Josna Rege

176. The Haircut

In 1990s, Britain, Education, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on March 1, 2013 at 9:59 pm
Medusa at the hairdresser's (Chris Sharrock,

Medusa at the hairdresser’s (Chris Sharrock,

For years, hair-cutting in our household was such a rare event that whenever I told Andrew—who shares Samson’s horror of being shorn—that I was thinking of cutting my hair, he would ask, with his characteristic brand of humor, “Which one?” Recently, an old friend reminded me that I had once encouraged her to grow her hair long, and suggested that I might enjoy trying out a new look, putting me in mind of the last time I experimented with a hairstyle, way back in the old millennium.

When my cousin Sue’s daughter Oleen took me to a hair salon on one of my visits to London back in 1990, she told the stylist on my behalf that it was my first-ever professional haircut, and only my second visit to a hairdresser’s (the first, at age ten, having been to a barber’s in Calcutta for a hairwash). Since I was in my mid-thirties by this time, her announcement was met with incredulity and (I feel sure) stifled giggles. I was introduced as “our (weird) cousin from America” and the hairdresser exercised a great deal of forbearance, keeping a straight face and a sympathetic expression while I proceeded to tell her, anxiously and at great length, that I wasn’t used to this kind of thing and to explain that I wanted a different, but not too different, look, a significant amount cut off, but not so much that I would no longer be able to put my hair up into a bun, and bangs (a fringe), but not those schoolgirl bangs that would make me—to use one of my mother’s phrases—look like mutton dressed as lamb. She reassured me that she wouldn’t do anything drastic, and Oleen offered lots of moral support once I finally shut up and submitted to the shears.

A few words of explanation may be required to account for my odd behavior. I had been growing my hair since I was seven years old (see Untangling) when Mum, who had peremptorily chopped off my long hair at age four, finally gave me qualified permission to grow it back. Long hair was in fashion in the States in the 70’s, when we first immigrated, but even as I persisted in clinging sentimentally to my long hair as a marker of “Indianness,” many stylish young women in India were cutting theirs short. By the time I was a mother and in my thirties, long hair was an aberration in my age group, and, probably made me look older than I was, since I usually wore it twisted into a tight bun. My father had told me once, when admiring the 24-year-old me dressed in a sari for a classical Indian music concert, that a hairstyle like that was either considered extremely plain or extremely sophisticated. Flattered, I assumed he meant that on me, it looked ultra-sophisticated. Perhaps it did, back then; but a decade later, not so much.

On that visit to London in 1990, when I had finally screwed up my courage to make a change, my son was at the age where any change terrified him, especially in his mother. Having done the deed, I returned from the hair stylist’s that afternoon wondering if I’d made a mistake. As soon as I walked in my cousin’s front door with my up-to-the-minute scrunched-and-blow-dried shoulder-length cut complete with wispy bangs, my worst fears were confirmed by Nikhil’s immediate reaction, as he screamed—no, wailed, as only a five-year-old boy can wail: “Mom, what have you done? Go right back and make it the way it was before!” That did it: I was now officially a basketcase. It took many soothing words from Cousin Sue and the lure of a double batch of take-away Fish-’n-Chips before Nikhil became somewhat reconciled to having a different mom and Nikhil’s mom could be talked into venturing out of doors again.

Returning to the States and the Spring semester at university, I wondered whether my peers would notice my new look and what they would think of it. One or two of my female friends probably said something nice, though I can’t really remember. But I do remember one of my few male colleagues (in the English Ph.D. program men were at a premium, making it necessary for the single women among us to organize parties with the mostly-male Polymer Science department) coming over to me and saying, in all innocence: “When I looked across the room at Orientation this morning, I thought, for a moment, ‘Who’s that pretty girl?’ Then I realized, it was just you!” As soon as he realized what a back-handed compliment he’d paid me, his fresh, open face turned bright red with embarrassment as he stammered, “That c-c-c-ame out all wrong. I didn’t mean it like that, honest I didn’t!” I wanted to believe him, but I’m still not sure.

That hairstyle didn’t last long, and when the bangs grew out I simply reverted to my old one. Twenty-three years later, I’m seriously considering another visit to the hairdressers, though at the pace I move in these matters, no one ought to hold their breath.

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  1. A good story shows us something about ourselves. I can hardly read about your experience without reflecting (!) on mine. Since most of my hair has left for parts unknown (I’m not bald; I just have a wide part) I remain unsympathetic.
    Love and blessings,

    • Steven, I freely confess that this story comes from a woman’s perspective and doesn’t pay enough (okay, any!) attention to men’s feelings about their hair. It speaks (among other things) to the role of hair in our construction of our self-images, and doesn’t seek sympathy for the folly and vanity that I wish I could say was only a characteristic of my younger self. Thankfully, at least since Yul Brynner, a shiny, shapely bald head has been seen as an attractive look on a man. Witness all the young men deliberately cultivating it. x J

  2. Yes, hair is so wrapped up in one’s self image. I never was so aware of this fact as when my hair was unceremoniously chopped off of half of my head for an operation to save my life. My recovery in the ensuing year had as much to do with my changing hair style as it did with my returning voice, or strength, or nerves rejuvenating through my shoulders. The response of others to my hair any day, can lift my spirits or dash them
    to the floor! Samson’s story is our story. Having someone cut off my hair really does make me feel vulnerable. The question is whether I hide behind my hair, or celebrate the changes wrought by time and experience to what is often referred to as one’s “crowning glory”!

    • Beautifully put, Marianne! I always marveled at your hair when we were at MH together. I’ve never seen anyone else’s with the same body and springiness. To me your hair was all of a piece with you, and it was comforting for me to see it essentially unchanged when we met again in person after a gap of so many years. The different hairstyles in the old photos that Jennie’s posted recently show me the different facets of your personality that you’ve given expression to over the years. But it’s how you come through an experience like the one you refer to here that really tests your character. I love that last sentence! Hugs, J

  3. We need before-and-after photos!

  4. What is it about hair? I don’t think of myself as a vain person, but I confess that I am a little obsessed with my hair. If I wake up and my hair isn’t right, I don’t want to leave the house. (Actually, every morning I wake up with a very severe case of bed-head — a shower is required to get me ready for public viewing.) As a basically short-haired person (can’t be bothered with the drying time and grooming demanded by long hair), I found my style years ago and have pretty much stuck with it. I have also had the good fortune to have had the same hairdresser for 32 years — I tell her she can’t retire until I die! xxoo

    • Your comment reminded me of something my mother always used to tell me: that when getting dressed one should take the time to feel satisfied with one’s look, and then go out and completely forget about it. That’s how I feel about your haircut: it’s perfect, and that perfection allows you to be completely yourself, natural and unselfconscious. I’ve always loved it for its style, its simplicity and the space it clears for your face to shine through. x J

  5. Loved reading this hairy tale Josna. I subject my family to a dose of I’m- going- to- the- hairdressers’- so- I -expect- positive- reactions- when- I -get -back nightmare often enough for them to have become immune to it by now. I, on the other hand, have a long way to go before I can defeat the regret that sets in almost as soon as the payment for the hairdressing services has been made. Thank you for sharing:)

    • Thanks for liking this hairy tale, Arti! I smiled at your preemptive orders to your family and at your own inevitable dissatisfaction with the outcome. I think that we women need to write more about how we feel about our hair, which inevitably carries so much baggage with it.

      • Hi Josna. I have written about my haircut, too, and perhaps that is why this post popped out when I was going through your contect list to pick out what to read next:) If you give me a mail id, I’ll send you the link. I’m imposing confidently after reading your ‘About’ lines- hope it’s ok with you.

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