Musings on Hair

Audre Lorde’s essay on hair, politics and intersections of life and theory (Is Your Hair Still Political?) made me think of my own hair issues. I don’t know how many other young Black girls did this, but before I would get in the shower, I would pull my shirt up until the neck-hole matched up with my hair line, and fold the shirt toward the back of my body. (God, that language is convoluted, but I don’t know how else to describe it!) I’d essentially wind up with what I thought looked like long hair. Looking back as a feminist, I think about how much the image of long, flowing hair in mainstream media affected me and still affects me.

Until I was about 8 or 9 I wore my hair in tiny braids and barrettes (a battle fought at my mother’s and grandmother’s knees), beads every now and again and a press and curl. I still remember my granny blowing on my neck whenever that hot assed comb was entering dangerous territory. At 9 I had my first perm. It was awful. Even that doesn’t accurately describe it. Now, I know that my hairdresser had no clue what she was doing. The chemicals found their way onto my scalp and almost immediately I felt that burning sensation that is familiar to many Black women. From there, I began screaming crying.


My Mom and hairdresser accused me of being hysterical and making other children in the salon cry. But my hair was straight when it was all said and done. And that privileged straightness is exactly how they (my mom and stylist) sold me on the idea – “Wouldn’t you like it if your hair got wet and was still straight?” Thinking of the hot comb and my mother’s cursed frustrations, I immediately said yes. Over time I learned to deal with the pain that never went away. No matter what advice I was given or what “cooling” tools my stylists used (from oil sheen to actual fans), my scalp would burn whenever I got a perm. Anyone else would’ve recognized burning as a signal that something wasn’t quite right, but I knew no other way of wearing my hair. And I couldn’t wear braids forever.

For the next 14 years I wore my hair in combos of braids (crochet, box, micro, etc) weaves (ponytails, quick, full) and Senegalese twists with perms in between. At some point, I’d gone 3 or 4 years without a perm because I’d been wearing microbraids so much. My hair was in its natural state, having grown out what was left of my last perm – but I had no idea at that time what it meant to be “natural.” So I took out my braids, got a perm and wore my hair like that. Until it fell out.

In patches.

So, I had to get my hair cut incredibly short. Which I hated – because long, flowing hair was what I should want, right? 3 years later my best friend “big-chopped.” She sent me a picture and dammit, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her or her hair. It was beautiful. She said “I’m going natural” and after asking her what the hell that even meant, I thought about it for a few months, cut off what was left of my perm and transitioned to locs – which I’ve always loved but was told at some point that I was “too light-skinned” (read: not Black enough) for. Ha.

After wearing locs for just a few months – they weren’t in long, I got bored – I remember an old roommate asking me if I washed my hair. One of her friends actually laughed at me because I was reading a book on how to properly care for one’s locs. I guess she thought locs were just something you put into your head and leave alone for a few years and that actual knowledge of how to take care of them was not only unnecessary, but laughable.

When I went natural, I felt liberated. I never did it for any political reason, just because I was tired of salons, chemical smells and chemical burns, and I couldn’t abide my hair falling out over and over again. I could run out in the rain without fear. I didn’t have to go through a cycle of wash, condition, blow dry, flat iron on non-salon-visit weeks. But, I recognize that my hair is political even when I don’t want it to be. I recognize that the US military has a dress code that essentially outlaws natural styles – locs especially. I recognize that people I know and love have been reported to human resources because their hair was “distracting.” I have had a co-worker express to me that “White women have issues with curly hair, too” when I was trying to explain hair issues to her. I immediately thought of Viola Davis when she told Anderson Cooper that she didn’t have enough time to explain hair issues to him:

Hair may seem incredibly superficial. I hear it all the time – it’s just hair. But it’s “just” hair to people who have always had the hair that was sought after and privileged as beautiful. Hair is one of the few spaces where, for me, differences between feminism for White women and feminism Black women become clear and it becomes easier to point out where the fact that I am Black affects me differently as a woman. Some people don’t get it because they don’t want to. Or because we live in a society that pays lip service to minimizing difference, while casting it in a negative light every day. I am different and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something wrong with demonizing me for that difference, though – hair included.


~ by Kristen on March 11, 2013.

3 Responses to “Musings on Hair”

  1. I just want to start off by saying I love the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air! But I understand where your coming from when you say that people with “good hair” consider hair “just hair” because that is definitely how I feel. I don’t feel that way because I think my hair is better than anyone else’s though because I have struggled when trying to care for my hair as well; I feel that way because I think of the young women with cancer who have no hair and they have no say about it. That is why I feel as though every female should embrace their hair because at least they have the choice.

    • While I do agree that by comparison we have the choice of having hair – the conversations that we have about hair – about what’s beautiful and what isn’t – go hand in hand with conversations that we have about what noses, lips and body types are beautiful. We talked about why self-definition is so important in class this evening, and that question lends itself well to how we understand and define beauty. Black women have often been told that everything about them is ugly, wrong, amoral, and just plain alien – their bodies (I’m thinking of Sara Baartman) and their hair.

      Being able to define that hair and those bodies as beautiful, as normal, as human even, demonstrates ownership of our bodies and ourselves that people still try to deny us. Too many people link certain hair styles with certain identities – like the assumption that Lorde’s locs made her rasta which in turn made her a drug addict and/or trafficker. Lorde’s ability to define herself was stripped from her. Morrison writes in Beloved “..definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined.”

      Being able to love ourselves down to our very hair follicles is incredibly uplifting and necessary. But I think it becomes more difficult in the face of people that want to define us by our hair, or define our hair and our bodies as alien or somehow other. So, while I agree that when compared to women and men who have lost their hair to cancer we should be happy with and embrace what we have – doing so isn’t so easy because we still have to deal with the stigma that might be associated with it.

  2. I have a video of my preschool graduation. My girlfriend laughs when we get to the part of balancing beanbags on of heads. All the other little kids had a horribly difficult time with it. I however, had no perm (just that hot stove-heated comb my Grandmother blew on whilst it was at my neck). I had pleaded to have my hair loose for graduation, no plats and beads. That beanbag didn’t move once after its initial placement! I was looking around at the other hulligans with their Tom Foolery and honestly didn’t know what their bleeping problem was. Now I know their hair is/was their problem.
    At age 13 maybe, I received my first perm. I stopped getting them when I was 19 or so. I transitioned to flat ironing, then to plats, then to not combing my hair, then to not picking it, then finally locks. Locks that I have always washed quite often, isn’t that the point? My beautiful built-in umbrella, that’s always ready for the pool or ocean!

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