Words by Simar Bajaj
Every day, a tangle of subterranean roots shoots thin filaments out the surface. Sometimes straight up, sometimes in curls. Sometimes the color of burnished copper, other times a buttery gold. This forest is hardly teeming with life though; it’s a microscopic world of death. The hair that sprouts from our scalps are nonliving protein fibers, perennially shed and renewed, but dead, nonetheless. So, it’s odd that hair takes on such vivid symbolism in nearly every culture.
For men in particular, long hair can be something contentious, or even divinely improper: Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Still, there’s a powerful tradition of spurning Paul’s binary. Many Native American men embrace flowing hair as a manifestation of their cultural identity and their spirit’s growth. In ancient Greece and Rome, men similarly grew their hair long to exemplify wealth and status. And in the Old Testament, the Israelite judge Samson derived his superhuman strength from his luscious locks. Hair is an unequivocal symbol across time and place, whose meaning is reified in efforts to tame it.
June 2, 2019.
The birth of the new me, or “version 2.0,” as my mom said. The only difference I felt was the odd new sensation of a breeze fluttering through my freshly shorn hair.
As a Sikh, a member of the fifth largest religion in the world, I inherited a tradition of unshorn, cloth-bound hair. It was a symbol of faith and acceptance of God’s will. It was also four feet that, when freed, would creep past my waist. For most of my life, I wholeheartedly followed my community in embracing my hair and our religion. At Sunday school, I devotedly memorized the scriptures. I made the pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India every year. I spent a decade playing the harmonium to sing religious hymns for thousands.
Living as a Sikh also meant dealing with occasional onslaughts of ignorance. Having grown up in the Bay Area, where 27 percent of residents identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander, I like to think that I didn’t have it too bad. In first grade, a classmate told me I looked like a girl. Ignorance, I reasoned. When I ran for middle school treasurer with a poster of my face on the $100 bill, some upperclassmen called me a terrorist. Jokingly, they clarified. And at the start of freshman year in high school, people were wishing me “Happy Birthday” because someone had created a fake Facebook page with my birth date listed as 9/11.
The racism was painful, but I endured it, proud of my religion and its courageous tradition. It was a small price to pay to honor the sacrifices of my parents, who had immigrated here from India in the 1990s, and my ancestors, who had sacrificed so much more.
I could deal with the racism. But, I was less prepared for my gradual disillusionment with Sikhism.
For years, I had been wrestling with questions of culture, tradition, and religion. Sikhism teaches that God is one. Why then was God cleaved into countless different religions? If all paths were equal, why not follow some other religion instead?
No one had a satisfying answer. The beautifully unstated one was that our God was the only one worth following. To be fair, this wasn’t a problem of Sikhism alone—the entire institution of religion felt predicated on assumptions of supremacy. I decided then that I would follow God without embracing any one religion. My hair, though, remained. I justified it to myself, saying that if I knew my heart, then what did it matter if I cut my hair or not?
It was an excuse, plain and simple. Sure, I no longer considered myself a Sikh, but to the world, that unshorn hair was an unequivocal beacon. How could I blame my teacher, who continued to pepper me with incessant questions about Sikhism? How could I blame my friends, who were always curious about my turban? They couldn’t possibly have known about my identity crisis, and I had no intention of telling them. So, for years, I kept serving as a spokesperson of a defunct identity before finally deciding to turn the tables and ask myself a question.
Why this hair?
I ransacked my conscience, and it became painfully obvious. Fear. Fear of what my conservative grandparents would do. Fear of what my Sikh family friends would say. Fear of what my peers at school would ask. It was easier, I thought, to go with the flow and play the part of a practicing Sikh in public, but these theatrics only caused my hair to further separate from my sense of self. Rather than being integral to my identity, my hair was a symbol for someone who no longer existed.
So off it came.
Of course, I wasn’t so bold as to take a meat cleaver and just chop off my hair; I wanted it professionally cut. But that itself was a bit of a challenge because who the heck could I go to for this? Showing up to my local Supercuts and saying, “I’ll get the usual,” didn’t seem like a good option. After all, I was a guy with a four-foot long mane, my roots probably damaged from 17 years of my hair being braided and tied tightly over my head (as to fit underneath a turban). I must have swiped through dozens of potential barbers. They specialized in short hair, textured hair, and all sorts of hair—but none knew my hair.
I ended up going to an upscale hair salon in San Francisco, thinking that with a perfect five-star rating and the $$$ price range on Yelp, I would be putting my hair into good hands. They did an excellent job, no doubt, but nothing could have prepared me for this “exotic” experience. They washed my hair before cutting it, although I tried to tell them that I had already washed it at home. My stylist was aghast when I called her a barber, although I didn’t even know there was a difference. And she started by asking me how I wanted my hair cut, although I didn’t have the vocabulary to know what to say. “Well,” I offered.
Then, without any advance notice, she took out her pair of scissors and chopped off some two feet of my hair in mere seconds, taking it from roughly waist to shoulder height.
After I recovered from this initial shock, I watched my mirror reflection with fascination as she worked, a vast array of tools at her disposal. A chair lever to alter my height. Mystery liquids to spritz on intermittently. A comb to ensure a straight snip. It’s hard to say if she was amused or annoyed by my steady stream of questions about everything she was doing.
After an hour of pruning my hair, she gave me a handheld mirror and asked me what I thought. (I was initially confused by this because there was a perfectly good larger mirror right in front of me.) She then asked if I wanted to keep the hair littered across the floor around me, or just have them throw it away. I told her that I didn’t need it anymore.
A couple of months later, my high school asked me if I wanted to share my story with my peers, so in late 2019, I gave a speech entitled “Breaking the Locks: Why I Cut My Hair After 17 Years” to some 100 people in our tiny auditorium. As daggers of light descended on my face, I spoke on visual biases and the disconnect between inherited and learned identities. My talk was well received, and it was even uploaded to the TEDx YouTube channel months later. Hundreds of these videos are posted every week, and most pass without notice. I wasn’t expecting much. But my speech received 15,000 views and almost 500 comments.
This person is the example who should not be given a stage for lack of self-worth reason.
This kid knows nothing about his religion nor do his parents.
This Simar guy is trying to drag his community under a bus.
Sikhi is neither for weak nor for people who live their life for pleasing their haters.
You were weak, there’s nothing to be proud in being weak.
Freedom Fighter my foot.
And so began a perverse ritual. Every day, I would open up YouTube and read the latest swarm of abuse. I had put myself up on a platter for the world, so I felt that I had to know what people were saying. I had to thumbs-up the few statements of encouragement. I had to thumbs-down the deluge of hate. I had to do something.
It was more difficult to “do something” about the death threats I received on social media. (Apparently, there aren’t too many Simar Bajaj’s out there. Go figure.) Sword emojis galore, vague notions that I would be “put in my place,” and less ambiguous messages that something else would be cut—my neck, in case you were wondering. It was draining and painful. My TedX talk was about struggles with identity and the need to forge one true to yourself, about empowerment and not letting fear of judgment stop you from being you. But some days, I wished I had never given this speech. Sure, it was important to be honest with yourself. But how could this all be worth it? Other days, I blamed myself for the abuse and death threats. Had I not invited it by sharing my story so publicly?
Harvard anthropologist Arthur Kleinman argues in his book What Really Matters that we all live in self-constructed local moral worlds, encompassing our friends, our neighborhoods, our news, our jobs, etc. In these local worlds, there are things that really matter and define who we are, but we have difficulty understanding those who live outside our worlds. So, we vilify them, imposing our own logic onto their actions.
As the world is increasingly connected through technology, slippage into contrasting moral worlds has become all but inevitable. You don’t have to look further than Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—and the bitter debates in the comments sections—to see that the social mores that have long kept people civil are being uprooted.
In-group supremacy provides little appetite for understanding the other side. And with the digital cover of anonymity, certain freedom from consequences enables zealots and fanatics to say out loud what would otherwise pass away silently.
The world is made up of tribes. You’re either with them or against them, whether you chose to play or not.
There’s something almost religious about our times.
It’s been three years since I cut my hair, but I still visit my video at least once a month, sorting through the hundreds of comments by “Newest First.” Things seem to have, thankfully, quieted down, with the most recent comment a 143-word rant from two months ago. The threats on social media have also eased up, although I continue to worry that the indecipherable whims of the YouTube algorithm will, one day, end my reprieve. Still, I think I’m finally ready to move on. After all, cutting my hair was my decision, so who cares what they think?
Published on August 18, 2022
Words by Simar Bajaj
Simar Bajaj is a student at Harvard University studying the History of Science and a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Stanford University School of Medicine. He has previously written for the New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Washington Post, Guardian, Smithsonian, and Boston Globe.
Art by Ryan Quan
Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.