People whose opinion I value judge me by my character and ability, not my looks
There was a fuss recently about United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s hair. “Well done, Hillary Clinton, for flouting the short-haired practice among older women,” wrote Ms Robin Givhan in The Washington Post. “She is a role model for women who are past the ingenue phase of their lives. She is making a fashion statement. Clinton, at age 62, has grown out her hair – and it looks quite nice.” “Wow!” I thought, how condescending. I was amused by Mrs Clinton’s continuing adventure with her hair, but as a woman, I was also annoyed by the story.
Was Ms Givhan implying that women with weighty international problems on their minds should also
pay a great deal of attention to their hairstyles?
I myself have had only two kinds of hairstyles throughout the 55 years of my life – short and
When one of my maternal aunts was working as a professional hairdresser, I used to go to her
for haircuts. I had a China doll look: horizontally straight across the forehead fringe, vertical on the
sides, and again horizontally straight and neat around the back of my head.
My hair was kept short – never more than an inch below the ears, as was the rule at Nanyang Primary School. But I always pleaded for my hair to be cut even shorter. Although both at home and at play, I could keep up with the boys, I felt a China doll haircut would not cause anyone to mistake me for a boy, as I wished they did. I was
what they called a “tomboy”.
At some point, when I was in secondary school, my aunt changed my hairstyle to the one that I still wear at present. It was similar to that of a boy, with a parting on the right. My hair was cut so short that it was above both ears and a little wispy stubble was left at the back of my head. My aunt would use a special clipper, similar to the shears used for shearing sheep, to tidy up the stubble.
Somehow, although my hair was short, my aunt managed not to make it look severe. She closed her hairdressing salon in 1975 when I was 20 years old and midway through medical school. My mother then took over as my hairdresser. She was meticulous in having the hair on both sides of my head look symmetrical. She would use a shaving razor to remove the stubble at the back of my neck. The entire procedure would take up to an hour – way too long, as far as I was concerned.
At least at my aunt’s salon, I could read comics and, when I was older, my textbooks. But it seemed rude to be reading something while my mother was concentrating on giving me the perfect haircut. So we would chit-chat, though at the back of my mind, I would be thinking of the studying and exercise I had yet to do. So I always asked my mother to cut my hair shorter than she was planning to, so the occasion for my next haircut could be put off for as long as possible.
From 1981 to 1984, I was training in paediatric neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I cut my hair myself then. The front and sides were fairly easy. The back was more difficult as I had to do it by feel. Once, I made a mistake when cutting the back, and there was a hole as though a mouse had taken a bite out of my hair. I sought the help of a Singaporean friend whose husband was attending Harvard Law School then, and she managed to do some damage control.
I found Americans had difficulty judging my age. And when I wore male-looking attire, I was often mistaken for a boy, although I was in my late 20s. When I returned to Singapore, my mother resumed cutting my hair when we both happened to be free at the same time. But often, I would cut it myself because I took only 10 minutes.
Before setting off on hiking trips, I would cut my hair really short so I would pass off as a boy, and hopefully not be attacked. But this strategy backfired once. I was driving on Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco with two friends. They wanted to stop for coffee at a scenic cafe as we were nearing San Francisco. I decided to stretch my legs and was walking by the road when a middle-aged Caucasian man with a beard drove past me. He stopped, wound down his window and offered me a ride. I declined and turned around to walk back to the cafe. But he turned his car around too and repeated his offer. He reluctantly drove off when I told him I had a car and that my friends were waiting for me. I think he was a homosexual and thought I was a boy, so tried to pick me up. I was in my early 30s then, but unless one looked at me carefully, I could easily have passed off as a teenage boy.
In 2003, my mother had a stroke that caused her to be unable to see on the left side of her visual field. Since then, I have been cutting my hair myself, except occasionally, when one of my doctor friends does it for me. She is used to cutting her sons’ hair, and is very efficient. Within 10 minutes, my hair is short and tidy. I must admit my haircut does not flatter me. But my facial features are aesthetically challenged in any case, and I doubt any hairstyle, no matter how fancy, could make me look better. The people whose opinion matter to me do not judge me by my appearance, but by my character and my ability.
The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.