How Long Hair Changed My Life | Mannat Malhi | TEDxOxford

Posted By on November 13, 2019

Translator: Morgane Quilfen
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney Now, I’m sure all of us
have experienced that moment, when you’re walking along
in a shopping center, immersed in your own thoughts, and as you walk past a shop front window, you fleetingly see someone
who looks just like you. They have the same clothes,
the same hairstyle, and when you look at them, they even have the same eyes,
staring straight back at you. They are shockingly familiar,
because they are you! But even when you realize that
you’re simply looking at a reflection, there’s a part of you
that doesn’t entirely accept this. This is because our reflections
are only a mirror image of our true selves. Our true selves are captured
in a photograph. That’s how we actually look. And yet, as research has shown, most of us prefer
looking at our mirror image. We like it, simply because
it is more familiar to us. And that is important. We are more comfortable with things
that are more familiar to us, even though they may not
be accurate, or real. So, this is just part
of a more complex issue. The way that we see ourselves, our image,
rarely correlates with how others see us. More specifically, how we see
ourselves in our minds, our personal identities, are only ever partially captured
in our external identities, how the rest of the world sees us. And this is important, because identity confers power,
access, and credibility. On a practical level,
in the United States, identity theft deprives the US economy
of 41 billion dollars annually. Extroverted personalities,
such as the Kardashians, whether you love them or hate them, have managed to turn
their identities into brands. So, when we vote for a politician, or when we buy
a celebrity-endorsed product, we are endorsing their identity. Why? Because we identify with them
and place our trust in them. So, it’s no surprise then,
that we spend so much of our time thinking about who we are
and who we would like to be. And yet, remarkably, few of us have an accurate conception
of our own identities. We might think that we are being
perceived in a certain way, or believe that our actions
are shaping the views of others, but we cannot really
measure these effects. And this importantly suggests that our identities are not entirely
within our control. Another way of thinking about this, is the number of automatic associations
we make when we meet someone. For example, you are now looking at me, and, in an instant, you’ve noted
the color of my skin, my accent, and hopefully the fabulous shoes
that I’m wearing — which, for the record, is golden brown,
British-Australian with a hint of Punjabi, and Kurt Geiger. So, these attributes contribute to a multitude of associations
within our minds, and they are derived
from our personal experiences. Hence why politics,
advertising, and social media are such powerful drivers of our thinking. Even more surprising is that
we rarely actively engage these ideas. Instead, they simply express themselves
as superficial “likes” or dislikes. In light of the momentous events of 2016, I’ve begun to think more deeply about
what do others see when they look at me? And what are the core
determinants of my identity? Now, when I ask my friends
what defines me, they often say that
it’s my interminable sarcasm, or my insatiable love of shoes,
or my penchant for chocolate. But, what shapes the way
a lot of people look at me? Concerns as braid,
that runs down the middle of my back. My hair is long,
simply because I’ve never cut it, and the reason for that
is also straightforward, it’s because I’m a Sikh. For those of you
not familiar with Sikhism, it’s one of the world youngest
major religions, with its origins in Northern Punjab
in the 15th century, a province of India, it is a religion that focuses
on a single God that is timeless,
shapeless, and invisible. Therefore, the central practices
of the religion are to build discipline, to cultivate honesty, and to engender
a sense of service to one’s community. It may surprise you to know that it is
the fifth largest religion in the world. One key practice of the faith
is not to cut your hair. There are three main reasons for this. First, Sikhs believe that people
were created as they were meant to be, and therefore by not cutting our hair,
we are respecting our bodies. Second, Sikhs want to be identified; we want to be known as people
who will help you in situations, and our turbans and long hair instantly
distinguish us from those around us. And third, Sikhs believe
that by not cutting your hair — similar to not drinking alcohol,
which is another Sikh practice — we are cultivating discipline,
and living a more principled way of life. Ironically, I was born bald! But, I quickly caught up,
and before long, had a full head of hair. Now, until I started school, I never realized that this length of hair
was at all unusual. At school, I quickly became known
as “the girl with the long hair,” a catchy moniker, but not quite
in the same league as a dragon tattoo, which could have lead to a book deal
or a Hollywood movie. Another byproduct of my distinctiveness
were the questions. They started when I was six
and have never really stopped since. “How long is your hair?” “How long does it take to wash?” “Have you ever cut it?” And my all time favorite,
“Have you ever sat on it?” Now, since I can see you’re all wondering,
I’m going to give you some answers. It takes 20 minutes to wash,
but sometimes hours to dry; I’ve never, ever cut it; and of course, I’ve sat on it! In fact, hardly a day goes by
where I don’t sit on my hair, causing my head to jolt back violently
as I scream, “Follicles!” (Laughter) And the responses to my hair
have been fascinating. Most of my friends think
that it’s beautiful, and many of the teachers at my school
were incredibly supportive. This is important, because I attented a non-denominational
uniting church school, and yet I was elected as head prefect,
conducted assemblies, and did Bible readings. And not one person,
throughout my entire schooling, ever questionned the validity
of me performing these duties. Some people, however,
have found my hair confronting. One incident that is etched
firmly into my memory happened when I was
at a school camp, age ten. As I was walking along a bush trail,
a girl behind me grabbed my braid, and as I turned arount to look at her,
straight in the eyes, she just looked back and said, “Eww! Freak!” I felt like I’d been punched
in the stomach and lost something in the process. It came as a shock to be called a freak, but what made it painful
was that I didn’t know this girl, in fact, I’d hardly ever spoken to her. All she knew about me
was that I had long hair. Over my life, there have been
many experiences like this, which have made me
want to chop it all off. As a young girl, I would often
stare into the mirror and fantasize about having
a short, sophisticated bob, or wavy, shoulder-length tresses. I would dream about just being a girl
rather than the girl with long hair. And one day, I got my opportunity. I was standing in my bathroom,
brushing my hair, my mom walked in,
and just looked at me, and said, “You don’t have to keep it, you know. You’ve now reached an age
where you can make your own decisions, and if you want to cut it, you can!” As a teenager, I had begun to realize
that my religion, my identity, and the physical expression
of these ideas, were my choices. And in an instant, I could now change
my defining characteristic, I could cut my hair. But despite this, I just couldn’t
bring myself to cut it, because I want to be known
as a person who will help you, if you’re ever in need; I want to be seen as a person
who is on a journey to building discipline
and becoming more honest. With adolescence came the additional
peer pressure of drinking alcohol. Now, I’m Australian,
and Australians love to drink! In fact, in Australia,
drinking is more popular than swimming, and probably more fundamental
to Australian culture. Hence the common Aussie phrase of having a drink
whilst getting in the drink. But, my parents, ever concerned,
primed me with a host of excuses, concerned that I wouldn’t have
the confidence to give an honest answer. “Just tell them that you’re driving. Or tell them that you’ve already
had enough to drink.” But, by this stage,
I was beyond pretending. So, as I finished my school,
I began to tell people, “I don’t drink, and I don’t cut my hair.” But also demanded
to be treated as an equal. Equality is a word that is used
in so many different settings that it hardly carries any useful meaning, and yet it still represents
a vitally important concept. Equality is about allowing individuals the opportunities to make
the most of their lives and their talents. It’s about recognizing
that each individual is complex and capable
of the entire breadth of human emotion. I want my quirks and my intricacies
to be understood and fully appreciated. I want to be seen as a nuanced young woman whose experiences and potential
speak to far more than the color of my skin
or the length of my hair. In his “1984” novel,
George Orwell warns of a world where every concept
that can ever be needed will be expressed with exactly one word, and all his subsidiary meanings
rubbed out and forgotten. Every year, fewer and fewer words and the range of consciousness
always a little smaller. Sure, I’m a Sikh, and I absolutely have very long hair,
but it’s not my defining characteristic. Because I’m also sassy, love fashion, and would gladly live in enormous,
Louis Vuitton heels. So, how did long hair change my life? Well, as I walk around Oxford,
I see people with tattoos, crazy-colored hair, and punk-rock outfits, and that’s just the Oxford professors! But seriously, I see people who want to express their identities
and their sexualities, and be understood
and appreciated for that. My long hair taught me that for some, the struggle is borne out
in public displays of who they are, whilst for others, it’s a private journey. Both are equally valid
and warrant respect. Each of us is coming to terms
with our own distinctiveness. And in doing this,
we have to love who we are, but when someone else
shows us who they are, we must embrace
and accept them for who they are. We are all human. We just need to be more humane. Thank you. (Applause)

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 27 comments

  1. Hi Mannat,
    It is nice to connect with you again, even if only virtually through YouTube. That was a very eloquent and honest talk, that had a solid message worth sharing.
    I confess that I had not heard or read such a helpful explanation of the tenets of Sikhism before. Thank you.
    It was touching for that you were able to positively reference Chapel services, but I do need to point out that Uniting is the denomination ; – ) do sorry for not making that clearer at school.
    Thank you for your courage and wisdom. I am proud to have had some small part in your education.
    Jon (Rev H)

  2. your very very bauytiful women
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  3. Marvellous speech!!! All of us are different!!! Let's respect and celebrate our wonderful differences!!! Let's love our own uniqueness and other people's original qualities!!! Our world is full of fascinating various human races that are precious in any sense. Let's admire them! …I stopped colouring my long hair after 31 years! I stopped being ashamed to have some grey hair ( many women try to cover it as if aging was something shameful!!!)…Let's love who we really are!!! ..Miss Mannat Malhi, You're brave, wise and gorgeous!!! THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR EXPERIENCES!!!

  4. Rah I've seen quite a lot of Sikh people at a few of my Sikh friends wedding they're drinking got bottles of vodka… even in the club's. Every time I'm at 1 OAK I see Sikhs getting lit


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