When I was growing up, I went through the typical laundry list of possible life callings and careers. At one point, I firmly landed on the decision that I wanted to be an actress (kids are dreamers, right?). I tried out for school plays and watched as many movies as I could, but one thing stopped me in my tracks. Flipping through magazines and clicking through pictures online, I realized I’d never be able to change my hairstyle to fit different roles. I couldn’t even to be a model in those very magazines—because I didn’t cut my hair.
I’m the daughter of two Punjabi Sikh immigrants, which means I grew up trying to balance my family’s native culture with the norms in my midwest hometown—a predominantly white area where people were curious about the long, black/brown braid I wore every day. One easy marker of my faith—which originated in a northern region of India called Punjab—is long naturally kept hair. Based on Sikhism’s deep philosophical and humanitarian roots, both men and women practice this ritual because long hair is a symbol of respect for divine creation.
My mom always told me my hair was a mark of beauty, but for much of my life, I felt like it held me back. When layers became a thing, I couldn’t participate. When my friends were getting balayage, I had to opt out of chemically treating my hair (even though I really wanted that sun-kissed look).
My mom always told me that long, natural hair is a mark of beauty, but for much of my life, I felt like it held me back.
Like most people in their young age, my perspective on beauty was informed by the people who surrounded me at school, and the people who (I thought) were lucky enough to be on television, in movies, and online. In both of these cases, I felt that these people were afforded a certain freedom that I was not—to change their hair in any way they wanted—and it made me feel constrained.
These feelings of “being held back” leaked into other parts of my life. I felt that because I didn’t have a choice in looking like everyone else, other areas in my life—how I did in school, job interviews, even if people wanted to be friends with me—were at the mercy of external circumstances. The main thing that continued to push this belief throughout my adolescence was that I never saw someone like me go forth and do the things I saw everyone else doing, like pursuing nontraditional careers that weren’t science or engineering related. Life was separated between Hollywood/American media and Punjabi-American girls. There was zero intermingling between the two.
Beyond just surface appearances, what I really lacked was a female role model who was literally just like me: a Punjabi girl, growing up in a Western world, walking the tightrope between two different sets of beauty standards and expectations of how women are supposed to be.
Then came Lilly Singh. I came across her YouTube channel in her earlier days, while she was already gaining traction within the Punjabi community. Her videos and the explosion of her popularity—mostly due to her wit, confidence, and spot-on impressions of everyday life as a child of immigrants—left an impression on me. Not just because we looked like each other, with our long waist-length hair, but because she finally put onto the screen what me, my peers, and millions of us in the U.S. had lived as a reality. And she did it in a way that had us laughing about our experiences instead of trying to hide them. If you’ve ever tried casually talking to your Punjabi parents about dating, you know what I mean.
First generation Indian-Americans are part of a unique era, in which our country is reflecting on the value of its diversity and how to move forward with it. With over 2 million Indian-born immigrants living in the U.S., and even more that are American-born with Indian heritage, it’s becoming increasingly important to be represented in the media that speaks to us every day—in movies, TV, as online personalities, and yes, even as spokespeople for our favorite companies and brands. Figures like Lilly, Priyanka Chopra, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, and Mindy Kaling play an important role in representing this specific immigrant demographic within an industry that has historically only told one side of the multi-faceted story of Americans. Stars like Lilly tell another side of the story.
I used to scornfully watch shampoo ads with beautiful women and styled hair and think that I could never be one of them. Which is crazy, because when you’ve never cut your hair in your entire life, you really need to take care of it. Shouldn’t that be a community hair care brands want to target? Seeing Lilly, in all her long-haired glory, representing Pantene and continuing to garner millions of views and fans, is an important step in being included in that narrative. I’m often asked, in good nature, about the length of my hair and the backstory of my family’s culture. I’m always happy to share, but I also daydream about the moment in time when I don’t have to explain because people already know.
Right now, she’s only a spokeswoman for the brand in India, meaning her ads won’t air in the US. But the power of social media is that images like the below can reach farther and wider than any TV campaign.
Most importantly, seeing a Punjabi girl represented in a beauty campaign is a reminder that constraints are sometimes just self-created. I don’t, anymore, feel I’m at the mercy of external circumstances. It took me a while to get here—I left the midwest to travel the world, where I became friends with people from many different countries. I gained a better understanding my personal vulnerabilities, which helped me overcome my self-inflicted barriers. Now I feel I can do what I want, with both my physical appearance but also the power of my intelligence and talent. And I can do these things not in spite of what makes me the daughter of Sikh immigrants, but because of it.
Brands who feature diverse women meet us halfway on this personal journey by saying “Your story is important enough to be featured. Your hair is important enough to be showcased. You are our definition of beauty.”
My acting skills may never be good enough for Hollywood. But at least my hair can be.
–Priyanka Chopra Explains Why She Didn’t Want to Settle for the “Exotic” Indian Character
–Lilly Singh: “One of the Most Controversial Things I’ve Ever Said Was That I’m a Feminist”
–Why I Hate Being Called an “Exotic Beauty”