What's Manly, What's Womanly?

Author: Yugal SehgalOriginally published on December 12, 2020

For the most part of my adolescent life, I have looked something like this:

Self-portrait by the author. © Yugal Sehgal

When I left my job last year, I decided to change — among other things — my hairstyle. I’d always wanted to grow my hair out, at least once in my life, so I decided if I was going to give my other dreams a chance, I might as well give this one, too. It’s been more than a year since then and this is what I look like now:

Self-portrait by the author. © Yugal Sehgal

I am a 22 year-old, heterosexual man, who’s short and skinny, and who lives in a small town in India where conventional wisdom finds long hair to be a feminine thing. Curious description there, I know, but important to mention for good reasons that I’ll soon get to.

COVID-19 has kept me, like most humanity, restricted to my house for most of this year, but a couple months ago I got a chance to head out and visited a sandwich place with a friend. Of course, I had my mask on and practiced all precautions. This is what I looked like that day:

Self-portrait by the author. © Yugal Sehgal

Taking my order was a young woman, and as she inquired about the vegetables I wanted with my sandwich, she addressed me as "Ma'am" — an honest mistake. I pulled my mask slightly down and told her it’s "Sir" and we laughed about it, but she was visibly embarrassed and got someone else, a guy, to complete my order, which was a little unnecessary and saddening. The sandwich for some reason didn’t taste as good as it otherwise would’ve.

Not so long after, something similar happened at a grocery store I went to, with quite the opposite reaction. Behind the counter this time was a guy, who also addressed me as "Ma'am" — an honest mistake. I responded the same way, pulled my mask slightly down, and told him it's "Sir", but instead of a humble laughter, I received a ridiculing one. Adding insult to injury, another young man nearby joined him in his subtle mockery. At the time I didn't feel very confrontational so I joined in on the joke and that seemed to take some of their edge away, but I was certainly not impressed by it. I wasn't bothered so much by the addressal as I was by that laughter, but you move on with your day...

Then last month I found myself in quite another predicament when a bunch of kids on their bicycles, all boys not older than 10, confronted me about my looks. For a change, they addressed me as "Uncle", which funnily enough I didn't seem to mind. But then one of them asked me the most curiously absurd question I have ever been asked, something that left me fully responseless for a minute afterwards. He said, "Uncle, are you a boy or a girl?" At the time I looked something like this:

Self-portrait by the author. © Yugal Sehgal

An old man nearby overheard and pointed to my beard as the answer. Meanwhile, I was struck by the irony in that question. Well, kids wonder, I thought, but what that kid said next was an even bigger shocker to me. He remarked, "Well you should style like us, we look like heroes!" And he ran his fingers through his short slick hair as he said that with a smug smile. Quite a confident kid, I must admit. Oh and he meant "heroes" in the context of conventional Bollywood male celebrities. Quite an ideal masculine impression for a child to have, right? If only an orthodox one, surely not limited?

And then last week, one final incident, a slightly happier one for a change, had me consider it all strongly enough to want to write about it. Another young boy not older than 10, at a family event stopped me in my way and asked, “Why do you have girly hair?” This one addressed me as “Bhayiya”, a respectful Indian term for older brothers/men. I told him there’s nothing girly about long hair, to which he keenly inquired, “How do you grow them that long?” “You just don’t get a haircut,” I said, which resolved his curiosity and he reciprocated with a smile. He was curious enough to be respectful and I liked that.

In a “normal” world where COVID-19 hadn’t existed, I would’ve had far more engagements and interactions with the world, and I’m convinced I would’ve had more incidents like these to deal with. I acknowledge my own role in the confusion, it is understandable if one addresses someone wrongly when they have long hair and their face is hidden behind a mask, but what does not sit well with me is how some people are unkindly towards you after the fact, how some archaic gender norms dictate their behavior wrongly to the point where they are disrespectful to you, and how, worst of all, that continues to be the standard for some children to subscribe to. Of course, this doesn’t hold for everyone, and depending on where you live, this might even be untrue, which is ideal. But unfortunately, in many parts of the country, particularly in smaller towns that are gripped by some obsolete conventional beliefs, this is true.

And it’s not just the length of your hair that can subject you to such reception. In the past, I’ve been made fun of, albeit in a friendly manner, for some really normal, unfunny things.

Things like using articulate language (calling a dog “adorably majestic”), skincare (moisturising every day), or being a soft-spoken, emotionally-perceptive person, have gotten me remarks like, “What a girly thing to say!”, “Getting ready like a girl!”, and “What a girl!” And when those saying it are people from your own generation, it is just saddening.

Apparently, humanly things are girly; men can’t be articulate, men don’t need skincare, and men can’t be soft-spoken or sensitive. Add to that, men can’t have long hair. And a thin, short stature only adds to men’s miseries. Men, it seems, can’t be human.

What stands out in my mind is how 2 different sets of people reacted differently to 2 similar incidences. Some showed humility while some ridiculed, and some patronized while some showed curiosity, all at the apparent oddity of a man with long hair.

Does it really matter what someone chooses to look like? Should it? Is the length of your hair a definitive attribute of your gender or sexual orientation? Do such superficial assessments really reflect any substance?

In a world with enmeshed cultures; and highly aware, empowered & educated human beings, it is probably stupid and irrelevant to ask what’s manly and what’s womanly. A better question to ask perhaps is, "What's humanly?"

Yugal Sehgal writes about life, mindfulness, and people. He lives in India. Follow him and @drawcuments on Instagram.