Long hair. Short hair. When it’s time for a haircut, there’s always the question of how much hair to chop off. For the guys, sometimes there’s also the dilemma of deciding how much facial hair to keep when it starts getting long – beards and moustaches go hand-in-hand with certain haircuts.
Long hair has always been my preference. My Chinese-Malaysian mum prefers otherwise on me. Each time I come back from the hairdressers with freshly layered hair reaching slightly below the shoulders, she remarks, “Still so long”. She isn’t a fan of facial hair either, bugging my brother to shave when lonely, stray hairs mushroom around his mouth.
When it’s time to get our hair cut, some of us think practical and go for a no-nonsense hairstyle. We opt for a hairstyle hoping it will fall into place when we stumble out of bed, one that feels a natural extension of ourselves – “the usual” that we may request at the hairdresser’s.
With a bit of skill, we can pin up long hair and look neat. A quick comb usually makes short hair neat. A fringe brushing my eyebrows, staying put to the side day and night, is what I often ask for at the salon. My mum despises this sweepy fringe of mine, “dripping down” my face as she describes it. According to Chinese folklore, hair on the forehead blocks good luck. It’s the same reason why she constantly asks my brother to shave.
When we’re up for something new, we might roll the dice and go for a hairdo we’ve never tried before. We might choose to get a bit of a trim and outgrow our hair – longer hair, more ways to tie it up. Or we might shave or chop off most our locks – shorter hair, lighter on the head, dries quicker. When I was fourteen, I got a bob on a whim because I was tired of tying up my frizzy hair each morning before school. My school which was like countless schools in Asia strict about getting female students with hair reaching down their backs to pin it up, echoing the days of the Cultural Revolution in China when women here weren’t allowed to have hair past their shoulders.
And so sometimes cultural practices and standards of beauty play a part in the way we wear our hair. Each fine strand of hair encapsulates our roots, embodies our DNA, embodies DNA from our parents and ancestors. Through the hair on our head and bodies, we’re carrying a physical part of history with us. Hair, it’s sacred: covering up hair in some cultures (Muslim, Sikishm for instance) is symbolic of modesty and purity.
As a kid, my mum cut my hair. She made me sit on a chair in the kitchen and tied a ripped plastic bag around my neck. Snip snip. Cold, hard metal scissors pressed horizontally against the nape of my neck, sending shivers down my spine. Snip snip. Cold metal scissors pressed horizontally against my forehead. When my mum was done, I always ended up with a bowl haircut. I said nothing when my Caucasian classmates cackled at my crescent fringe. Defenceless.
Apart from being practical, there are whispers this “uniform, perfect circle” bowl haircut is reminiscent of a sense of harmony. In Chinese culture, there’s the superstition rounded edges bring prosperity and wealth. It’s a different story with many an Asian girl these days though, many fond of keeping their hair long and tying it up with kawaii accessories. Hair styles change over time, change as we experiment with our looks and find new ways to express ourselves.
When we style our own hair, our hair is a measure of what we stand for, our identity. At times our hairstyles stand for political statements, or bring up the notion of stereotypes. Shaven heads, Mohawks, undercuts and rainbow streaked hair speak of revolutions on occasions. Then again, these are up-dos that recently edged into modern fashion which is probably why some of us are astounded by them. I’ve never styled my hair in any of these ways, always wearing it straight – akin to the typical hairstyles Asian women wear in popular cultural texts such as Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon (whilst portrayed submissively under the exotic Westerner’s gaze).
Interestingly enough, countless Chinese women during the dynasty eras kept their hair long. Long hair was deemed elegant then, worn up on their heads and rarely flowing down – a sign of respect, since tied-up long hair rarely gets in the way or latches on to things…metaphorically in contrast to a beating heart full of love ready to run in all directions, trying to catch that special someone. Over the last decade, I’ve worn my hair untied with the sweepy fringe much to the chagrin of mum, who constantly says that I look “like a gwei (ghost)”. But I wouldn’t have it another other way. And I’m not you’re your average Asian girl either.
With a haircut comes change and letting go. When we give our hair the chop, part of us dies a little. Not only physically but emotionally too since when we give our hair the chop, we shed a part of us we’ve grown comfortable with. As Rhonda Nemri said, “Our hair is a valuable part of our body that we hold on to, whether we are male or female.” Maybe that’s why so many of us are afraid to cut our own hair. Not me, though. Trimming the fringe and ends of my own hair feels empowering. It’s a skill.
Just like how our hairstyles change over time, the texture of our hair changes with age and health too. Sometimes it’s because of hormones and genetics, other times diet. When we get a new ‘do or our hair thins out or becomes less thick, often people are quick to make a conversation out of it. But like the clothes on our back and the shape of our bodies, the hair on our head is just a fragment of ourselves.
The other autumnal evening I stood on the bridge overlooking the Yarra River in the city. The breath of Mother Nature swept through the air. Barreled perpendicular towards my face. Caught, pulled back my shoulder-length hair I trimmed the week before…now asymmetrical hair. Camera steady and set to manual mode in my hands, I pressed the shutter again and again as the sun went down. Comfortable. Confident. Free.
We often style our hair to look a certain way as we wish. But beauty is more than meets the eye. Beauty. It’s a feeling of self-belief that envelops us when we stop worrying about how we look, a feeling that shines out of our face like shooting stars when we love ourselves for who we are.
Do you prefer long or short hair?