My mother glances at me from the bench in our garden. She pauses, takes a sip of her cuppa, and lifts her face toward the sun. I think she’s being a little bit dramatic. I am about 14 years old and I’ve just told her that I’ll be cutting off all my hair for charity. “Good idea, darlin’,” she says. “It’s just hair, it will grow.” For the next four months, we fundraise, we send emails. Then we book a haircut and snip, snip.
In the end, it wasn’t that short — the hairdresser decided that the Annie Lennox hairstyle I had desperately wanted was a bit too bold, so we settled for a graduating bob. I hated it.
Two years later, my mother sits on a different bench; this time we’re outside of Twickenham train station. I’m 16 and have just written my last General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam. My mother is reading a novel. She looks so happy and peaceful, and I am determined to ruin that peace. I wait in front of her until she looks up. She searches my face and plasters on a dubious smile: “It’s very short,” she says, and then after a pause, “Kashi! I can see your scalp!”
This marked the buzz-cut era, as I like to call it: pre-bowl cut, post-1990s R&B pixie cut. Decked out in a thick silver chain, full Nike trackies, Kickers, and a whole five foot nothing — I was having my Britney moment.
From 14–18, my hairstyles varied. That awful graduating bob turned into a sweeping fringe with short back and sides. Then I toyed with the Miley Cyrus Bangerz tour space buns, and then there was the buzz cut — which was followed by another mini-meltdown where I gave myself a bowl cut that bore a striking resemblance to Aretha Franklin’s.
In between the standout haircuts, there was the tram line — my mum really didn’t like that one, she said it was “aggressive” — and the helmet — I tried growing out my hair and quickly shaved it all off again. When I eventually committed to long hair, I got an undercut to avoid the good little Indian boy vibe I had going on the first time.
My hair is now the longest it’s been since the ‘big chop,’ and I’m learning to embrace my curls. But after years of associating my personality and individuality with my hair, I sometimes find it difficult to look in the mirror and see someone who doesn’t really look like me anymore. Suddenly, a quick trip to the bathroom to check my makeup becomes a quarter-life crisis. I spend hours grappling with my need to stand out while also wanting to be conventionally ‘attractive.’ The quick glance in the mirror then turns into me tackling my issues surrounding my self-worth, confidence, and need for control.
I like to think that, when I had my buzz cut for the first time, I was the most confident I had ever been. I mean, I was 16 and had, like, no hair. I look at old photos and it’s easy for me to forget that at the time, I was also struggling with academics. I was highly strung. I didn’t eat properly, and for whatever reason, I was just so angry. Obviously. Hardly anyone is happy at 16. It’s universally shit. So, maybe I cut my hair just because I wanted one less thing to worry about. Or maybe I wanted to be the centre of attention. Or maybe I actually just liked having short hair.
It was never just about the hair on my head either. It was also about the hair everywhere else. Even when I thought I was rejecting convention, I wasn’t. I was fixated with my eyebrows, the hair on my face, the hair on my body — I wanted it gone.
I grew up with a big extended family and was enamoured by my four wonderful older cousins. They were gorgeous, intelligent, and obsessed with hair removal. And why wouldn’t they be? Being South Asian and hairy does not make the playground a very fun place. By the age of eight, I was very conscious of my hair — as one boy pointed out, I had more hair on my arms than he did on his legs. I stopped wearing skirts, wore leggings during PE, and going to swimming parties became a massive source of anxiety.
I remember going to the bathroom in my last year of primary school and rubbing the middle of my eyebrows with my finger in the hope that the hair would just fall off. I waited patiently for my mum to give me the okay, and at 12 years old, she finally took me to thread my brows. Since then, I’ve made sure to always have perfect eyebrows. Side note: this was all before Cara Delevingne, before eyebrows became ‘fashionable’ — try going to an all-white primary school with a unibrow and moustache. Kids are mean, that’s all I’m saying.
And so began the years of dodgy haircuts and hair removal. First came the hair removal cream. I have never, to this day, smelt something so ghastly or used a product so useless at doing its job.
Do you want to hear a joke? What do you get when you give a self-conscious tween a massive tube of Veet and a rough sponge?
You’re left with a hysterical girl crying in the shower. This is because she accidentally rubbed off the top layer of skin on her legs. So now, not only does she have angry, raw, bloody skin, and phys ed in the gym — which means that shorts are mandatory — but she also has not succeeded in getting rid of the fucking hair.
I guess it’s not that funny. But in my day, they didn’t have the pink plastic spatula, which meant that I wasn’t able to scrape off the cream. Instead, I was left to my own devices and a massive amount of self-loathing. I figured that if I rubbed hard enough, not only would I be left with hairless, soft legs, but that I’d also rub away the ugly.
Veet didn’t work. That’s okay, I thought. I’ll just try a different hair removal cream. Nair. It smelt the same, it looked the same, and unsurprisingly, it was just as mediocre. Now, this isn’t to say that I hadn’t learnt from my first disaster; I didn’t leave the cream on for longer than the prescribed five minutes, nor did I aggressively scrub it off. I ever so gently wiped off the cream. Was I left with “silky-smooth skin?” Nope. I was left with patchy, hairy legs and a very fragrant bathroom. Hair removal cream — thank you, next.
Now, my mum was hesitant to give me a basic razor, which is why she bought me the Philips Razor and Epilator. A delightful contraption, it worked very well until I broke the shaver head and was left with just the epilator. If T. S. Eliot thinks that April is the cruellest month, I know that epilating is the cruellest form of hair removal. You are literally tweezing out every single hair at the exact same time. It’s lots of mini-tweezers attached to a motor! That’s sadistic! If you use an epilator, I salute you. That is true dedication to the cause.
By this time, I was 12 and a half. Because she didn’t want me to shave, my mum drove me to my first waxing appointment. This was no downtown beauty salon, with minimalistic décor, tubs of aloe vera, and ladies with smooth voices. It was a small shop at the corner of a street in Hounslow. Excluding Southall, Hounslow can easily be described as the ‘India’ of West London. The salon was loud, the beauticians were screaming at each other in Punjabi, and there was the expectation that you would exit beautiful.
And therein lies the crux of my obsession with hair and hair removal. I didn’t like being brown and my hair was a constant reminder of my otherness. I wanted to reject every part of my culture; I cringed at Indian clothes, I hated the food, and I desperately wanted to fit in with the other little white girls. My mum didn’t care about my discomfort. She hosted Diwali parties, fed me daal, and once, on a mufti day in Year 4, stuck me in a full-blown sequined Indian outfit, kissed me on the cheek, and sent me to school. I was mortified.
That all changed when I went to an all-girls secondary school and I was surrounded by phenomenal women — white, brown, Black — who cared. They were all brilliant. Suddenly, I wasn’t the only one who was insecure about her hair or one of only two brown girls in a class full of blondes.
I learnt how to love being Indian. Now, lenghas make me feel like a real life Indian princess, my Nani’s food is, without a doubt, the best thing I’ve ever eaten, and sometimes, I even stick random Punjabi words into sentences.
I still despise having hair on my body though. Some things run deep, and we live in a society where it’s desirable for women to be hairless regardless of their race. From the Kardashians to the porn industry, we’re taught that hair isn’t supposed to be visible on women. Personally, I like being hairless — it makes me feel good — but I don’t think it’s healthy for an eight-year-old to notice that she has hair on her face.
Back at the salon, I had been led into another tiny room, where a woman with eyebrows so full, so thick, and so perfect, kissed her teeth, looked me up and down and said, “Beti, you’re much too hairy.” I decided that waxing hurt too much. The ladies were mean, the room was dark, and everything was sticky. I demanded that my mum buy me a razor and I do it myself. Shaving lasted a couple of months, but it gave me ingrown hairs, my skin started to pigment, and my mum wasn’t happy — so that put a stop to that.
We — it truly had become a mother-daughter journey at this point — then decided to revisit my good friend Veet. Only this time, it was Veet wax strips. I would stand half-naked in our kitchen, sweating profusely as my mum, who had become a part-time beautician, waxed my legs for me. It was laborious, it took too long, and as the pretty lady with the pretty eyebrows had kindly informed me, I had so much hair.
While waxing sorted out my arms, legs, and everything else, it didn’t do a lot for my face. If I waxed anything other than my upper lip, I would break out in acne — and then I would have to weigh which was worse: spots or hair. Neither were ideal. Last year, I started laser hair removal on my face and, not to be overly dramatic, I think it’s transformed my life. My skin is clearer than it’s ever been, but more importantly, it’s finally on its way to being hairless.
As of 2019, I have gone to that salon for nearly a decade. This means that now, when I go to get my full body wax, I’m able to skip the queue and have two beauticians waxing me at once. I feel like royalty — even if they do still tell me that I have very, very thick hair growth. Alright, thank you Simran, I’m very aware that I take after my dad. I’ve also become fairly good at waxing myself; excluding a couple minor burns, I can get the job done.
Self-acceptance is hard, and I don’t think I’ll ever reach a point where I’m comfortable with my body hair. Hair removal will always be my favourite topic of conversation. It’s the first thing I’ll bring up if you’re a brown woman — “Oh! My! God! Your brows are amazing, do you do them yourself?” I’ll then strategically push the conversation to shaving, waxing, and laser, so we can lament about the days when we used to be hairy and more insecure than we are now.
So if we’re ever chatting and there’s a lull in the conversation, tell me that my eyebrows look good. Seriously, I’ve spent the last 10 years on them.