I didn’t know what to say when I swiveled around to my reflection in the mirror. Two hours earlier, I had walked into the Bay Area hair salon after many months of anticipation. The waitlist gave me confidence in my new stylist’s talents. I had given her full reign over my hair, as a result. “I need a major pick-me-up,” I said when I first plopped into her leather teacup chair, the seat holding the promise of hair magic.
I introduced myself and shared my entire hair history. But my eyes were fixed on her acrylic nails, bright as cotton candy, clawing and grabbing across my scalp at my roots like one of those stuffy-grabbing cranes at the arcade. I watched her eyes zeroing in on my highlights, faded and grown out. Her focus on my hair was intense, as if examining an old relic. Feeling insecure, my eyes fell to my smock. I began a lengthy explanation for my hair’s sad state. It had been almost two years since I had colored my hair. The only hair salon I visited regularly was one that specialized in kiddie cuts. The last time I went to it, the kid’s stylist did me a solid and cut my hair in between my boys’ cuts.
My hair was a project.
After two hours of yanking, foiling and washing, it was finally time for the dramatic reveal. It was a moment made for the movies: a head-turning, slow-motion turn full of anticipation and giddiness that only needed Beyonce’s latest hit playing in the backdrop to complete the effect.
I turned around to see the result. I gasped.
The contrast of the golden strands against the stark black smock I was wearing added to the boldness of the look, along with the bright ceiling lighting. I didn’t recognized my hair or the person in the mirror. My hair color had never been this light. This was not what I was expecting.
I’m a blonde Indian girl, I thought to myself. Okay, I’m a blonde-ish one, I tempered, hoping to convince myself it wasn’t that dramatic a change.
What will people think? I worried about the perception I was giving off with this new ‘do.
“What do you think?” she beamed. Despite wearing a mask, the creases around her sparkling eyes revealed a hidden smile. I was reluctant to deflate her satisfaction. “Wow…I’ve never had hair this light before,” I said carefully. “It’s fun though!” I added in a tonal uptick to signal enthusiasm. “We can always darken it – now or later. Try living with it a few weeks. See how it feels. Its FABULOUS.”
Not wanting to spend another hour in the chair or add more to my bill, I hurriedly paid and raced to my car to inspect my new look. I sat in it, looking back at myself in the rearview mirror. There was no denying it was a very dramatic change.
“I can’t be blonde,” I thought to myself and imagined the reaction from my children and family. The ‘whoas’ I would hear wouldn’t be the good kind.
As I sat in my driver’s seat, regretting my golden locks and already judging myself, a thought flashed into my brain. I’ve had this internal conflict before for many different reasons: quitting a job, getting divorced or even getting acrylic nails. These dilemmas were always triggered by a specific 4-letter word I was using: C-A-N-T.
Who says my hair can’t be blonde? I questioned. I know that, in reality, I could dye my hair red, purple or green, should I choose. I wouldn’t – but I could. But external forces – friends, children, family, even strangers – are what guide my decisions more than my own will around my hair. This doesn’t sit well with me.
What I have to remind myself of now – and continually- is that my sense of ‘the rules’ and my constructs around who I can be are mine to choose. I often feel pressured by external rules around what I should be as a woman in her 40s, a mother, an Indian woman, a divorcee’ or even a spiritually-seeking person.
What I have begun working on is training myself to pivot from thoughts of C-A-N-T and S-H-O-U-L-D to exploring W-A-N-T and C-A-N. In doing so, I have begun to bend the invisible bars that hold me.
Increasingly, when I think I can’t do something, I now ask myself: ‘why?’ My worry about what others think has become the invitation to do opposite, and rebel. So that is what I decided to do with my hair experiment: stay blonde. If Kim K can do it, why can’t I?
Rewriting the script
Instead of focusing on the possible reaction of others, I turn my thoughts to what it means to me that I have blonde-ish hair. Does it mean I am vain, un-Indian or am ‘too much’? Could it mean instead that I am playing with my creativity, personal expression or trying something fun? This interpretation is for me to choose.
There are so many rules guiding who we should be as women. In my hair color decision, this reality was triggered. So I asked myself ‘from where am I getting these rules?’ Is it from my parents, aunty culture or even Hollywood?
So, I asked myself “what do you want, Shibani?” My answer? I wanted to have a little fun and play with not let others’ reaction change my decision. So, I drove home with bouncy, golden locks, knowing I could darken my hair at anytime. I wanted to see what it was to go about the world differently and be ‘too much’ in it. I wanted to confront the ‘whoas’ and the comments head-on. That decision to drive home was one that gave me freedom of expression, permission to have fun and confidence to live with some controversy.
A few weeks into my hair make-over, it’s clear that my color choice does come with judgement and many reactions. I wasn’t spared from family’s opinions. Friends at the soccer field noticed my new color. Within a day or so, I was told by a stranger: “you don’t look Indian because of your hair and eye color.” I shrugged off the comment because, while maybe true, I really didn’t care to be the poster child for my ethnic backgroud on that day. And that felt good.
In this little experiment, I’m not trying to be Indian, trying to act my age or wanting to make my presence invisible or small. I’m just having fun and let people have their reactions. For the next 6 weeks, I will practice being unapologetically, ambitiously and, for now, blonde-ishly me.