a personal essay by Hannah G
While waiting for my summer photo to be taken on the school field and fiddling with the rainbow sequin headband crowned on my head, I’d faintly sing ‘Part Of Your World’ from “The Little Mermaid” to alleviate the boredom. Even though camera-shyness swirled in my stomach, I hoped that I could be one with the mermaid spirit and feel beautiful — embellished with sparkles and voluminous, swishy hair. That spirit has not aged well.
Like a thin blanket of freshly shed snakeskin, my wet t-shirt clung with uncomfortable proximity to my steaming skin. Crinkles and creases of the shirt coldly folded into the crevices of my body. Patches of water form dark and foggy stains on the cheaply like neglected bread mould. I look down at the watery carnage I created with puddles rippling everywhere below me; the idea of walking onto the dusty carpet with wet feet to grab the freshly washed towel causes an inexplicable amount of dread. My mermaid spirit was tangled, pruny, and washed out. All this mess… just to rinse out coconut oil.
To end an already horrid week, I had the dazzling idea of oiling my hair before a video meeting. With three housemates and one bathroom, the attempt to connect with my Indian heritage through self-care spiralled into a self-crisis. This is a tale of roots and regret.
For those unfamiliar, oiling is the process of massaging an oil (often sunflower, argan, or coconut) into the scalp as a preconditioner. According to a study published in 2003, Aarti S. Rele and R. B. Mohile concluded that in comparison to mineral oils and vegetable oils (such as sunflower oil), coconut oil was ‘superior’ for protecting and minimising hair damage during grooming rituals when used as a preconditioner for undamaged hair, UV-treated or chemically treated hair (:191).
Rele and Mochile argued that, “[t]he ability of coconut oil to penetrate into hair cuticle and cortex seems to be responsible for this effect. Coated on the fiber surface, it can prevent or reduce the amount of water penetrating into the fiber and reduce the swelling. This, in turn, reduces the lifting of the surface cuticle and prevents it from being chipped away during wet combing” (2003: 191).
Not only is oiling a significant part of family upbringing and lifestyles associated with Asian cultures, it has a level of scientific benefit to hair when integrated effectively into contemporary routine. However, this did not grow organically from my family upbringing; I was a rather late bloomer to coating my keratin with copious amounts of coconut oil. Born and raised in South West England by a Devonshire woman with blushing strawberry hair and an Indian man whose hair care routine never went beyond beard shearing like a prize sheep, any resources I had to learn about managing long and unruly Indian hair were limited. As I sat in front of the TV, completing my school work, I witnessed numerous advertisements promising viewers that the magic of sleek and shiny hair could be bought.
Imagine a lustrous flourish of silky and deep chocolate follicles. Imagine witnessing your reflection in the glossy sheen that bounced from root to tip. Imagine a sun-kissed woman emerging from the ocean, flinging her hair back into an archway of dazzling water droplets, welcomed by crawling vines of hypnotic hibiscus. Spritely dolphins springing about in a synchronised dance. The bountiful embrace of sparkling soap bubbles. Ribbons upon ribbons of glistening tendrils caressing the woman’s aura with a beaming, angelic glow — this is the enchanting magic of oiling. Or, you watched Nicole Scherzinger getting sudsy and enthused for Herbal Essences hair products like I did, being told about the bottled joy of sodium lauryl sulfate for £6 as if it was a folktale handed down by oral tradition. As a young TV-head with square eyes and more hair on the floor than tile or carpet, I was sold on this mermaid fantasy. The closest I could ever get to feeling like a discount Scherzinger was oiling. Alas! One unfortunate Sunday was not a Scherzinger day.
Lying perfectly horizontal on my bed with the latest Webtoon update, I bathed in the hazy warmth of the weekend. Swishing my head back and forth against the crater I molded into the pillow, slithers of balmy daylight peeked behind my curtain. Due to the begrudging realisation that I have ‘responsibilities,’ I decided to try and be productive before attending a digital meeting to watch a movie at seven in the evening with people from an Instagram group chat; this included taking the time to indulge by oiling my hair.
I haphazardly fought the gold lid on my massive jar of coconut oil to unscrew open. Carving a mushy chunk of oil out of the jar, solid bits tucked into the nooks between my fingertips and nails. I sculpted my newly painted talons around my skull and massaged with the pads of my fingers. Oil gently slid down my hands like silk on sunken stone artefacts, the domestic smell wafted and mingled with the condensation floating in the bathroom. If I drenched my head with any more coconut oil, I’d have drifted between the line of a radiant Herbal Essences mermaid...and a gangly rice noodle swimming about in a sesame-slathered wok. I twisted my hair into a bun and clambered down the stairs to get some work completed. I looked like a hairless cat wearing a heavily gelled toupee.
Three hours later, I set myself the goal to continue working for fifteen minutes, which meant I would go to the main bathroom at quarter-past six to rinse out the oil in my hair. That way, I’d have enough time to be refreshed and decent-looking for the movie meeting. Bzzzzbzzzzz. My phone vibrates with the screen lighting up — doom strikes.
SUN AT 18:17
Just a heads up I’m gonna have
a bath so if anyone needs any
essentials out of the bathroom
then now is your chance XD
Like a film director dramatically zooming my reaction into the camera frame, my bedroom walls rapidly warped around me and I felt instantly idiotic for not using the main bathroom to rinse the oil out sooner. I patiently waited for my housemate to finish having a bath so I could have the quickest rinse-out possible to avoid running late. Bzzzzbzzzzz.
SUN AT 18:38
I should be out by 8 o clockle
According to this message and its purposeful typo, I would eventually have the main bathroom free at ‘8 o clockle’, an hour after my plans would have started. Being somewhat inconvenienced slowly ignited into being somewhat irate — mainly at myself for the timing. Like a teasing fire licking my stomach, chest and throat, a burning itch to rinse the oil out of my head bubbled within me. Seven minutes passed and the longer I waited for my housemate to leave the main bathroom, the longer I let the flames taunt me with pain progressively searing my skin towards my scalp. From every muscle and every follicle, this greased up mermaid was sizzling with impatience.
Storming from my bedroom to the kitchen and back like a one-woman whirlpool, I grab a plastic bowl, lemon shower gel, all-purpose liquid soap, and lock myself in a room occupied by a toilet, sink, and the washing machine. After sending a silent prayer to Her Majesty Beyonce Knowles, I took my shirt off to avoid it getting wet whilst I did...whatever I thought was the only option in my haste. One of the luxuries of our bathroom was a clean counter space with a color palette of mottled grey stones. What I had to work with was an elbow-deep sink, tarnished with speckles of limescale stains and embedded on a wooden counter that was the perfect desk height to take calls for taking appointments at a private dentist. One of the luxuries of our shower was a head that could acutely control the temperature and speed to coat your head with a comforting distribution of cleansing water. What I had to work with was a tap that would flip flop-between boiling jet-powered geysers and weak dribbles of Elsa’s icy tears. I twisted and manoeuvred the two temperatures and speeds as if I was trying to parallel park inside an aquarium. I dove my head forward into the sink and felt the battling concoction of opposing water settings spatter against the back of my head.
To replace the shampoo that was held hostage in the main bathroom, I squeezed a liberal dollop of lemon shower gel in my palm and lathered the soap into a meekly soft foam throughout my hair strands and fingers. Citrus delicately tried to veil the steamy musk inside the room, only succeeding when the soap would be dangerously close to my eyes. To ensure I wasn’t crawling shirtless to my housemates to solve my soapy blindness, I flung my head upwards and back, swinging a twisted rope of hair to whip water against the walls and ceiling. The dread was settling in like seabed sediment as I continued to give myself numerous swirlies in second-long increments depending on the wishy-washy tap settings. The self-induced swirlies continued to weave a variety of Royal Navy knots into my hair; water trickled through my strands, and the oil steadily slithered down my palms and wrists into the sink. Not even a dinglehopper could help me.
This was an untoward, unruly, and bumbling mess — nothing like the mermaid fantasy Scherzinger was paid to endorse. I certainly did not feel sexy or sun-kissed; unless you count my intimate moments dunked in the sink as a very wet and sloppy makeout session, accompanied by a dimly flickering lightbulb hanging from the ceiling to replace the golden hour gleam. There were no crawling vines of hypnotic hibiscus. No spritely dolphins springing about in a synchronised dance. No beaming angelic glow. Simply, there was a dazed 24-year-old woman standing in the middle of a cramped toilet washroom — mostly bewildered, shirtless, wet, and soapy. Ironically, this would be the male gaze’s wet dream in any other context. However, given neck gymnastics and skull-coordinated water sports to rinse coconut oil out of my hair, my washed-up affair was the antithesis of Scherzinger seduction.
Prior to entering the washroom and the escapades that occurred, I messaged one of my best friends about the inconvenient incident I got myself into. After those seven minutes of humidified hell, I check my notifications.
SUN AT 19:08
How did it go
SUN AT 19:13
I want to unalive
SUN AT 19:53
Im sorry for your pain
SUN AT 19:54
Setting myself on fire would be
equivalent to how I felt
After my best friend sympathetically responds to my drippy disaster with a cry-laughing emoji, I continue to dry myself and whirl up what little decorum I had left to resume the evening. I tried to sneak my limbs into my shirt to keep it warm and dry, but portions of the cotton soak into damp patches left on my skin; the fabric clumps together uncomfortably on my torso. Any body heat and warmth in my spirit was sodden. Clammy. Defeated. Tired. My childhood memories singing ‘Part Of Your World’ were reflective of my rosy aspirations to be seamlessly part of two conflicting cultures that contributed to my existence. Unfortunately, growing up into my twenties — a turbulent part of anyone’s cycle — has grayed parts of my optimism where even the silliest of events can be stirred into a disgruntled and draining cyclone of scorn. What was an indulgent afternoon had trickled downwards into a state where I was comparable to beached seaweed.
Although my tale of watery disaster is an isolated circumstance that exhibited none of the effervescent glamour in a Herbal Essences advertisement, the feeling of helplessness that sunk in the bottom of my chest — of being an incompetent ‘grown up’ — is not unfamiliar. Increasingly, ideas of ‘traditional’ nuclear families or ‘linear’ trajectories in Asian living, career, and relationships, are becoming more malleable in a modernising landscape. It has become a norm for young adults to navigate social mobility, lifestyle, and identities independently with various media to inform and forage through (Mitra, D. 2019). According to Mayur Gupta, “[m]any of us looked at our parents, TV shows and movies to get ideas about where we should be in our 20s [...] [but] the traditional markers of adulthood are being pushed back. As a result many of us struggle to reconcile where we were planning to be at this age to where we actually are…” (2020).
I struggle to reconcile with the fact that I don’t have many routines or activities in my life that directly link to my Asian heritage; I’ve had to lean on media models and mermaid fantasies that many TV ad-breaks sold to me, to figure out things a ‘typical’ Indian woman may do. Even then, I feel inadequate that all I have to show for my Asian-ness is a large jar of coconut oil. I am coasting between two identities and my ability to be either one is as lukewarm and pathetic a feeling as washing my hair with lemon shower gel in a toilet sink topless.
The most straightforward answer to avoid another torrent swirlie is better planning and time management. Simple. But such solutions can’t be as simple to solve the torment streaming through my bi-racial blood, when I’m confronted with feeling too ‘washed up’ to live to a standard of Indian ‘womanliness.’ It almost seemed like every beautifully bronzed woman had fewer split ends than I had split paths.
With the one key facet of my Asian appearance that boosted any mermaid spirit I believed in, that should have been fool-proof to accomplish... I was floundering. I am still floundering. But I wash up, my head, and breathe. Bubbling brightly with rainbow sparkles, the spirit of that small school girl still ebbs within me; that fiddles with her long hair and its accessories, that doesn’t know what oiling is yet, that still sings ‘Part Of Our World’ only for herself.. that I will always reach out to when I’m struggling to break the surface. Because I can’t let her drown.
2003. Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. [PDF] International Journal of Cosmetic Science, pp.175-192. Available at: http://beauty-review.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Effect-of-mineral-oil-sunflower-oil-and-coconut-oil-on-prevention-of-hair-damage.pdf [Accessed 28 March 2021].
Gupta, A., 2016. Traditional Hair Oils Are Making A Comeback | Verve Magazine. [online] Verve Magazine | India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine. Available at: https://www.vervemagazine.in/fashion-and-beauty/traditional-hair-oils-making-a-comeback [Accessed 29 March 2021].
Gupta, M., 2020. 3 Ways to Deal with a Quarter Life Crisis. [online] Linkedin.com. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/3-ways-deal-quarter-life-crisis-mayur-gupta/?trk=related_artice_3%20Ways%20to%20Deal%20with%20a%20Quarter%20Life%20Crisis%20_article-card_title [Accessed 9 April 2021].
Mitra, D., 2019. Millennials, in a society of contradictions. [online] BusinessLine. Available at: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/millennials-in-a-society-of-contradictions/article26645712.ece [Accessed 9 April 2021].
Cover Photo Source: https://vintageindianclothing.com/2015/06/09/all-about-hair/