When Pooya Mohseni was 19 years old, she was walking around a park in her hometown of Tehran, Iran, wearing a simple black T-shirt and white jeans, when a group of policemen approached her.
The officers took issue with how Mohseni, a transgender woman who was presenting as masculine at the time, wore her hair. To them, it was too long.
"My hair was down to the middle of my ears," Mohseni, now 41, tells Refinery29. "Not very long at all. If I pulled it all to the front of my face, it would come down to the middle of my nose." According to Mohseni, the officers' real problem wasn't her hair. It was what her hair signified.
At that time in the mid-'90s, Iran was a relatively new fundamentalist Islamic state with harsh punishments for things like homosexuality and improper head coverings, many of which are still in place today. While Mohseni lived there, wearing western-style dress (like jeans) was looked down upon, as was presenting in any way that was outside of strict gender norms. According to these officers, Mohseni's ear-gracing hair was more fit for a cisgender woman, and she was thrown into jail.
Almost two decades later, that very same head of hair is making its debut in a new Pantene campaign called "Don’t Hate Me Because I’m #BeautifuLGBTQ," which was born out of the brand's new partnership with GLAAD in honor of Pride Month. In a video for the campaign that can be seen on both YouTube and social media, Mohseni recounts her arrest and declares that "hair is the most visibly transformative part of your body."
In Mohseni's case, that is especially true. It's through her hair — and her arrest for it — that her life ultimately changed. After her parents paid a fine and signed a document promising to cut Mohseni's hair to an "appropriate length," they realized that if they wanted their daughter to thrive, she had to leave Iran. Nine months later, she moved to New York City, where she still lives and works as an actor, writer, filmmaker, and activist.
The day Mohseni arrived in New York, she started growing out her hair without fear. "By that point, I had no question that transitioning would be the first thing that had happened after I left Iran," Mohseni says. "The first and one thing I could do, because I couldn’t start hormone therapy yet or even buy women’s clothes, was grow out my hair. There was nothing else I could control. Hair was the one thing I could look at and think, There you are, the person that I see inside and no one else sees."
Hair was the one thing I could look at and think, There you are, the person that I see inside and no one else sees.
With every inch that grew, her hair became even more meaningful.
"I think for all human beings, hair is our crown," Mohseni says. "When you want to feel sexy, you can do something to your hair. When you want to put out a different image of yourself, that is the first thing you go to. Even when I was a kid, I used to love to run my fingers through my hair because it comforted me. To this day, I do it to calm myself down."
According to Mohseni, growing out your hair is one of the rare, free things that can help a transitioning individual feel more like themselves. "Do you know how liberating that is when we have to ask permission for so many things?" Mohseni says. "We live in a world where gender has markers. When you are trying to express yourself in the gender that you see yourself, it’s the easiest and most visible part of that transition."
The Pantene ad — which Mohseni says would have made her teenage self "lose her mind" — launched just this week, and she's already received positive feedback from LBGTQ+ individuals in Iran, where homosexuality remains criminalized. Despite the fact that transgender citizens there now have the right to have their gender identity recognized by law, and the Islamic Republic of Iran helps subsidize sex reassignment surgery, there is still immense pressure, harassment, and discrimination for trans individuals and those who don't fit into the gender binary.
"We thought we were cool and changing things, but compared to the kids now, it's just amazing," Mohseni says. "They messaged me. They said, 'I want you to know how beautiful I think you are.' It fills me with so many emotions that these young kids look up to me. I look up to them for their bravery and self-expression, and for the fact that those antiquated laws and oppression are still there [in Iran], but I know they can take it on."