On being a ‘mansome’ Sikh
“But, when you have a beard, a mustache, it’s like a mask. You can’t see the person’s face. It’s hidden.”
As disagreeable as the words sounded, my friend’s tone was very gentle and civil. It was almost as if he was asking me the question: why bother?
I was a nine-year-old Sikh boy with a little mustache fuzz and a patka (a Sikh boy’s headcovering), speaking with the clean-shaven teenaged Hindu boy next door whom I befriended on this extended trip to India. I would often play games with his younger brother, but with this older brother, our interaction usually took the form of conversations about our different cultures and religions.
His point about hair left me somewhat at a loss. I remember his facial expression after he made his statement – curiously waiting for a response that I would not have.
Later that evening, I presented this argument to my father. “He said people can’t see our true faces because of the hair on our face.”
My father didn’t take a second to respond. “This is my face”, he said very matter-of-factly, “this is how a man’s face naturally looks.”
This episode from my childhood came to mind when a friend brought to my attention the release of the movie Mansome (a play on “handsome”), a documentary about the increasing focus on male grooming and fixation on beauty:
From America’s greatest beardsman, to Morgan Spurlock’s own mustache, Executive Producers Will Arnett, Jason Bateman and Ben Silverman bring us a hilarious look at men’s identity in the 21st century. Models, actors, experts and comedians weigh in on what it is to be a man in a world where the definition of masculinity has become as diverse as a hipster’s facial hair in Williamsburg. The hilarious follicles of men’s idiosyncratic grooming habits are thoroughly combed over as men finally take a long hard look in the mirror.
“Now I’m being told I’m not perfect, I’m being told by this magazine I’m fat, I’m being told that I’m not good enough, and that I need to change the way I live if I want to please my woman. These are things that used to be on the cover of Cosmopolitan and are now on the cover of Men’s Health, Esquire and Details. Now that there are all these things wrong with us, how do [men] find out what’s right for us? That’s part of what the film taps into.”
To women, I am sure this will sound all-too-familiar, who for centuries have been struggling with the commercial, cultural and social pressures around what is considered beautiful or feminine. For Sikh women, this is even more the case, as they must contend with contradictory messages from outside and from within the Sikh community about uncut hair and what is considered beautiful versus what is sacred. For a discussion of this issue in the Sikh female context, Kirpa Kaur gave a great talk at the recent Sikholars conference that you can watch on YouTube – my comments on that presentation are here.
However, we’re now seeing a similar phenomenon emerging for men, particularly so as a result of the metrosexual movement of the 1990s:
Metrosexual is a neologism derived from metropolitan and heterosexual coined in 1994 describing a man (especially one living in an urban, post-industrial, capitalist culture) who spends a lot of time and money on shopping for his appearance. Debate surrounds the term’s use as a theoretical signifier of sex deconstruction and its associations with consumerism.
As a Sikh male who maintains a turban and uncut hair, I had a passing interest in this film about male grooming (which I have not yet watched), but the story about one of the men profiled in this movie made me take note:
Another is Ricky Manchanda, a New York City-based clothing company executive. Growing up as a Sikh, Manchanda spent his already awkward years in a tightly wrapped turban. He has turned the trauma of childhood teasing into a never-ending quest to tweak his physical appearance with a regimen that includes tanning, facials, eyebrow threading and exploring the latest laser skin treatments.
The inclusion of a Sikh in this documentary who shed his religious articles in pursuit of an ideal of attractiveness caught my attention. It’s a common story among Sikh men who grow up in a culture that defines facial hair as contamination or, much like the friend I had in India, an obstacle. Whether in a misguided association with terrorism, or in aspects of attractiveness and modernity, Sikh boys and men are often told and taught that the turban and uncut hair are undesirable qualities in today’s society. For one Ricky Manchanda, perhaps his childhood experiences played a factor in his never-ending quest in search of physical perfection.
The belief that hair is unattractive is reinforced not only by those outside of Sikh culture, but within it as well. For example, bearded Sikh men, when seeking a mate, are commonly and openly disqualified by Sikh women who routinely express a desire for “clean-shaven” Sikh men. This preference by Sikh women may not always be the case, but it is often enough that many bearded Sikh men consider themselves at a disadvantage compared to clean-shaven counterparts. Thus, when facial hair feels more like an obstacle, it’s not hard to understand the pressures to discard it, and become obsessed with appearance to cater to outside influences.
Often, this negative reinforcement comes from a young Sikh man’s own family. It’s not particularly unusual for a clean-shaven Sikh man to insist his son not cut his hair through childhood. It’s also not unheard of for the mothers of young Sikh men to take a negative view of the maintenance of their son’s uncut hair, or for the sisters of observant Sikh men to reject this identity when searching for their own mate. Accordingly, when their own family members reinforce already-prevalent cultural prejudices against uncut hair, perhaps it becomes too much for a young Sikh man to handle.
Sadly, it seems the only place where there is consensus about the legitimacy of the turban and beard across Sikh groups – observant and non-observant, traditional and ‘modern’, male and female – is as a practice in the Sikh wedding ritual wherein even those who reject this physical identity take on these attributes for the wedding ceremony – grooms will grow a nominal beard and tie a turban for the marriage ritual only, and discard these articles before the day is through. For those who maintain these articles in their daily lives, such ritualization of the Sikh male identity puts into question the relevance of the beard and turban in Sikh society.
A few years ago, one observant Sikh man in the west blogged about his experience (writing under the handle of “Harry Singh”) and expressed his frustrations about trying to find a Sikh mate while he maintained a turban and beard. To him, his difficulty in finding someone who shared the same faith and who would accept and support him in his religious observance was an ominous sign for our community.
All this is not to lay blame at the feet of women for what Sikh men go through with their uncut hair. It is also hard to argue that what many Sikh women go through on the expectations of men can be much worse. However, perhaps there is a common experience here to which both observant Sikh men and women can relate.
And, perhaps the situation is not as dire as the frustrated bachelor Harry Singh believed. A review of the comments on Harry Singh’s blog shows how much support there is for Sikh men to maintain their full beards, even among Sikh women. In the video below, Sikh women of western origin are adamant about their support for the open beard as well:
Further, even fully committed observant Sikh men have ‘mansome’ issues. A recent post on the blog The Langar Hall by blogger Brooklynwala discusses his experience with being “kuli dhari“ (open-bearded) rather than tying his uncut beard up under his chin:
At the age of 28, I was finally asking myself, why? It wasn’t easy to face, but when I was totally honest with myself, what I was really doing all those years was trying to make my beard look shorter, straighter, tamer, more polite. I felt a deep contradiction between my counterhegemonic aspirations inspired by the revolutionary spirit of Sikhi and my actions. I felt like I was trying to hide something, but what did I really have to hide? Since when has the Sikh identity been about hiding?
I too find myself asking these questions each day when I tie up my beard.
It was not something I always did, and in fact, I resisted this until I was about 25 years old, proudly wearing my long beard open. However, before I entered the professional workforce, I felt I needed a more groomed appearance in professional circles or else face some discrimination based on my refusal to remove the natural part of every human face. To this day, I tie up my beard, but I’m increasingly questioning my motivation for doing so – whom am I trying to please, and why?