From a young age, girls and women are told that the longer their hair is, the more beautiful they look. Women with short hair are no strangers to comments like, “You look like a boy” and “You look better with long hair”, and insensitive questions that try to make them feel guilty for making a harmless decision.
But for Paromita, growing up bald because of alopecia, an autoimmune disorder with no cure, was a whole different ball game.
From being bullied and locking herself up in the school bathroom, to confidently roaming the streets as a bald, 30-year-old woman, she has come a long way.
Currently, Paromita heads marketing initiatives at The CoWrks Foundry - CoWrks' business accelerator for early-stage startups building solutions in healthcare, urban tech, enterprise tech, and social enterprise.
Speaking to HerStory, Paromita shares her journey to self-love and acceptance.
An uncertain childhood
Paromita grew up in Darjeeling with her parents and elder sister. Since her father who worked for a tea plantation company was frequently on the move, she was sent to a residential school in Kurseong when she was just four-years-old. But just before she began Class IV at the same institution, Paromita noticed that something wasn’t quite right.
“When I woke up, my pillow would be covered with hair. When I took a shower, there would be hair running down the drain. Anything I did, hair would just be coming off in clumps. And within a week, I was rendered completely bald.”
Being a child who was naturally susceptible to sickness, Paromita’s parents were scared and didn’t know what was happening to her. She recalls being taken to a number of local doctors who weren’t able to diagnose the disorder, and receiving advice to try Ayurveda, homoeopathy, and home remedies, which didn’t work.
“There were people who recommended I rub onion and ginger paste on my head to stimulate hair growth. I listened to them, and went around stinking like a marinade,” she says.
After many failed attempts at regrowing her hair, Paromita eventually had to return to school the way she was. As a 10-year-old girl going to a co-ed school, she admits to having been petrified of the reactions her appearance would garner. She says she was met with a lot of students laughing and asking what happened to her over the winter break.
“This left me in such a bad place. I would find myself locked up in the washroom, crying to myself. Some of the adults were also mean about it, thinking they would normalise the situation by making fun, but little did they realise the kind of impact it had on me.”
Being bullied took a huge swing at her confidence, and Paromita began shying away from the things she used to love, like participating in quizzes, debates, and elocution competitions. She also recalls an incident where she froze on stage, worried that everyone watching was laughing at her.
A clearer path
As the mocking got worse over time, Paromita and her parents were desperate to find answers. They began seeking the help of other doctors, and consulted a specialist in the foothill town of Siliguri. Here, Paromita was finally diagnosed with alopecia areata - a form of the disorder where only certain areas of her scalp are affected.
She explains that for some people with alopecia, their hair grows back and doesn’t fall back out, but for most, relapse is always possible.
“My hair grew back, and then it fell out again, but not completely; there were tufts of hair remaining around my scalp, and I refused to shave them off. I felt like if I did, I would never have any hair ever again.”
As the years passed by, Paromita also says that her friends started becoming supportive. Although they were initially shocked, they slowly realised that this wasn’t something she had control over.
After she graduated from Class X, she thought it was time for a change, and asked her parents to shift her to a different school. However, this turned out to be another nightmare for Paromita. She says,
“I walked into the school, and everyone was bewildered at the sight of a bald, 15-year-old girl. That was really difficult for me and I started regretting my decision. I didn’t know how to address and overcome the situation.”
She also recalls feeling left out when she saw other students being romantically interested in each other.
A few years later, Paromita and her family moved to Kolkata, after her father retired. She met another doctor in the city, and he assured her that her hair would grow back. And right before she started going to college, it did.
“I was thankful that my hair grew back around the time that I was going to start college. The best part was that I could visit the doctor as soon as I spotted signs of relapse,” she says.
Every time she went to the doctor to prevent a relapse, she would receive multiple injections to her scalp and was prescribed medicines that made her nauseous. However, she withstood the pain because having hair made her feel more confident, and she didn’t feel as insecure as she did before.
The road to self-acceptance
After she completed her Master’s degree in English Literature and a course in publishing, Paromita moved to Bengaluru for an internship in 2015, with a head full of hair. She says that shifting to a new city was like a breath of fresh air. Here, Paromita also had her first proper haircut at a salon.
“Bengaluru is very accepting in a lot of different ways. People are busy with their own lives, and have their own things to worry about. And even though you might look a little out of place, people don’t care. I felt comfortable, and like I could be myself.”
However, in 2016 she encountered a relapse, which made her contemplate whether she should consult another doctor or just deal with it herself.
“It had been so stressful all these years, and I had never stopped thinking about when my hair would fall out or grow back. That’s when I decided I would just shave all my hair and go off medicines completely.”
Around this time, she also started a new job, and wrote an email to the entire organisation letting them know about her condition and decision to go bald. She also set boundaries about people asking intrusive questions.
While she had made a bold decision, Paromita was still filled with doubt. She didn’t know if she would look good in a dress, or would be able to date anyone again. But she soon began receiving compliments about her appearance, and this helped her regain confidence.
“At that point, the validation I got from others helped restore my confidence, and now I’m at the stage where I do things of my own accord,” she says.
Paromita grew up cornered and unable to overcome a situation she had no control over. People made her feel unworthy and pulled her down no matter what she did. But with the help of her family who were always there for her, and her own willpower, Paromita has emerged as a confident woman, comfortable in her own skin. She also says she consulted a therapist who helped her get past some of her deepest fears.
In the past, she used to hide from her bullies, but today she takes the opportunity to educate them about her condition. She says she often gets asked whether she offered her hair to god in Tirupati, or is assumed to have cancer. She also encounters bald men asking her why she doesn’t have any hair, making it evident that women are subjected to double standards.
However, moving past the hurdles people have placed before her, Paromita is also focussing on some personal goals and aspirations she has, like authoring and designing a children’s book, opening a cafe in the Himalayan belt where she grew up, playing live music, owning a library, and opening an animal shelter with her sister.
She is also using her voice to empower others, and helps other women going through similar struggles by sharing her story. She recently spoke about her journey at Human Library in Bengaluru, where she was a ‘book’ and ‘readers’ listened to her.
And to other women going through tough times, Paromita has some golden advice:
“You don't need anyone’s validation, trust me. It has to come from within, and you will find it. All you have to do is tune out the noise. These people don’t know any better. They're feeding off your reaction to the hurtful words. They're just words. They won't shake you. Stand your ground.”
(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)