Pritika Gupta on cutting your hair short and growing a little more confident
Can we stop calling it a boy cut, please?
By Pritika Gupta, Kulfi Team Member
The onset of lockdown brought back an idea that used to frequent my mind — doing something radical to my hair — largely driven by the comfort that if it turned out to be a disaster, I didn’t have to socialize it in any way. And so I decided to get a pixie cut. The recent photos folder on my camera roll was starting to look like a magazine catalogue with every short haired look I could find on the internet (the google results to my search: “pixie cuts on long faces but still cute.”) After a lot of back and forth (read: texting my top 3 whatsapp groups), I eventually decided that I had to do it and talked myself into it. (“If not now when” / “honestly, it’s just hair” / “am I not the captain of my own soul???” / “I will 20000% look like Indian Halle Berry.”)
photo credit: Pritika Gupta
My most characteristic feature is my big, black, wavy hair. Over the years, I have frequently accessorized and experimented with it — I got a longish bob in 2015, dyed it light brown in 2016, got streaks in 2017 and took to the balayage trend in 2019. Every change I made stayed well within the realm of novelty, never inching towards anything too drastic. Why would I? When anything else about my appearance made me feel inadequate, long hair could salvage anything. Long hair feels a little like a stylish pair of shoes in that way — it doesn’t punish you for putting on weight (RIP last season’s skinny jeans) and consistently embellishes your style.
With all my gathered resolve, I slipped into a chair at Happy in the Head (greatest salon name, I know) and told Bani, “Just take it all off. I want you to give me a revolutionary cut.” I proceeded to explain to Bani that I did not want “like a seriously short do but a pretty seriously different haircut.” Bani, a professional hair stylist with many years of experience, smiled warmly despite being used to twenty-somethings like myself who think that there are only a few crises in this world that a whole new haircut cannot solve. But what I was not prepared for was for her to cut the front of my hair first with a single, swift snip.“There haan, it is gone. You have to do this now.” She said it was her way of making me commit to the hair style I had so vehemently asked for.
Who knew drastic measures could be liberating? Turns out they absolutely are.
Since my new haircut, a few of my closest friends have asked me why I decided to cut it. And so I reflected. I want to preface this by saying that the wonder of these reflections is that they come to you only after something is done. If I was a more thoughtful, centered person maybe I wouldn’t need a bold cut to think about how I feel about parts of myself. But I’m not, so here we are. I’ve spent some time thinking through my own motivations and came up with a few thematic reflections.
1. I have a complex relationship with beauty that I have often chosen to conceal rather than solve.
The legacy of high school acne and the eventual frustration over never finding a skincare regimen that I was satisfied with led me to constantly think of coping mechanisms as opposed to persevering on to find skincare solutions that actually worked. When you have sensitive skin, there is a high degree of experimentation associated with finding the right set of products and that in itself can be a barrier to getting started. As a result, I’ve often looked for ways to cover the parts of my skin I was always self-conscious about. Long hair is a great ruse for this. My angular side parting allowed my hair to fall over the scarred portion and allowed for the use of minimal makeup (to not irritate my skin further). The self-preservation of my vanity has manifested itself in far too many attempts for me to count but they are upsettingly easy to identify.
When I cut my hair off, I inadvertently exposed the very parts I tried so hard to hide.
The dark blemishes that make me cringe are now easy to see and invite a look, a comment or worse a searing solution masked as concern. The week after I got my hair cut, I went to a skin doctor in Bombay who identified that the marks on my skin were actually a skin condition, Acnitis, that cosmetic skincare couldn’t possibly solve and has since prescribed medicine to help me. It is entirely possible that the glaring presence of these spots have forced me to become okay with and acknowledge the slow progress of my skincare journey. But it is worth mentioning here that this was help and advice that I had previously evaded because I didn’t want to be one of those girls who was affected by her skin or who couldn’t manufacture enough confidence to own my blemishes. I wanted to be able to be confident of myself despite these blemishes.
If I had to measure the brain space the issue of my skin has taken up over the years, I wouldn’t come across as cool and unaffected. To the contrary I’d come across as someone who had a problematic relationship with her skin and was too stubborn to identify the ways that I could have helped myself. If anything, I wish I had moved my hair to the side long ago and for long enough to ease the self consciousness. There’s a lot that can be masked when we want to come across as being comfortable in our own skin. But I’ve learnt that attaining that comfort on your own terms and on your own time is the only way to do it.
2. My individuality can sometimes feel out of place when beauty standards are so entrenched in my culture.
Looking back through my DM’s from when I first shared a picture of my hair on instagram, an interesting trend emerges. My female friends were quick to tell me they loved it. A few said they liked it but missed my old hair. But a good portion of people, largely men, asked me what caused me to do it. I suppose this stems from the assumption that things in my life had to be going horribly for me to even consider cutting all my hair off. But the truth is so much simpler: I just wanted to try something new.
Perhaps we should be forced to reckon with the idea that my appearance can mean so much, and nothing at all, at the same time. And that’s okay.
India, and South Asia more broadly, has a complex relationship with beauty, gender and sexuality — all inextricably related, yet unlinked by our culture. It has infamously set guidelines for beauty in ways that have been more alienating than inclusive. More specifically, notions of beauty are limited and often compromised on large screen productions. Often times, directors and producers champion fair skinned, thin, tall heroines. Anyone who doesn’t fit this archetype is relegated to a role that doesn’t deserve the spotlight: a villain, a mother, someone sick, someone of a different sexuality, an unaffected character, an unimportant story and worst of all, the ‘before’ story before someone realizes the true extent of their beauty. I’m not berating Bollywood for picking beautiful women with flowing hair — because they do and they should because they can. But I am acknowledging that our notions of what is stylistically suitable for a gender or a group of people is incredibly influenced by the portrayal of those very people.
Stephanie Brail wrote an incredible Medium piece on her short hair where she talks about the interpretations around gender dysphoria that are driven by the media. She says, “And maybe, just maybe, this explains why so many people today are thrown for a loop when a girl wants to wear her hair short. Fashion programming runs too deep. Some folks just can’t fathom that short hair might just be a girl’s preference, and has no greater meaning or context.”
photo credit: Pritika Gupta
3. My third and perhaps most poignant lesson has been to, in some way, befriend myself.
I want so badly to find a logical link between me cutting my hair and my increased kindness to myself but I cannot articulate it. What I can tell you is that in the quiet moments that I run my fingers through my hair, I see myself differently in the mirror. When I would have shrugged at a bad hair day, I now smile at the emergence of a contour.
My friend Shriya once told me that every woman, in the course of her lifetime, should cut her hair to re-develop her relationship with beauty.
I can’t speak to whether this will be a learning experience for everyone who does it but I can speak to my own feelings of being more carefree. This is perhaps the most revolutionary step that I have ever taken to face my self-consciousness head on. Discomfort can be a wonderful teacher and a horrible friend. Stepping out of my comfort zone has proven to be an unretiring source of confidence. But when you cut your hair this short it is also a step that you cannot take back (immediately) which is precisely the most rewarding part of the agency of my choice. My appearance, today and always, is more than a statement; it is a choice.
The jury is still out on how my relationship with beauty is going to evolve but I can confirm that the relationship with myself feels fuelled by chances that I’m willing to take on my own appearance. When I look at my short hair, I cannot help but consider it a small act of freedom. If my hair is meant to be an extension of my personality, then perhaps I need to acknowledge that there are times when it will also be a reflection of my insecurity, my hope and my confidence. And that is okay too.
About — Pritika Gupta is currently a second year at Columbia Business School and heads Partnerships & Fundraising at Kulfi. In her free time she likes to read historical fiction, experiment with new teas and call her parents in Mumbai.