8. The Politics of Hair

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One of my most striking physical attributes is my curly hair. Growing up my mum would plait it and brush it out every morning before school so it wasn’t until I was 11 that my best friend, Gen, drew my attention to my natural curls. Gen’s mixed race – her grandmother’s from Jamaica (though I detest the idea of anyone fractioning their heritage like that) and she has beautiful curly hair. She pointed out that when wet, my hair would spring up into ringlets; she showed me what products to use to tame the ‘frizz’ and how to style it. I went from being unaware to fiercely proud of my hair, in fact, we were so proud we formed the CGC – the ‘Curly Girl Crew’ – where we invited members with similarly curly hair to join us. Duties involved changing our MSN names to ‘reppin’ CGC’ before promptly forgetting it ever existed, to date we’ve only ever had five members – how cool was I?

It was over the course of my teenage years that I grew to love my hair, in fact I was on the number 52 bus one time and I overheard an Iraqi mother say to her daughter in Arabic ‘that girl’s got beautiful hair’, it made me glow and over time I’ve come to value it as one of my defining features. I straighten my hair a couple of times a year and people always remark how different I look and how long it is when straight. Though I do love the change (and convenience) of straightening my hair, I also feel like I’ve lost something that makes me stand out – like I’ve somehow ‘normalised’ myself. I appreciate this is a pedantic point that some could even class as neurotic but hair is political: how you style your hair, as a woman or man of colour, influences how you are perceived both within your community and without. The colour, texture and style of hair for all non-white communities is inherently contrasted with European ideals where straight, white hair is considered beautiful.

Hair is not as pertinent in the Arab world as it is for those with afro hair. This is due in part to many women in Middle East wearing the headscarf (the hijab), which requires them to cover their hair in public. For those with Afro hair the debate seems to surround the nature of the style however for those from the Arab world where hair is not too dissimilar in texture from European hair (save, perhaps, certain North African communities), the debate circulates around the colour. Whenever I’ve observed Muslim women socializing with their hair uncovered – without the presence of men, many have dyed their hair lighter colours and lighter hair is regarded as a huge factor in beauty standards. I once saw a (slightly mental) woman who put blond highlights in the hair of all five of her kids including her one-year-old in Baghdad. Indeed, when I went to Iraq for the first time they all remarked how I was ‘blonde’ – I realise now they meant not black-haired – and I was more attractive for it, especially when combined with my lighter skin which has the overall effect of making me more European looking.

This tragic aspiration is also present in black communities: Malcolm X in his autobiography describes in vivid detail his teenage years in black ghettos in Boston and Harlem and the widespread practice of ‘conking’ whereby the hair was chemically straightened with lye to make it look like white people’s. It was seen as a mark of ‘civilization’ and being ‘hip’, something Malcolm X deems as a step towards ‘self-degradation’. He wrote: ‘I had joined that multitude of negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are ‘inferior’ – and white people ‘superior’ – that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try and look ‘pretty’ by white standards.’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning Nigerian author, explored this in a Channel 4 interview last year where she stated that ‘black women’s hair is political’ and that assumptions are made if a black woman doesn’t have straight hair. She described the huge range of styles open to black women from dreadlocks to twists and how each encompasses a certain perception. In her latest book, Americanah, she plays with ideas of race and hair, writing, ‘relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.’ This, in a nutshell, is the politics of hair: men and women of colour have, for decades, subconsciously or not, burned, cut, dyed and straightened their hair all in an attempt to emulate European beauty standards that purports that white, straight hair is beautiful, desirable or, worse still, ‘natural’.

In the same way that twenty-first century Western society likes to portray (predominantly white) size zero models as the beauty archetype, so too, do we show our girls that straight, white hair is the norm. The consequence of this is that many black women are either relaxing their hair (a modern-day equivalent to ‘conking’) or putting in a weave. While Malcolm X states that ‘it makes you wonder if the Negro has completely lost his sense of identity, lost touch with himself’ for ‘conking’, I will not and indeed can not go that far, I have never dealt with the reality of afro hair, both in terms of managing it or the attitudes that can come with it, yet I will say that society presents one ideal and it is our duty, as those who don’t automatically comply with it, to question the beauty gold-standard and raise awareness: people don’t mean to be ignorant when they ask to touch afro hair, but the fact that they see it as a novelty and not a normal thing speaks volumes. I’ve heard people express surprise when they realize that Beyoncé’s hair is not her own and bemusement when their black friends don’t want to get their hair wet when swimming or in the rain.

In recent years, more and more women with afro hair have abandoned the weave for their natural hair with figures like Solange Knowles, Beyoncé’s sister, becoming de facto poster girls prompting a larger acceptance, signified by a growing market, which caters to natural hair. However, that society is so unaccustomed to natural hair is perhaps best reflected by those who call natural hair a ‘trend’ as if it’ll last the life span of a twitter craze as opposed to a way of life.

As a woman whose hair can be managed in the same way that white people’s hair is managed, I realize the hypocrisy of me asserting that women should ditch these methods for a more natural look, but I’m writing this in an attempt to highlight that it’s self-perpetuating reality: the more we see the more we force ourselves into it and take it as mandatory, in the same way that women are expected to remove body hair, despite it being completely unnatural. If you feel comfortable, or (as is usually the case among my friends) find having a weave or relaxed hair more manageable, then that, of course, is your prerogative and far be it for me to question that. But hair is undeniably political, natural hair is not a trend, it is a statement: a re-defining of what women and men of colour look like. A reality, moreover, that women who have short hair face, with some ignorantly criticising them for being ‘unwomanly’. For too long, white, straight hair has been regarded as simultaneously beautiful and normal and I write this neither to create tension nor to judge, but rather as a means of examining the status quo. After all, if our own men and women can’t see the politics in it, then who will?

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