My eleven-year-old daughter has a detailed mandate from her school on how to wear shoulder-length hair: whether it is gathered into a plait or ponytail, there must be a pair of them and not one. So, she had her hair cut to the length of her chin instead and declared herself emancipated of rubber bands and inane rules. This demonstrated two attitudes – that she has developed a resistance to institutionally-organised control on female hair and that the endless stream of advertisements hailing the virtue of long and beautiful female hair have been wasted on her.

We are emotional about hair in a way that no other species is. Which is not surprising – for how many body parts, besides hair and nails can be both part of our living story and be shed at will? What’s more, how we wear our hair is intricately entangled with race, religion, fashion, class, culture, history, and epoch – which makes hair both intensely personal and extremely political at the same time. Hair isn’t just of great significance to the wearer, it’s a signifier of sorts, a symbol or how we as people fit into different worldviews.

I watch a Bollywood movie, and a lock of forehead hair, pulled back from the young heroine’s face by her beau, becomes the ultimate cliché of romantic attachment that goes back generations. In a totally different context, I remember the persistence with which Iranian women, Saudi men, and unidentifiable others jabbed in the direction of my hapless forehead every time a few strands of hair peeked out through their binding, whilst I performed the rituals of Haj. Their expressions suggested great personal offence, and wore a range of disgust, anger, and worry.

Across centuries and cultures

This puzzling range of emotion that we attach to hair, whether ours or others, and its commercial and historical journey, is the subject that anthropologist Emma Tarlo researched for three years before writing her non-fiction book, Entanglement, The Secret History of Hair. Maintaining the data gathering of an ethnographer and the keen eye of a traveller looking for personal stories she considers hair in the light of its many social meanings traversing cultures and time periods.

What emerges is a story of human struggle and aspiration that establishes a busy economy around hair, which runs into millions of dollars, and an inestimable number of workers. She writes, “The hair trade mobilises hundreds of thousands of people around the world on a daily basis – collectors who scour poor rural and urban areas in search of this much valued human fibre, pilgrims who travel hundreds of kilometers to donate it, traders who transport it, workers who move to hair-processing factories in search of labour, exporters and importers who enable its global circulation and distribution.”

Tarlo establishes anecdotal stories and data at every point of the chain that connects the donor to the receiver of hair. Ironies abound: the doctrinally encouraged, nearly industrial-sized tonsuring practices at traditional temples in South India translate into big business by the time they end up on the heads of Jewish women who prefer to practise sheitel rather than reveal their own hair. However, a respected rabbi’s decree against such “pagan hair” once turned the industry inside out. Toral, however, considers it a “…happy symbiotic balance… an unspoken pact between women of different nationalities and faiths who had, without knowing it, found ways of expressing their devotion and humility through sharing the same hair… At its best this might have been seen as a form of divine recycling.”

Myriad little-known facts pop up through the book suggesting the ubiquitous way hair has penetrated everyday life: We learn, for example, of how hair makes its way into soya recipes, paints, bagels, cosmetics, suits, artworks, instruments, pharmaceuticals and cement. A chapter on how animal hair makes its way into things as varied as lathering bristles to orchestral equipment suggest that how we treat and use our hair doesn’t just signify our distance and proximity to other people’s belief systems, but also defines “both our distance from animals and our proximity to them”.

Hair, in Tarlo’s book, is both base commodity and precious ideal, and has historically reflected societal norms about the female body in general.

What it says about you

Closer home, Mumbai based author Lalita Iyer’s semi-autobiographical book The Whole Shebang treats hair as a personal hurdle to be surmounted when growing up. She dedicates a chapter to hair, titled “Woman and the art of maintenance”. It includes an anecdote of her mother saying to a hairstylist, “Do something that will make her look soft and gentle,” because, culturally speaking, a young girl with big curls is begging to be tamed. She writes, “As I grew older, and the hair wilder (they no longer had to be plaited), there were jibes at every corner: When was the last time you oiled your hair? Have you combed it?... You have so much hair! How do you manage? Why don’t you try straightening?” She recalls that it took her years of being “apologetic” to finally muster the courage to accept her look and enjoy being herself.

Understanding the role of hair can require some meditation, particularly when you grow up amongst a Sikh community where, as Deepika Arwind, the Bengaluru-based playwright of A Brief History of Your Hair, observes, “it’s presence and absence… was always quite weighted, to the extent that chopping off her long hair left her feeling odd even three years after the event.”

Hair, in her case, “takes up a bit of mind space,” and she chose to explore the subject of hair and gender in cross-disciplinary way through a devised work, using mythology, fantastical explorations of stories related to hair, and deeply personal stories, to arrive at an understanding of hair as an external marker of gender, caste, and attractiveness.

While Arwind recalls audience reactions to this treatment as mixed, it is easy to see the fascination with this protein-based fibre is one that is likely to continue so long as we attach external values to the treatment and ownership of the human body. The politics of female hair in both traditional and western societies has much to do with how control is exercised on the female body by society, religion, custom, and culture, if the past is anything to go by. It’s up to women and girls to look at themselves and their hair with fresh eyes.

Karishma Attari is the Mumbai-based author of I See You and Don’t Look Down, and founder of Shakespeare for Dummies workshops. Her Twitter handle is @KarishmaWrites.