Illustration by Oscar Bray.

Reflections from a Man with Hairy Legs

The hope in writing all of these relatively grungily ordered reflections, firstly, is for me to explore. Identity is huge, but this is one side of mine I’ve often found hard to figure out.

Jan 31, 2021

“Long hair? That’s for women” is a familiar phrase for me. And if not on the note of hair, certainly about piercings, voice registers, tight pants and more. It’s something that has drawn lines, reinstated boundaries and made me question who I was, way before the ideas and vocabulary of gender, performance and orientation meant anything to me. I’m not sure who said the “it's for women” thing, but I remember shortly after, it resulted in an involuntary — but what I had then thought of as voluntary — trip to the barbershop.
My first defense to such a remark as a child was to point at the Amar Chitra Katha, a comic collection based on Hindu mythology and a huge part of growing up in most Hindu households. We are now in a day and age where we question the kind of representation that the comic used: often depicting the god kind or higher class with fair and voluptuous figures and everyone else with unrealistic and discriminatory appearances. As a child though, my interest in these comic characters was specifically with the men. I’d open the book, flip through the many pages and make my claim. “They have long hair, why can’t I?” I argued. It was true, the men almost always had long hair. Long, luscious, but strong hair.
However, the trip to the barbershop didn't happen just because of the long hair gender conundrum; it was also the Dubai weather. The reasoning in the family — which was not entirely off the mark — was that come summer, I’d sweat up a stream and catch a cold, which could then supposedly become infectious and through some thwarted set of consequences, end me up in a hospital bed. So the mushroom cut it was.
Somewhere between grades eight and 12, I had a great friend. Other classmates thought we were gay or together — whatever that meant. We couldn’t care less about what people thought, but our closeness also meant we did a lot of things together, or rather simultaneously. For instance, once I had a realization: I didn’t like my leg hair. The same week he had the same realization. And so we shaved it.
What followed in the consequent weeks of this incident still sticks around in my head. I clearly remember the looks. It was the things that weren’t said but were rather seen and felt. When we played on the basketball court, sat in class during breaks, got food at the canteen or, god forbid, found ourselves in the staircase sharing bread — or charcoal chicken. Sneers, whispers, the whole lot.
Between the cyclical barbershop escapades and this whole leg hair situation, there’s a third moment that comes to my mind. This was when an elder cousin took it upon himself to verify the growing insecurities in the family. After questioning me on the long hair and shaved legs, mid conversation, he put a hand on my arm. The hand slowly crept up, making the situation palpably uncomfortable. Now mind you, my parents were around, and this was an otherwise civil situation. It all resolved as soon as I shoved his hand away after a few trying seconds. Turned out it was a test for “manliness”. Albeit this incident being mutually discomforting for my parents and me, it was something I thought I’d eventually forget. But that isn’t the case. As I sit here and think of these moments from different points of my life, they feel undeniably relevant and potent as ever. I see how much these incidents affected me. Although the “test” only happened once, it is one of the many times an anomaly to the expected performance of a man has led me into difficult situations. These incidents have contributed to who I am now and to the many ways I perform myself. The way I speak, the way I walk, what I’m comfortable wearing, what I’m comfortable showing — the list goes on.
But in essence, they created a hump — an almost cork-stop to an otherwise slowly maturing and exploring human. It seems to me that for those who uphold the spoken and unspoken rules of gender, hair somehow can be the first line of attack and judgement. Perhaps that makes sense though. Shaved or unshaved, it really is the first thing that separates our body from the environment.
The hope in writing all of these relatively grungily ordered reflections is for me to explore. Identity is huge, but this is one side of mine I’ve often found hard to figure out. This whole hair-gender-norm thing can be really darn confusing. For someone like me, the first step is to question it. I don’t have many answers, but talking about it, especially when aspects of my identity are constantly at the verge of being erased, is perhaps a good enough place to start.
For what it’s worth, I’ll be going to the barber sometime this week. The point of contention in the family this time is my rowdy beard.
Sreerag Jyothish is a Contributing Writer. Email him at
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