Alok Vaid-Menon is a self-described beginner when it comes to their hair: “I feel like for so much of my life I didn’t really explore my hair (let alone take care of it), because I didn’t think that was something I was supposed to do because of my assigned gender.” Today, the gender non-conforming performance artist and writer — whose personal style is such a brilliant example of how clothes, hair, shoes, etc. can help us shout our inner-most selves from the rooftops — uses their hair to be more fluid in their gender expression.
Below, Alok talks about finding their shampoo/conditioner balance, trying out as many hair colors as possible, and the symbolic nature of cutting their own hair (though they still haven’t totally forgiven their sister for the bad haircut she gave them).
How did your current hairstyle — which has become something of your trademark — come to be?
I wish I had a more glamorous story about this: I was literally just in college, without a car, and there wasn’t a place to get my hair cut on campus, so I bought a razor and some scissors and started to play around with it myself. Eventually, I started to cut my friends’ hair too! I remember I would mess up all of the time on myself and have random bald patches in my hair and would pretend that they were intentional. “It’s art!” I guess I still do that: mess up and call it art.
What’s the upkeep like in terms of cut and color?
I buzz the sides and back of my hair myself mostly, but sometimes I ask one of my friends to do it. I like that kind of intimacy; having someone you love cut your hair can feel so special. I go to a salon to get my hair bleached when it needs to be touched up, and I dye it with a color of my choice on my own. I mix semi-permanent dye with leave-in conditioner, put on some gloves, then apply it to my hair. And it kind of works.
What’s your daily routine and how long does it take?
I’m going to be honest with both you and my hair! For a long time I was a neglectful hair wielder. There are so many excuses I have as to why: growing up, no one really taught me how to take care of longer hair (eek, gender norms!), and I had a strong suspicion of chemicals, etc. It’s only been recently that I’ve started to care for my hair more and I’m learning a lot. Like only this year did I learn that I didn’t have to shampoo my hair every time I shower and that the shampoo was actually making my hair dry — awkward! But my hairstylist Dee had an intervention and got me together. They literally took me shopping and taught me the 101.
So, I am a novice! My daily routine is not where I want to be and what I know is possible. I use a lot of leave-in conditioner (argan oil, I love you!) and comb to untangle. I don’t spend that much time on it.
Tell me about a standout hair-related memory.
Oh gosh, when I was a junior in high school, I didn’t shave my beard for like eight months and joined a group called “Beards for Peace.” I’m not really sure what was going on with me?? I seriously looked 40 years old. But I got voted “most environmentally conscious” by the high school yearbook and they made me pose in a tree? I guess I fit the image!
Have you gone through a bunch of hair phases or had the same hair your whole life?
When I was a kid I was told that I was a boy (lol) and that boys are supposed to have short hair and so I did that. And then when I started coming into myself I began questioning stuff like that and stopped cutting my hair.
Instead of growing down, it kind of just grew up? Like a massive sculpture on top of my head. Then I learned that it was possible to style my hair and I started putting it in different formations, mostly to get it out of the front of my face so I could see what was in front of me. It’s only recently that I’ve started being more intentional about styling it. I like how I can wear it down and pin it up; it allows me to be more fluid in my gender expression depending on how I feel in a given day.
When do you hate your hair?
I was ruthlessly teased growing up for being a hairy kid. The white kids at school called me “an animal” and “dirty” because of it. I’ve always thought it was interesting how I was called “too hairy” when I identified as a boy and “too hairy” when I identified as trans — seems more about race than gender, if you ask me. Come to think of it — because I had so much trauma from my body hair I never really thought about the hair on top of my head.
When do you love it?
I started to learn to love my hair when I began cutting it myself. I just found it so remarkable how fast it grew. Felt kind of symbolic to me — that things can literally regrow and become a whole new thing with time.
What’s the worst or absolute best hair-related decision you’ve ever made?
The absolute best decision was dying my hair rose pink for the first time at a small salon in Kathmandu, Nepal where I was performing a few years ago. The person at the salon was so nice and I was just like, “Okay, let’s do it!” I always wanted to have colorful hair but I never got around to doing it. That started me on an adventure of trying to go through as many different colors of hair as possible.
What’s something you learned about your hair in the last year?
Girl! I have learned so much! Like I said: Beginner status here! I guess I learned that my hair is way curlier than I thought it was. I was just treating it badly, using too much shampoo and using the wrong conditioners. Now that I’m learning about hydrating my hair and deep conditioning I’m just like…whoa? My hair type is totally different than I thought it was.
What’s the most important thing to know about your hair? Or the one thing you want everyone to know?
I just want everyone to know that hair shouldn’t be gendered. I feel like for so much of my life I didn’t really explore my hair (let alone how to take care of it) because I didn’t think that was something I was supposed to do because of my assigned gender. I get sad thinking about all of the looks and stunts I could have pulled growing up if I didn’t think hair was gendered. I think about how much better my mental health would have been had I been told that everyone has body hair and it’s totally okay, too!
Have you ever cried over it?
Yes, when I was a freshman in high school I asked my sister to cut my hair and she totally butchered it. I freaked out! Had to get it all buzzed off and felt so insecure because you could tell that one of my ears protruded more than the other. I don’t know if I have ever forgiven her.
Have you ever stopped a stranger with great hair to ask them what they did to it?
Now that I am going through a hair renaissance I am totally approaching brown people everywhere I go and asking them what conditioners they use. I had no idea there were so many different types of oils! BLOOP!
Hair is full of secrets. What’s one of yours?
True Life: I’m a Work in Progress!
What’s something you’ve always wanted to do with it, but still haven’t?
I really want to try out super long extensions. My mom had hair to her knees when she was in high school and it looked so so beautiful. I have always wanted to try that out…
Photos by Bridget Badore.