Charles Boyle And The Intimacy Of A Hair Wash
Why a hair wash is sometimes the perfect cure to loneliness
I’ve spent the last two years in lockdown cutting my own hair, fueled by fear of the outside and a need to be impulsive in some aspect of my life. But I finally decided to go on an adventure. I got an actual haircut at a salon.
What I was secretly looking forward to was the hairwash. Relaxing on a giant chair with my head laid back and my eyes closed. Feeling the gentle pressure of water adjusted to my perfect temperature. The strong smell of expensive shampoo and conditioner that my hair will definitely not be receiving on a regular basis. And the intimacy of someone running their hands through my hair and gently massaging my head.
I’ve always had strong feelings about getting my hair washed. When I turned 18 and upgraded from beauty parlors to salons, the hairwash became a dreaded thing. The vulnerability of closing my eyes and letting a stranger touch me so gently would make my teenage self cringe. I didn’t like strangers and I definitely didn’t like anyone touching my hair.
Over the years, as I became more comfortable with myself and my body, the hairwash became enjoyable, luxurious even. A reward to my hair for being good. I could relax and let my mind wander or just focus on the feeling of the hairwash.
So, I went for this haircut. And I sat down for the hairwash. And I started thinking about Charles Boyle from Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Yes, the ‘best friend’ character from the comedy cop show that has been appreciated for its portrayals of gender norms, racial biases, sexual harassment and queerness. I did pause and ask myself: should I prioritize more hard-hitting shows and books? Is this the best time to feature a cop show, considering the criticism of police action (or inaction) in the Texas school shooting this month? But the mind wants whatever it comes up with during a relaxing hairwash.
Charles Boyle and hairwashes
Charles Boyle is a strange and wholesome character that breaks away from so-called ‘masculine tropes’, offers unconditional love and friendship, and is completely utterly unapologetic about his interests and hobbies. He expresses his affection in thoughtful and wonderful ways.
Boyle talks repeatedly about how washing your partner’s hair is the most romantic thing you can do for them. This is a running joke in the show and is just one of his eccentricities, like his disturbing love for strange food. But, he does have a point.
The power of physical intimacy
There is a gentle intimacy in someone washing our hair. It can make us feel pampered or meditative or cared for, depending on the person and our mood.
Sometimes, it reminds me of my mother washing my hair in early childhood. You know how Indian mothers love to aggressively scrub your hair until your scalp screams for mercy? Imagine a gentler and more pleasant version of that.
Of course, there’s a difference between someone we know and love washing our hair and a stranger being paid to do so. One makes us feel loved. The other makes us feel relaxed. But there’s power in the neutral touch: not aggressive or sexual or loving or violating. A touch with no deeper meanings and layers.
Why we hate being touched
And some of us really, really hate it. We’re so used to having no control where, when and how we get touched in busy markets, crowded trains, dark bars and clubs.
Our upbringing also makes a difference. Some families are big on physical affection. They hug and kiss and cuddle and ruffle hair and playfight with siblings. My family isn’t. So, I had more negative associations with touch than good.
I’ve seen a similar response from friends (especially male) about someone brushing their fingers through their hair or giving a head massage. They prefer side hugs over front hugs and aren’t used to gentle affectionate touches.
As an adult, I’ve tried to build my own habits and boundaries about physical affection. I’m not ashamed of my need for physical intimacy. And I like to shower my friends with affection through hugs and cuddles and nose boops and walking arm-in-arm through the streets like celebrities or old-timey Victorian couples.
What does all this have to do with loneliness?
You might say, this doesn’t apply to me. I’m surrounded by friends, relatives, co-workers and strangers. In fact, in India, it might be physically impossible to be left alone long enough to be lonely.
But loneliness is slowly seeping into our lives. A discomfort towards receiving love or compliments. A cluelessness on how to express affection without making ourselves seem needy. A need to be touched and an anxiety of being touched. A desire to see our loved ones in flesh (instead of a screen) and an urge to escape them all into the safety of our house / room / off-the-grid trip. A temptation to use social distancing as a reason to spend the rest of our lives in blissful isolation.
Some of these are symptoms of our modern lives and relationships. Some are the impact of the never-ending pandemic. All of this has to be unpacked and dealt with, in due time.
But right now, what I can do is go for a hairwash and have a stranger gently wash my hair. Just the way I like it. No strings attached.
Why Feminists Ruin Everything
Every month I will pick a piece to dissect, appreciate, and possibly ruin with my feminist angst. If you have a book, movie or series I should write about, let me know!
Read the ‘HAIR’ issue in my zine, ang(st). One of my favourite pieces is Labels on Shampoo by H. E. Casson.
I’m also obsessed with bleaching and colouring my hair. And here’s a song about that!
What can we learn from Boyle? Sometimes it’s nice to shower people with love and affection without worrying about whether they’ll reciprocate or think you’re too much. Sometimes it’s nice to be too much. Only sometimes. So go wash someone’s hair. Or pet it gently. Or better yet, book a salon appointment and go get a hairwash.