How to Love Your Stubborn South Indian Hair : an Ongoing Investigation

There’s something about Indian women and their hair. 

Especially us Tams. A good Tamizh ponnu wakes up early, “takes bath”, and applies an even coat of coconut oil on her waist-length hair. It needs to reach the waist, you see (No? Ok, mid waist? Shoulder?? But never above!) — so it can be neatly plaited for bharatnatyam class.

If it isn’t, you might end up being called out of class, told to sit in aramandi, your inappropriate hair forcibly pinned up by the teacher while fellow natyas point and laugh. Like me, yes.

For as long as I can remember, there’s been something about me and my hair. 

To put it simply, I fucking hate it.

And to so passionately, so persistently hate a significant part of your body—one that makes up 20, sometimes 30% of your overall visual, mind you—can be exhausting.

Why Do I Hate My Hair?

Now to fully indulge you in this critical and cultural analysis of my hair, I figure I should first describe it to you. 

See, there’s a reason Tam Brams impose these ridiculous oil rituals on their girl children. 

Yes, I’m talking about what’s underneath that nasty Parachute layer. I’m talking about those little free-spirited curls—nay, frizzes—that are itching to just pop out into freedom, into their natural form. As each hour of the sultry Chennai school day passes, every little girl’s little head turns into hair jail: a sweaty, stinky mix of BO and stale coconuts. Hair pinned down so flat, you couldn’t tell if it was thick or thin, curly or wavy, wild or tame — but why was I surprised? In my school, and in most others around the country, it was nearly a crime to be different. 

So Tam Bram mothers would dutifully douse their Tam Bram daughters’ hair with this magic elixir (consumed as much as applied), in the hope that no one will notice its intrinsic flamboyance. Down, girl. Down! 

But not my mother, no. My mum was way ahead of her time; she wore a head full of rings on one day, and rebonded on the next. She was, and is, a hair-trend junkie. (She tells me that she has recently “relaxed” her hair… ?) So she let her daughter wear her hair how she wanted.

And how was that? 

Well, as we now know, I was no ordinary-hair-having South Indian girl. As a kid, my hair was unsightly at best; unmanageable, unkempt, unthinkable-for-a-respectable-little-girl at its worst.

I’d say the cotton-head look suited me well as a toddler, but ages 6 and up didn’t take so well to the style. 

The kids came up with some creative hair-based names: cotton candy, Bhadrakali, and my personal favourite—cuckoo’s nest.

To be fair to them, I did take my mother’s freedom a little too much for granted. As a kid, I was never interested in grooming myself—what a waste of time; I could be reading, watching TV, or doodling instead. So I sort of just let my curls—nay, frizzes—run wild. And frizz they did, like Monica’s in Bermuda. The little shits would form something akin to an adolescent peach fuzz, but around my head. Even Parachute couldn’t save this mess.

Eventually, lazy grooming turned into a health hazard, as I developed a scalp infection that made my hair an instant magnet for lice. Consequently, the rest of my school life turned into a battle against my bodily enemy (or was it against the lice, I can’t remember). I was caught in a vicious cycle that looked something like this:

Don’t take care of hair—>Develop infection—>Hair is too disgusting/impossible to take care of—> Don’t take care of hair…

While other girls my age were brushing their golden tresses one hundred times before bed, the only brushing I was doing was to my giant problem, right under the carpet. 

“Nice word play, but that’s not completely true”, my pain-memories remind me. I can still feel the pinching pain of my knotted hair being yanked at. “Chiduku”(tangles) was the absolute bane of my teenage existence.

It was a whole affair. Calendars would be marked off, family warned, mother armed, me in a state of high alarm. It had all the ingredients of a saas-bahu scene: much resistance, evil proclamations (I’ll chop it all off if you don’t sit still!), yelling, screaming, nahiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! And then, onto the next miniscule knot. Sigh. One down, 273 to go. 

Unfortunately for the both of us, our efforts went in vain. It would only take a week, sometimes days, for the problem to resurface, the disobedient little knots recoiling back to their natural state like earphones dumped in a bag. Inevitable, eventual doom.

Why buy a earphone organizer for 500 rupees when they’re going to knot up and break your heart anyway?

Sorry, I digress. 

Why bother? Why endure the pain? When there is no escaping the humiliation caused by your ill-fated hair?

So I let it slide. 

It wasn’t until I really grew up, at 15 or 16, when I decided to take things into control once and for all and tackle the tangles. Until then, it was years of being looked at funny by my classmates, or worse—being caught picking lice from my hair. My personal favourite is when I got kicked my out of my school “gang” with note filled with reasons. One of them read:

your hair is weird messy n dirty” 

I mean, okay, do you blame them? I had lice, for Bhagwan’s sake! Good on them for self-preserving! Years later, I would watch all those American shows where they’d follow an elaborate process if a child was “contaminated” by lice: Quarantine. Throw all sheets and clothes. Wash with medicated shampoo. Live forever as the girl who spread lice.

Nah. At least here, everything was hush-hush. A little pass-the-note bullying never hurt anyone, right?

It got a little trickier when teens kicked in (thank you, puberty and attraction). Not all young Chennai girls have cotton-head, you know. Take my dear friend S, for example. S is blessed with lustrous, almost iridescent hair. No product, no egg masks, no parlour treatments, nothing. Maybe she was born with it? In hair-ad-terms, I was the “is your hair rough and damaged?” to her “get soft and sleek hair with the new xxxx shampoo!” (Did I mention I hate her?) 

A particularly low point came when I was told “Your friends will not come near you. No boy will look at you”. Harsh. Cruel, even, but effective. 

Effective to the point of giving a shit? Yes. Effective to the point of resolution? Nope. End result? Hair-induced anxiety.

Have you heard of anything like it? I mean, of all the teen things to worry about — boys and marks and friends — I would start to worry endlessly about my hair. It became the root of what I would soon recognize as deep-seated self-esteem issues; a lingering feeling of shame and isolation. 

So what changed? 

I remember each hair-epiphany like it was yesterday.

The first: Layers

Holy shit. Layers! For my 17th birthday, I went to the parlour—the same one that routinely shamed my nested, infested hair. But this time, some genius decided to give me a “layer cut, to bring out your lovely curls”. This was the first time a hairdresser did not suggest that I “go for straightening”, or blow-out my hair poker straight. Thank god for hair trends, amirite?! World over, the layered-curls look was in, and suddenly I was the perfect canvas!

Would you believe that? Me, and desirable hair styling? Jeez! 

From then on, there was no looking back. I layered my hair for years on end, spending thousands of rupees every time, to have them blow dry my hair into perfect curls. 

I’d feel so fabulous after the blow out that I’d prolong my next hair wash until humanly possible. Because once washed, no longer am I the poster girl for the fab-curl movement. Nope, just plain old cranial-peach-fuzz me. 

The second: Embracing 

I’m not sure what it was—my feminist awakening pushing me to shun beauty standards, or just my inner rebel, or maybe I was just ….so… freakin’… tired. One day, I decided to just let it be. No straightening the fringe, no curling iron, no more parlour visits. Instead, I looked up the good old interwebs for advise on how to handle curly hair. And I hit the jackpot. 

Thousands of women all over the world were sharing their hair woes, and do’s and don’ts. I read about the Curly Girl method. I learned the difference between curly and wavy, and which curly hair type I belong to. I ditched my expensive L’oreal hair products and went in for a sulphate-free Khadi shampoo.

And now for the most embarrassing part of embracing: I started Parachuting again. 

And it worked. I no longer needed to iron or blow dry or slave towards perfection. I accepted that my curls would never look as perfect as Deepika’s from last month’s Vogue, or worse—that first day after a blow-out. Instead, I started to appreciate my untameable mane.

The third: Experimenting

True liberation only came when I gathered the courage to make an extreme change: to chop most of my hair off. For most of my life, I lived in fear of and for my hair. Once I’d figured out layers, I played it safe and asked for the “usual”, nothing more, nothing less. Even when I did have the occasional urge to experiment, I was quickly shot down by hairstylists who had absolutely no clue how to handle curly hair.

“This is the best look for you.”

“If you cut it short, it’ll spring up!”

“Hm…. then straighten it?”

No, asshole. I did not spend 25 years of my life learning to love my hair to wet-blanket it with your expensive chemicals.

So I had to literally force one tense hairdresser to chop it all off, fueled by a fresh break-up wound. Neither of us was particularly happy with the outcome, but hey, at least I did it. 

Eventually, by happy accident, I found a stylist who actually knew how to deal with the Indian Curl. He did not wet my hair. He did not refer to my hair as “dry” or “damaged”. On the contrary, he pointed out its unique qualities, what makes it special—all to soothe my buzzing anxiety about going even shorter. He cut based on how my curls naturally fell, snipping one lock at a time.

Finally. Finally. I reached a stage in this hair saga where I can wake up in the morning and be hair-ready. No elaborate wash schedules, no products, no parlour visits, no endless hair stress.

Hallelujah

……………………………..

So what is it about Indian women and their hair? 

The relationship between hair and the female experience is no new subject. For years, black women have resorted to multiple methods to tame their hair into “acceptable” (white) standards—relaxing, straightening, wigs, hot combs. Today, black women are wearing their natural hair almost an act of rebellion, of reclaiming ownership over their bodies, of shutting down age-old racist beauty standards.

Perhaps I take a leaf from their book. Maybe, in a way, I look at every Indian woman who has finally embraced her curls as a champion of liberation. A curly, wavy, “fuck you” to all the hair stylists, the know-it-all grandmas, the teachers, the bullies, who told her she was lesser because of her different hair. 

Power to you, curly-haired Goddess.