Friday, September 28, 2012

Hirsutism as Holiness

So the interwebs are abuzz with the story of the hirsute Sikh woman who was caught on camera, sought to be made fun of, and who then came onto the thread on reddit to defend herself and offer her religious beliefs as an explanation of her looks.

One of the papers covers the story here.

I grew up in a Sikh family, and I know the custom of keeping unshorn hair rather intimately.  My brother faced a lot of resistance when he sought to cut his hair, and I was taken to task when I tried to trim my beard.

I have a few comments about this custom, and a few comments about the response of the hirsute woman, whose name is supposedly Balpreet Kaur.

The custom is archaic and a lot of Sikhs actually resent it.  It usually makes people look ungainly and makes for an uphill battle in personal hygiene.  Sikhs normally wash their hair only once a week, even during hot and humid weather.  Males are supposed to tie their hair in a bun on the top of the head and cover it using a turban.  It is hard to wear spectacles with a turban, and needless to say, the turban inhibits athletic activity, sports and swimming, and even the wearing of a safety helmet.

This custom (of keeping long hair) and headgear was supposedly introduced by the tenth Sikh Guru about three hundred years ago as a martial uniform.  But Sikhs seem to have taken it a bit too far.  Even trimming of one's eyebrows is enough to get you expelled from certain Sikh religious institutions.  Some Sikhs vociferously protest when some hair is to be removed from their bodies during a surgical procedure.  It is quite funny and tragic at the same time.

I believe most Indian religious customs related to the body are less than aesthetically evolved, and sometimes just tasteless.  People, including ladies, who go to certain Hindu ashrams get their heads shaved.  Sikhs are asked to wear long underwear and never remove even a single hair from their bodies.  Jain monks stay naked and cover their mouths with a cloth which continues to get dirty as the day passes.  Many Hindus tie a red thread on their wrists which is not supposed to be taken off.  It has to wear off on its own after many days while it continues to get damp, dirty and laden with bacteria and assorted filth.  We are asked to take a dip in highly polluted pools and rivers as a means of purification.  People even carry the polluted, putrid water, in which thousands of people are bathing, back to their homes in plastic bottles to be sipped as holy water.  Muslims undertake compulsory circumcision for young males.  Some South Indians roll their naked bodies in leftover food of Brahmins.  And so on and so forth.

We perhaps like to believe that the body is merely a vessel for the soul and so the ugliness or ungainliness of the body is of little concern if it is supposed to uplift our souls, thereby making us do better deeds.

I think this is a rather warped and dangerous view which ultimately ends up reflecting in India being one of the ugliest, filthiest places in the whole world.  Deeds of its citizens notwithstanding (whether they are holier or more moral than of other people is matter of grave doubt, by the way).

To be unattractive by birth is unfortunate, but to cultivate un-attractiveness is a symptom of, I don't know, a serious neurosis?  And before I am sought to be convinced that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, please, go through this article and the links contained therein and let's talk afterwards...

For those who don't want to read the above article for lack of time, allow me to guess for you which of the below women you find more attractive.  Answer: It is the second one.

Let's say someone has bad body odor or bad breath.  Would you expect this person to remedy that situation for a social engagement?  Would you expect a person to wear clean clothes (or wear clothes at all) and to not have open, festering wounds on his/her skin?  Would you expect someone you deal with to not loudly burp and fart and pick their nose in your presence?  Would you expect your marital partner to regularly brush their teeth and to take a bath?

What if they did not do as you (and as any normal, socialized human) would expect, and then justified their aberrant behavior by citing some archaic religious belief and by asking you to look instead at their "inner beauty" and their "moral superiority" and their "religious loyalty"?

I would ask you to consider such a person a case for psychiatric intervention, even if they are studying neuroscience.

In this particular case, does Ms Balpreet Kaur not realize that her facial hair is going to be the first thing people notice about her, and it will make them uncomfortable?  That any deed that she does, any interaction that she indulges in, any act of service that she renders, will first have to overcome this artificial barrier that she herself has created?  Is this barrier important, or the deed?  If a great deed that can save a life which requires her to shave her face, will she hesitate?

Now that her identity as a Sikh proud hirsute woman is a matter of public history, she is going to have a rather tough time going back on this stance, say, to get married.  Internet popularity cuts both ways.

Facial hair on women, just like a strong bod odor or halitosis, is a physiological problem which negatively affects people that one interacts with.  It makes people repelled.  If she is unwilling to solve this problem (and there is an extremely easy solution to this costing less than a dollar a week), and instead wants other people to look beyond physical attributes, then she is just being delusional and is expecting too much from society.  Society will not look beyond, it will look "at" and will conclude many things based on that perception.

It is similar to someone not wanting to buy a two dollar body deodorant but instead wanting other people to look beyond their olfactory perception.

Granted, there are certain aspects of one's appearance which may be unattractive and which may be hard to remedy.  In such cases, we do silently ask for others' forbearance, and usually others oblige, again silently.  And visual appearance is something that people can get used to after a while (unlike a bad odor which can continue to suffocate).  But why subject others to this inconvenience, if you can help it?

I consider it rude behavior to not care about one's personal appearance and grooming: it is a lack of care and empathy towards people who one interacts with.  It is to place a constant demand on other people.  They may be able to get used to this demand, but many may not.

If she wishes to live in a setting where her looks are a matter of pride and not of jest, then she should join a Sikh monastery.  In other settings, her looks are a matter of concern, not pride.

I was also amused by her quite effort-ful and intellectual response, pat with an explanation about her t-shirt as well (and she also had to mention that the God of Sikhs is gender-less, for some reason that I find hard to fathom).  She obviously considers her appearance and the reactions it causes in others to be of significance (otherwise why bother with a response?), but instead of becoming more aesthetically normative, she wants others to be more tolerant, nay, even appreciative of her stance of ugliness (and it IS ugliness by all normal standards of human aesthetics).

Ms Balpreet Kaur could be a curious exhibit in a study on narcissism and willful denial of social realities.  I am, however, glad, that it brings to some attention a deeply regrettable facet about the Sikh religion - its archaic customs, that is.  Something which needs far more attention, and criticism, than it has received.


Sridhar said...

This notion of hair as holiness or wisdom is perpetuated by the so called gurus such as Sri Sri, Jaggi etc. and the millions of 'sadhus' across India. Every one of them could use a shower, haircut and some shaving accessories.

Anonymous said...

Your arguments against keeping hair are hollow. Sikhs have highest representation in sports, athletics and army. How do you suppose they get there if their hair was such a big liability as you make it out to be? There have been many scientific studies that turban actually provides better protection than helmet. Kesh have been a part of Sikh identity. If Kesh are removed, Sikhism will get absorbed into Hinduism just like Jainism.

- Manjit

Anonymous said...

This article itself is a narcissistic exercise!

zrini (srini, ஸ்ரீநி, வாசு, சீனு, சீனி etc.) said...

just had a eureka moment.. if desire is supposed to be a problem, and beauty creates desire.. beauty is a problem. QED.

pankaj said...

you clinched it - tragic and funny at the same time.

Eivind said...

You mix entirely unrelated customs. Wearing dirty clothes, or not brushing your teeth is actually unhygienic and is considered both unattractive and unhealthy.

In contrast, there's no natural reason why facial hair on a woman is somehow magically more of a problem than facial hair on a man would be.

The latter is a social construction, not related to health or hygiene. (if anything, shaving the head would be -more- hygienic than having long hair, and nevertheless long hair is considered more attractive in a woman.

Anonymous said...

As a woman who chooses to keep kesh, and have heard the same argument as this post by my husband, I always answer "I am already married. You and I are joined together by our binding marriage. Our love is not one of lust. You are attractive to me not because you are a 21-year-old Boy Band Star Joe Jonas or whoever...You are attractive to me for everything that you are. Your unshaven body is MORE attractive to me because this is who you really are. Shaving makes someone fake, much like you say how when I wear makeup it is something fake. Is not shaving the same for a woman as a man?"

"If you aren't ashamed why do you cover your entire body, arms and legs?"

"Even if I shaved, would you want me to walk outside in a bikini everyday?"
"Exactly. I would not wear shorts anyway. It's not modest and shaving is only required for those who wish to expose those parts of their bodies."

Hair is, by scientific fact, actually protection and arguably more hygenic than shaving. Shaving leaves people more prone to herpes, HPV, STI, Staph infections, yeast infections on the topical part of the skin, blood poisoning, fungal infections on the skin, and other illnesses. Why? Because shaving leaves pores open, microdermal abrasions and microscopic bleeding that support a habitat for disease. Also it causes chafing, itching, dryness, and discomfort because of how hair grows back after being shaved...

Wouldn't you prefer soft lush hair than a scratchy, razor burn, patchy bleeding and infectious woman who is "bare down there"? I prefer that on my husband is all I can say...