Thursday 24 July 2014

Crowning Glory

She was just back from the parlour and she couldn’t stop admiring her new look in the mirror. She noticed the reflection of her dad, who had just entered her room. He looked unhappy. “I don’t like it. You had such enviable long hair. Why did you get it cut? This doesn’t look good at all,” he mumbled and walked off. Stunned and equally irritated, she looked at her new haircut again. And once again, she liked what she saw. But what is the whole fuss about long hair? That’s a question familiar to many women. A dismissive response would point to a single word, ‘tradition’. But this prejudice may require further exploration, deep into its roots.

Speaking specifically of India, one must begin from the top—the Goddesses. Be it Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, live action mythological series on television, films based on our epics, or idols in places of worship, any and every depiction of these celestial beauties has always been of one with long, flowing hair. It is a given that portrayal of these supernatural women sporting short hair will be considered inappropriate and blasphemous. Since people tend to see deities as mirror images of their own being and vice-versa, this fixation for long hair becomes obvious. So there is no choice, but to take the Hindi saying literally: Beti toh Lakshmi ka roop hoti hai.

Adding to the convenience of this belief system are legendary folklore and mythical fairytales from other countries. Greek Goddesses, pretty nymphs, and who can forget Rapunzel! Come on, it wasn’t her fault—the nasty witch chopped off her thick, long tresses. And if the Prince could magically get his eyesight back, Rapunzel too would have definitely got all that hair back. For time immemorial, the length of a woman’s hair (they are second to nothing but her looks) has been an important factor for men to find her attractive and beautiful. Why?

Thick and long tresses are a sign of youth and good health. Quite a few men feel that long hair gives to women that one most desired quality they expect to see in women—grace! Swaying long hair seems to be weakening many hearts. Moreover, long hair allows greater scope for styling and beautification. Where else would adornments such as flowers and butterfly clips have found a place? A woman who styles her long hair skilfully is seen as an aesthete. In ancient times, queens and princesses had maids to wash, dry, comb, manage, braid, and decorate their long hair. That is how it became an indication of wealth and prosperity. Also, for centuries, various cultures have proclaimed flowing, gorgeous hair to be symbolic of a woman’s individual sexuality and virginity.

Little wonder then that young men cite long hair as one of the pre-requisites when conjuring up an image of their dream girl. At a sub-conscious level, they may find it easier to mention such requirements as opposed to actually listing out what they are looking for in a woman/partner. The family of such a young man chooses to interpret this feature in a woman as per their own age-old wisdom. A girl who can manage and maintain her long hair well (which is a task) will be adept at managing the family. She is seen as ‘homely’ and she will showcase essential ‘good behaviour’. In contrast is a young girl who has chopped off her long hair—the reason for this is usually presumed to be lack of patience or time to maintain them. So, if she does not have time to look after her own hair, how will she even think of household affairs!

Sociologically, long hair has been/become one of the distinguishing traits for gender identification and discrimination, making it a marker of femininity. Accordingly, women with short hair are assumed to be unfeminine, ‘modern’, and thereby, rebellious. Feminists from differing schools of thought will be most proficient in an unending debate over this. Science tells us that healthy, long hair means a good protein intake. This further means more energy and more brainpower. Could that be why it is deduced that women with long hair will have the ability to handle circumstances coolly and with enough mental strength?

This representation of strength is what advertisers cash in on. A perfect example is the shampoo ad that shows a woman tying her hair to a truck stuck in muck, and then pulling it out. She single-headedly does what a group of men failed to do. The awe and triumph of the female gender is evident on the faces of other women onlookers—both young and old. The only weapon the woman protagonist required to conquer the impossible was her own thick, strong, long hair. Advertising efficiently uses ancient or traditional beliefs to play upon sentiments and continue this cycle of opinions.

Fiction too does not lag behind in reinforcing the partiality for long hair. Television soaps generously and glaringly use wigs and hair extensions for all women characters. ‘Shoulder-length hair is too short and waist-length hair is not long enough’ seems to be their mantra. Women characters with short hair are almost non-existent or, if shown, are depicted to be tomboys.

Princess Diana was an obvious exception to this rule. One can easily call her the epitome of womanly grace. But will she have looked more beautiful and elegant if she had lustrous waist-length hair is a question that will remain unanswered. And till then, short-haired women can only hope that traditionalists keep out of their hair, while their adversaries let their hair down, uninhibited.

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