’d be confused at my desire to go shorter, but would oblige.
By the time I shaved my head, I’d been through five more haircuts, trimming closer and closer until I felt ready to say goodbye altogether. My aunt and I made a final trip to the parlour and we sat side by side—her getting her roots touched up, and me getting mine buzzed. With my aunt and uncle I felt a degree of being seen, loved, and accepted I hadn’t always gotten. Yes, what I was doing what unusual. But I was loved and commended all the same.
After getting our hair done, my aunt and I met with my uncle for dinner. Though initially confused by my decision to get rid of the little hair I’d had left by that point, he and my aunt were nothing but supportive. At the dinner table, my uncle looked at my bare scalp and told me I looked great. The waiter called me, “sir,” and we laughed it off together as a family.
When I first cut my hair, I was trying to resist all the weight that came with having long hair: What it meant to look beautiful as an Indian girl, what it meant to look beautiful with any face shape or body type. To me, it felt like freedom that I was willing to let myself do that, willing to risk looking anything short of great, however that greatness was defined by others. It felt like I was finally choosing myself over someone else’s standards of beauty.
But with each cut, I realized that shaving my head was less about resisting others’ ideas of beauty imposed on me, and more about resisting my idea of beauty imposed on me.
Regardless of what I looked like or where I lived, I just wanted to do me. And I was a step closer to defining what that meant.
The night after I shaved my head, my family and I drove home to their flat, our stomachs full of biryani. I sat in the backseat of their Honda with the window rolled down, listening to my aunt sing along with the radio, closing my eyes, and running my palm over and over the short fuzz on my scalp. When I was growing my hair long in high school, it felt so brittle from being straightened twice a week. It felt foreign, like it wasn’t mine. Now, the strands were short, but they felt stronger somehow. More resilient, triumphant, leaving more room for me to feel the wind.