How Hair Shapes Our Identity

I'm Rishma!

Naturopathic Doctor & PhD turned scientific creative, travel adventurer, joy seeker, book lover, mom of two amazing humans, wife to her best friend. 

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Have you ever had a thought that turned into a really interesting deep dive conversation that just made you think even more about the subject? That’s what happened with this episode. I started to talking to someone about this experience I had and it spiraled out of control – in the most amazing way. 

Welcome to the XO Conversations Podcast. My name is Dr Rishma Walji, and this podcast is for people who want to live more intentionally, and build an XO life that they love – one that feels extraordinary.  On this podcast, we talk about awareness and intentionality, how to live aligned with your values, and make decisions that you feel good about. 

In my work, I’ve developed a framework for understanding how likely people are to live intentionally and be aligned with their goals and values. You can take the free quiz at The questions will plot you on a graph of where you are for this moment in life, for this area of of life. There’s no judgment, it’s just a tool to help you understand where you are aligned and more importantly, how you can become more intentional with your future. Check it out,


The Power of Representation: Finding My Place at a Curly Hair Salon

So here’s what happened that started this fascinating exploration.  I’ve always had frizzy, curly hair. It was a mess to manage when I was younger, and over the years I’ve spent countless hours trying to figure out what to do with it.  I straightened it, used a curling iron, tied it in a messy bun and wore many, many hats. 

Finally I tried to just leave it curly. I didn’t know by the way that taking care of curly hair is a whole thing. You could spend days watching all the YouTube videos on this subject, seriously. There is so much to know.

So finally I started asking around and my friend recommended a salon where they just cut and style curly hair. And this is actually a big deal because most places just blow out your curls and straighten them so going to someone who actually knows about curly hair is rare (at least in my experience).

So I go to this salon, I drive across town, for like an hour and I’m thinking, geez is this going to be worth it?  And let me tell you, the moment I walked in, something shifted. 

I saw stylists with curls, the receptionist had curls, the photos on the walls – you know the ones with the models that you look at and think, make me look like her – they had curls, the magazines in the waiting room were about curls. It seems like such a small thing but it floored me. 

Literally, I felt like ‘oh my gosh’ these are my people. It felt so reminiscent of walking into a room as a minority and seeing someone else with the same skin colour.  I know it’s different of course, but that’s reminiscent of the feeling I had.  

Never mind that when I sat down, the stylist asked me about my hair routine, and she basically said I was doing EVERYTHING wrong. The fact was that she understood my hair and by extension, I felt like she understood me.

So I told a friend, a fellow curly haired person, and I kind of told her sheepishly because I thought it was a bit silly and we ended up having a huge conversation about hair, identity and societal pressure. 

She even sent me a meme about how all the women in those ‘make overs’ or ‘uncool high school kid who becomes cool and beautiful’, have curly hair and glasses as their BEFORE and straight hair and contacts as their AFTER. 

And I thought, wow. I already knew that we spend a lot of time on our hair and that hair really shapes our self confidence and identity, but now I was somehow really fascinated by the discourse around hair and how it impacts us – practically speaking and also subconsciously. 

I even sent out a question about hair + identity to my email list and I got so many passionate responses about how we could have a whole conversation about hair and that there was too much to say. 

By the way, my email list is where all the behind the scenes stuff happens, deep discussions, personal stories and events – sign up at 

So here I am, with an entire episode dedicated to this topic. 

And let me tell you, it’s so much more intricate and nuanced than you might realize.

The first energized conversation was with the lovely, Avery, who as you may know is my podcast audio designer.  She had a completely different experience with her curls growing up.

We both wonder not only how our experience of hair impacts our personal identities, but also how we project (or try not to project) our feelings on our kids. [6.48]

As I spent more time reading about hair, and it’s impact on our identities, I came across so much more than just how our hair looks and what emotions they are tied to. 

The Feel of Hair: How Touch Impacts Our Emotional Well-Being

For example, have you ever thought about how your hair feels and how we feel, literally feel about our hair, when it’s touched. 

H: I love having my hair played with, like it is such, it’s so good for my nervous system, like, it immediately calms me.

This is Hima. She’s a writer, artist and cultural leader. 

H: And that it’s such a sensitive part of our body. And it’s very intimate, it can be very vulnerable to have someone touch your head and play with your hair. But generally, like, you know, if you are, if you were lucky enough to have someone you love, or someone that cared for you bring a lot of like, bring a lot of care to your hair, right? There’s like when we think of it, I think hair always like stimulates like our yeah stimulates warm feelings about being young, and about a caregiver who really took care of it. 

Hima along with her co-creator Nicola Steer created an art exhibit, an experiential show, where participants would attend, lay down and have their .   She said for many people it was a really deep, almost transcendent experience. 

H: you know, cosmeticians and communities, they, they often play such important community roles, right? We don’t think of them as healers, but if we, if we actually like expanded our imagination, they do bring so much wellness and healing work, right. But they were kind of connecting these threads around  this concept of like ancestral intelligence.

In some cultures, hair is incredibly sacred. In indigenous communities, people wear their hair braided to be recognized by their ancestors. And it’s believed that you hold so many of your dreams, hopes and thoughts in your hair, so only certain people are allowed to touch it. 

The Stories Our Hair Tells: How We Project Meaning onto our Hair

H: There’s so much narrative around hair. And, and I often find, like, things that have a lot of, like, objects that have things projected onto them are really powerful, is like, we noticed that there, they have like an inherent power. And so we project a lot like It’s like money, right? We know money has power. So we project so much narrative onto it, money represents anything really you can money can represent anything, and it has so many different meaning. And so hair, you know, through kind of this, like exploration that I’ve been on, I’m like, Oh, well, hair has so much meaning it is. 

Hima’s art exhibit included an audio journey, and an experiential component of having your hair caressed by the performers.

H: And so I wrote like an audio piece that’s like a musical journey and an audio narrative journey. So wrote the piece, and then my partner produced it until like a musical, a musical journey. And then I just like envisioned, what the space was going to be transformed into [9.35]. And, and it was really simple like you came in and you lie down on a chair, chase lounger and you listen to this audio piece while I played with your hair, for essence, it was about 15 minutes. And so I did these one on one Experience is 50 times. So for me, it was also like an endurance performance. And so for me, it’s like, I’m listening to this track, like 50 times, and I’m playing with people’s hair, I’m like, going into my own trance, which also like, allows me to be in a process of connecting with my own ancestors and processing all of that, that I hold in my hair, and that I hold in my body.

Hima herself had a life journey with her hair, and embracing the changes that came with it. 

How Hair Can Define Us

H: when I was growing up, I had, you know, I had like, the perfect Indian girl hair, like, dark, long, thick, like, and, and I guess the way that I experienced it was like, you know, my grandparents used to call and ask about my hair. And it was just like, such a conversation topic in my life, like my hair. Like, I had to have my hair braided every day. oiled every week, I was never allowed to keep it out. Like my grandparents, like, like, they talked about my hair, like, it was like an heirloom, you know, and, and people would stop us on the street and like, you know, you’re a kid, you don’t know what’s going on. You’re like, I don’t know why I have this hair, or like, what I used to do when I used to do dance competitions. Like, I just remember, like, all these Auntie’s being around my hair and talking about my hair, and like, being like, You have such beautiful hair. Oh, my God, why can’t everybody should need needs to get their bun like her?

I think this is a common experience, hair is something that people often comment on when you’re a child, and in a way I understand – the cute curls, the hair styles, the braids – all things that look wonderful and it’s an easy thing to comment on for a kid that you don’t know or don’t know how to talk to.  But all of us respond differently to those comments, we hear certain things with those comments. In the way that always commenting on a kid’s pretty dress might translate for her as wanting to always look pretty for people. 

I find it interesting how many things end up defining us, shaping our personal identities, interpreted in our own ways, regardless of how those comments might have been intended. 

This is what happened for Hima. She was defined by her hair, and then … it changed dramatically.

H: But then I went gray at 17. So like, all this, like, love and attention was given to my hair. And, and I started going gray 17. And it was just like, pure devastation, right? think so much of my identity is now wrapped around this, like, you know, this, these big, like thick locks. And I just feel like, I held my breath for like 13 years of my hair going gray. And I you would come and I got into these, like, these behaviors like these patterns, like I come home. So when I first started going gray, I would come home and snip them. Right? Like I just like sit for, like, you know, and of course, it wasn’t that bad. When I when it first started. I remember going to the doctor and her being like, sorry, like it’s genetic, there’s nothing you can do.

As much as we try to control certain parts of our appearance, there are some things that we have no control over. Our hair, our features, our wrinkles, our birth marks.  There’s so much pressure for us to look a certain way, in order to be accepted. In order to be ‘beautiful’. For many years, I took for granted how many hours I spent on my hair, taming the frizz. It was just something I had to do, and I’m pretty minimalist where all that’s concerned, I don’t wear a lot of makeup or spend too much time with my hair. 

After this experience of going gray, Hima too spent so much time and effort trying to get back what she felt that she lost.

H: And I had no idea why I was going gray and like, you know, I would spend hours and hours online think like, trying to figure out how to reverse it. And anyhow for years then after that, I lived on this like schedule where I would dye my hair at home. And then it would last like maybe two weeks like two to three weeks before it would start showing, then I would wear a hat for two to three weeks. And then I would save up to go to the salon to get it done. Because it was so expensive. Like I just lived on this like very oppressive cycle of and, and dyeing your hair at home is just the worst experience ever. Like it’s, it’s the chemicals and your hairs burning and you know, it’s not good for you.

There’s an aspect of wanting to feel like we look good, that feeling that comes from dressing in something that you love, or styling my hair in a certain way, so there’s for sure an argument for spending time on what’s important to you. Because we all want to foster confidence. But it’s a different thing when you do it unwillingly.

H: Like I didn’t feel like I had a choice like there was no choice to like to not dye my hair. I was like I have to look a certain way as an Indian woman and so I just had to do this thing you know, in the same way like you did all the hair removal. And that was like such a big part of life. But I was always so angry like I just remember how much like fury I had like even when I used to go get waxed or laser to get my eyebrows done. I would just sit in the chair like so angry because it felt like so nonconsensual, you know, like, it just it truly felt like this duty that I did not sign up for. And it was so expensive but I still did it. So I did it for years and years and years.

How Hair Shapes Our Self-Perception

I think we all get to a point where we need to think about what’s important to us, and what we’re willing to do in life. For me, I’m going to be honest and say that I still dye my greys. I feel better when I do my roots and I’m not sure if it’ll always be the case but that’s a choice that I’m making that right now feels right for me. I don’t agree with societal perception of aging women, and I know there are things that I have been on a journey with, to love about myself, including a new definition of how I look and feel as I get older. Things I’m working on, and I’m actually happy with my progress. 

For Hima, she made a different choice that felt right for her. 

H: And then literally, like completely unprompted. Like in 2017, I was dyeing my hair. And at that point by 2017 I don’t know how old I was, I was in my 30s. So like, I would dye my hair and would start to grow back like three days later. And I just had this moment, where I was like, my hair is like fighting to like, it’s fighting to be grey. Like, I’m, we’re in a fight. Like, I’m like, it wants to be gray. And I’m like, literally like, suppressing it, right? I’m like, No, you must be dark brown. Like, and it would just grow back up. Like it had like this fight in it. And I was just like, how much time and energy can I spend trying to like, not allow the thing that it wants to be just be, you know, it’s kind of funny, because it’s hair, but like, I really was like this deep like experience for me where I was just like, I’m done, like, no more like, I cannot do this anymore. It won’t even let me do it. You know, even if I do do it, it’s like growing back in like three days at this point. So then I started the process of letting it go gray.

She found what felt right for her, or perhaps she had to grow into it being the right decision for her. Despite what others thought and said.

H: I mean, my family was devastated. My parents begged me not to go gray multiple times, like literally like, I think we talked about it. Every time I saw them for like 18 months, until I was like, you’re gonna say everything you need to say about my hair. And then we are never speaking about this again. I was like, I’m just but then But then it became this other thing, right? People would stop me on the street all the time. Like a lot of South Asian people would stop me on the street and be like, Why aren’t you dyeing your hair? People constantly stopped me on the street now to ask me why my hair is gray. And it just became this like, interesting, like identifier Like the thing what did necessarily like signed up for.

H: And then other people were like, Did you die gray? Like, is your hair real? Like, oh my god, that’s so inspiring. Why aren’t you dyeing your hair, just dye your hair like just, you know, this kind of like unsolicited opinion. All the time everywhere. Like this is so intense, like, so I mean, I guess so again, so many threads kind of were coming together as it relates to my own life and, and hair having such a like a stronghold on on my own personal narrative.

The Cultural and Ancestral Significance of Hair

I’m sure for some people, hair is sort of a benign topic. There might not be an emotion associated with it either way. But for many of us, it’s a big part of who we are and how we see ourselves, and how we think others see us. 

What I find interesting is that across identities, across ages, across gender, many people experience their hair in a way that connects deeply with them.

Hima noticed this at her show too. Before the experiential show where people would come and have their hair played with, they would watch a short film showing histories of hair, some narratives about hair, across cultures and time. 

H: That was like really, really interesting to like research and learn about and just like the nuances and like black communities and South Asian and, you know, Islamic communities, indigenous communities, Chinese communities, Japanese communities, like there’s all there’s just so much Jewish communities like, so I learned I feel like I learned a lot as well. And that kind of gave people like a bit of a grounding and activated the mind and then came into the spa. And we did like a ritual together.

I asked Hima what she noticed, working alongside so many people at this show. Similarities or differences between people, and their reactions to this experience.

H: Um, I think like, okay, at the most basic level, like everybody has such unique hair, like, there’s no two hair, that’s the same, because I was standing above them, right? So I kind of like could see how like, you know, everyone starts off tense and people’s hands are like this like clenched on their, on their on their stomach, and, and then slowly they just like let their arms go in and slowly their shoulders relax. And they there’s just this like dropping into the body that I think like just facilitated people to go really deep, I would say like 80% of people sobbed, like there was just a lot of sobbing.

Hair and Sensory Stimulation

It’s a soothing mechanism. When you have sensory stimulation, one thing that happens is that your body releases oxytocin.  It’s the same hormone that’s released during labour and breastfeeding, and during skin to skin contact with an infant. It’s known as a ‘the love hormone’, because it helps promote trust, empathy and bonding in relationships. 

For many people, there is something relaxing and soothing about being touched, or caressed physically. And there’s also a sensation that some people feel when they watch other people being caressed, like having their hair brushed, for example. It’s called The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) which is deeply relaxing and is described as a pleasant tingling sensation originating from the scalp and neck which can spread to the rest of the body. 

It’s still being researched because the mechanisms are not clearly understood, but the brain can be activated when watching this happen, and it feels to people experiencing it, very relaxing. 

Some people experience such a therapeutic benefit that it can reduce heart rate, promote feelings of positive emotions – in the way that some people respond to music and have stress reduction.  Now there’s not a lot of research on this, although I think there will be more, my suspicion is that there could be more than just a relaxation effect. Some people have reported emotional healing, not just physical healing, and I suspect it might have to do with the close and interpersonal nature of hair brushing, almost like a social connection and acceptance between two people.  

In my case, my dad used to rub my hair when I was a kid and I’d lie down in his lap. It’s such an ingrained reaction for me that I remember even as an adult, I feel silly to say this out loud but there have been times when I visit him and I’ll put my head in his lap and it’s such a deep, bonding feeling for me with him. 

If you think about hair and what it represents, there are so many differences among cultures. In some countries and cultures, covering the hair is a symbol of choice, or a symbol of faith, in others people are facing religious intolerance. There is so much meaning attached to hair, and what it represents and how you’re treated or perceived. 

Beauty Standards Related to Hair

Hair is also a representation of beauty and the beauty standards of society often dictate how we see ourselves, how we show ourselves.

H: the way that the beauty standard works is that it’s like, everybody must fit into this box. And you’re either in the box, or you’re outside of the box. And that’s it, there’s just one box. And of course, that’s changed so much but like, and it’s incredible to see the way young people are embracing so many different parts of themselves. 

Expectations and Body Hair

We’ve been talking about hair on our heads but it can extend to body hair because so many of us spend time and money and effort on body hair too.

H: I wish I could see my body hair as beautiful. But I can like I’m so far gone. On, right, like, there’s just so many years of rejection rejection of seeing it as like, ugly and unruly and gross and like all these words that, you know, were given to us. And then we adopted them, we embodied them, we, and and now it’s, it’s very difficult to go back, it’s not impossible, of course, I’m certainly not as like judicious as about it, as it used to be. I mean, I remember a time in my life where, like, my social life was structured around my body hair, you know, it was like, can’t go out this weekend, because my waxing appointments like not till next weekend, you know, and that was like a real thing. Like, you just did it.

I think it’s like connecting to like, what is like, what is why am I doing this? This is real effort, and real labor and real time. So it’s like, what is the motivation? Is it for me? Is it for you?

As you know, if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, or following my work, I’m all about awareness. I think it’s a critical part of decision making and living intentionally. And this is a really important question. Why do we care about hair, and what we do to ourselves?

H: I think the question that I like, that I asked is like, what is a real choice? You know, again, we can have preferences, and we can decide what is beautiful to us. But I’m like, how much of this is a real choice? Like, I don’t even know anymore, right?

Hima makes a good point here, we live in a society where there are norms and what’s accepted is changing, and it has to change. Part of what feels oppressive for so many groups of people, who don’t let’s say fit into the majority narrative, is that I think they don’t feel like there is a lot of choice. But how and when are we able to express our uniqueness? 

What’s right for you, might be different than what’s right for me. But I think it’s important to ask ourselves these questions, to reflect on our values, our needs in order to make decisions that are aligned. 

I find this topic fascinating because there are so many more nuances than you think. And when it comes to our bodies, our identities, our personalities, I think deep down, we all want to be loved for exactly who we are. The good, the bad.  And we also have to love ourselves, and that’s a journey that is always evolving. 

I want to also express that while we’ve mostly been talking about our experiences as women, it’s not exclusively about women. Men have discourse around hair, non binary people have discourse around hair and it’s an expression of ourselves for everyone, and could tie to our feelings about ourselves and how we’re perceived. 

There are stereotypes about men, whether it’s long hair, or baldness or beards. It’s a journey for them in different way.

H: I think the journey that we’re on collectively right now is like, what does it mean to like, express your identity in a way that feels real and true for you? And what does it mean for the rest of the world to accept that, and not project assumptions and onto that and not to doctor to project biases and, and then and then actually then enforce that through like, sudden levels of discrimination? Which people do experience like through their hair , especially like within the black community, right, so much? Like their history is, and of course, it’s it’s different all over the world. But specifically, like in North America, there the history of just the way like, black hair has been co opted as a tool for racism and discrimination is like horrifying, right?

Hair Journeys: Embracing Ourselves and Others

For some communities, there is so much trauma and history connected to hair.  For some, it represents strength, or hope.  Every community could have their own conversation around hair. 

If you look deeper, there are so many underlying themes not only of identity, and ancestry but also of safety and religion, energy and sacrifice.   Not to mention commerce, export and trade for hair and hair products. 

If I touch on commerce for a moment, I need to discuss beauty standards. I think we’re so influenced by outward perception of beauty in society. 

Beauty standards are defined by a particular idea of what’s beautiful and it relates to much more than hair, it relates to body size and shape, and skin colour, and certain features. If we think just about hair, I think standards are changing. People are starting to reclaim their hair styles, their identities in countries and communities where they feel safe and free to do so.

I think about this a lot, the beauty standard in general, growing up as someone with brown skin in a world where lightness was celebrated, and darkness was not.  

And also as I go through my own hair journey. And as I watch my girls grow up, and build confidence in themselves inside and out. As they come to understand their own hair. One of my daughters has beautifully curly hair and is busy learning about how to style it and manage it and take care of it. Funny that sometimes she wants it to be easier and my other daughter has beautifully soft, silky, straight hair and she sometimes wants to have curls. 

I’m trying to let them come to their own acceptance and love of themselves.  It’s not easy, as much as I outwardly try to tell them that what matters is their own self image, and that they’re beautiful just as they are, I know that they’re approaching the age when friends matter and dating begins. And I’m trying not to let my own experiences cloud my reactions to them, and their experiences. It’s a process.

H: We’re always in a process of unlearning, as well. And it’s like, there’s no there’s no arrival point. It’s just learning unlearning learning and learning.

I try to remind myself that thinking about my hair, or my looks, isn’t superficial or silly.   I think many people have these experiences with their appearance or age or style that really resonates with us deeply, as a representation of who we are – physically and emotionally. 

When I make my decisions about how I want to express myself, or when I think about my changing hair, the time I take to style or cut my hair, I’m trying to imagine how I talk to my daughters about it. 

I want them to love themselves, to feel like they can express themselves, to feel good about themselves – whatever that means for them. And I’m trying to do the same. It’s a journey. I’d like it to be an enjoyable one. 

Thank you for joining me! 

Don’t forget to grab your free resources on the website like the quiz and I also have a free gratitude challenge, a workshop on emotional regulation and some really great journals that I created and use in my own life to help me get clarity, and be more connected to those I love.

Until next time.

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Travel adventurer, joy seeker, book lover

Hi, I'm Rishma.
Your BFF + New
Life Strategist.

I ran a thriving healthcare practice as a Naturopathic Doctor and Acupuncturist for over 20 years. I also earned my PhD and spent time in academic research and teaching positions. Now, I read scientific studies because I'm passionate about personal growth. I use the insights to help me, and our community, live our own XO life.

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