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Hair-raising questions

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on April 11, 2021

ILLUSTRATION: MANJULA PADMANABHAN

My Chennai sister sent me a photograph of a young man whose hair looked as if it had exploded out of the top of his head. “What d’you think?” she asked me and our Hartford sister. “What shall we call this style?” The three of us had fun trying out suitable names: Mushroom Cloud, Pouffant, Geyser-head. Whatever we called it, however, we all agreed that even though the guy’s face is attractive, his hair looks awful.

Why do we care what people do with their follicular growths? I’ve spent a long time puzzling over this. Many communities have strict rules about hair. Young women are sometimes forced to keep their hair long until they’re married, and often told to contain it and control it. In some communities, married women must shave off their hair and wear wigs. In Bhutan the ladies cut their hair short. In the Namib Desert, women of the Himba tribe famously use red ochre and butterfat to create coiled hairstyles. There are restrictions for men too — some must grow moustaches, others must remain clean shaven. Some must never cut their hair, while others, such as monks in many religious orders, must be clean-shaven.

The observation I’m making is that hair-grooming is of intense interest in all communities, but it’s not clear to me why. We might think we don’t care what others do with their hair, but I’m willing to bet there are always some limits that, when crossed, make all observers uncomfortable. Women, as we know, go to great lengths to remove hair from limbs and underarms. When I was in boarding school I was amazed by the range of methods used by my dorm-mates. I, like certain breeds of cat, am practically hairless. I used to feel so left out of all this shaving and waxing that I tried it out once just to feel “normal”. I stopped right away when I realised how time-consuming and painful it can be.

Some men have nose-hairs that grow out long and luxuriant. I’ve seen advertisements for a battery-operated gadget used for trimming such hair. It looks a bit like a mascara applicator, with tiny clippers at the business end. Some men have mini-forests growing along the outer edges of their ears, others have curly mats growing on their backs. I’ve seen ads for back-hair razors too! In some cultures men go to barbers to shave off their body hair, leaving them as smooth and stubble-free as women. In case this sounds unfamiliar consider this: All comic superheroes are shown wearing skin-tight suits with not the slightest whisper of hair-growth showing!

There must be explanations but today’s column is only about questions, not answers. Why do we all, to varying degrees, try to control, reshape or hide various types of hair growth? Why do humans have this renewable resource, unlike, say, lions with their self-limiting manes? Will we ever really know? I doubt it!

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on April 11, 2021

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