Identity

These Intimate Portraits Examine How Hair Connects to Gender Identity

After chopping her hair off in college, this Indian-British writer turned to her friends to understand how hair can feel closely tied to who we are.

by Sharan Dhaliwal
Oct 25 2018, 7:43pm

Photos by Saima Khalid

After cutting my long hair into a bob, I noticed a distinct difference in the way people interacted with me. The first time I made a decision to cut my hair, I was at university. I was 20 years old and wanted to emulate the first woman I was sexually attracted to, actress Shannyn Sossamon. Looking like the A Knight’s Tale actress was my roundabout way of making myself desirable within the confines of a beauty standard I set for myself. My long hair was regularly called “beautiful” and I believed was a signifier of my femininity; I wondered whether my short hair would challenge this. I never realized what power it held.

“Your hair used to be so beautiful,” my mum would mutter while pushing back her bob-cut hair out of her face and behind her ear. She was married at the time, so she didn’t believe she needed to have long hair as a way to attract men— like I, apparently, needed to have. “No one’s going to marry you now,” her muttering continued.

In my community hair adverts on Indian TV would correlate beauty to long, silky hair and there was almost always a hint to bridal ceremonies in the narrative of the commercials. In films like Water by Deepa Mehta and Kida Poosari Magudi by J. Jayakumar, characters depicted were chastised for having short hair. I was always taught that long hair was ideal and was a signifier of being chaste, marriage material, whereas short or shaved hair related to promiscuity and shame.

Despite the loaded cultural context of being an Indian-British woman who identifies as bisexual, in cutting my long hair I really didn’t have a deep understanding of how optics affected my personal identity, or if it even should— until I talked to friends. In this photo series, we examined different journeys and stories, speaking to people about why their hair changed, ownership, and how they navigate through the world.

1540493015035-Jasmine-Cooray
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Jasmine Cooray

I lost all my hair, lashes, and eyebrows over a year ago to alopecia. With incredible support and necessary bravery, I have come to a place where I can champion a different idea of what being feminine can look like. I’ve never felt more beautiful or badass, and I’m proud.


1540493104868-Grace-Medford
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Grace Medford

I don't feel any more or less feminine, but I'm aware that there are occasions now where I put more effort into looking explicitly feminine. Long hair is really basic short-hand for "this is a woman,” so I never had to consider it before. These days I wear earrings and makeup when I wouldn't normally bother because if I wear jeans and a hoodie now, I look like the short-hand for "boy".

1540493144134-Naima-Alam
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Naima Alam
Pushing back against negativity and maintaining or altering my image how I want, allows me to take back a little bit of control over my mind and body. I want my appearance to be dictated only by me and my desires, and not by family and society’s expectations nor a compulsive need to rebel against them.

1540493180189-Talia-Jordan-Lewis
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Talia-Jordan Lewis
I see people stare at me sometimes —they go to touch my hair. It disappoints me as a Black woman because we’re in 2018. I think you should learn not to touch my hair by now.

1540493203588-Christina-Grinwade
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Christina Grimwade

In school short hair was forced upon me. Growing it out was an early act of rebellion… something [I perceived as] feminine, that I could cling to as authentically me. It’s an important part of my self-expression, but now I'm out and proud. I don't feel I need to rely on it [hair length] anymore as much as I used to.


1540493227896-Jannat-Hussain
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Jannat Hussain

I was worried because my hair is covered. Am I left to display my beauty through my face, makeup, and style choices? I realized that despite covering my hair, my standards of beauty were still affected by its very existence. I didn’t like that my hair could have this power. A year ago, I shaved my head and as a hijabi, I found it freeing. My relationship with my hijab felt stronger


1540493280240-Liz-Ward
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Liz Ward
Hair is political and locs especially can come with a stigma or preconceptions. But, in my experience, within the Black community locs are a beautiful, natural, celebrated style, and I'm so proud of my dreads. I can finally say I love my hair, my Blackness, and myself. Now I wear a crown of dreadlocks.

1540493299594-Faith-Aylward
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Faith Alyward
Since shaving my head, I feel more feminine and beautiful than I have before because it made me appreciate my features. It also made me feel like I could manifest and become anyone I wanted because as a young girl I literally dreamed about pulling off this look but never thought I could.

1540493322548-Aisha-Mirza
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Aisha Mirza
My hair is very curly and some of my most poignant childhood memories involve the anxiety of trying to tame my curls to look “pretty.” The last time I shaved my head was this summer.

1540493340076-Franny-Gant
Photo by Saima Khalid @angryjalebi
Franny Gant
I’ve had long hair a few times in my life but I always preferred short hair as a kid. I don’t remember deciding to do it for any reason —I just didn’t fit the “girly mold.” As I’ve got older, I enjoy my own masculinity more. I don’t feel any less of a woman because I look like a geezer.