Written by: Gaiatri Sasitharan
Edited By: Clarissa Lilananda and Nadya Soetomo
Illustrations by: Cindy Witono
Don’t touch my hair when it’s the feelings I wear -Solange
Intersectional feminist scholar, bell hooks stressed that the origins of feminist theory lay in women's personal experiences. hooks understood theory and politics as intimately connected, and not distant and abstract relative to personal life. I believe this intimate connection is rendered tangible and visible in our hair. The hair we are born with, and the ways we style and alter our hair, are all political statements, whether we realise it or not.
In Hair: Sex, Society, and Symbolism (1971), Wendy Cooper contends that hair is an “easily controlled variable that can denote status, set fashion, or serve as a badge”. This has resulted in the social and cultural significance of hair. Cooper also argues that skin and hair are the two most important physical attributes for racial classification. Therefore, for minority communities especially, hair and hairstyling practices can never escape political readings or politicisation.
According to hair historian Rachael Gibson, “Hair has been used as an expression of politics and personal beliefs since the earliest times, and we see examples of it time and again in diverse cultures across the globe”. Different hairstyles have become intrinsically linked with specific politics, issues and beliefs. For example, in the 1960s, Afro hairstyles were intrinsically linked with the Black civil rights movement and associated with civil rights’ activist Angela Davis. When Davis discussed her hairstyle and the power of her image on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ posters, she highlighted the harassment and arrest of hundreds – or even thousands – of Afro-wearing, Black women by police, FBI, and immigration agents during the two months she spent underground. Photographs constructed generic representations of young Black women and led to massive stereotyping from law enforcement officers making them targets of repression.
Additionally, Gibson also notes that hair comes weighted with a great deal of emotion and identity often created by wider society rather than the wearer. Social pressures and expectations around how one is meant to wear and present one’s hair determines what is considered acceptable, permissible and beautiful. Therefore, the political and material reality of black women’s hair is such that the women are condemned to perpetual discrimination and stereotyping based on their hair. According to Kobena Mercer in Black Hair/Style Politics (1990), one’s hair is a site of the intersection of issues involving aesthetics, societal norms, internalised notions of superiority/inferiority, history, adornment, politics, and race and racism.
You like my hair? Gee, thanks, just bought it –Ariana Grande
Racism, Eurocentrism, Colonialism, and Hair
In the age of the internet, the interaction of Eurocentrism and anti-Black racism has resulted in the denigration of phenotypically “Black” features and the privileging of conventionally “White” features. Colonialism and slavery have reduced the Black body – and by extension Black beauty and anything associated with it – to less than. Hair desirability and attractiveness are inextricably linked with hair texture and that which is deemed desirable is measured against “White” standards of beauty. As such, straighter, smoother, more Eurocentric hair is a demarcation into acceptability.
For example, my own curly, unruly hair is far more reminiscent of kinky Black curls as compared to pin-straight, sleek hair seen on White women. Living in Singapore, an extremely modernised former British colony, meant that the media I consumed and the models of beauty I was surrounded with still conformed to Eurocentric beauty standards.
My hair was made fun of, deemed messy, and rule-breaking at school. I was always told that the natural state of my hair was simply unacceptable and it had to be tamed into something more identical to my Chinese peers’.
Truthful and natural representations of “minority” hair (ie. voluminous, curly hair or thick, oiled and tightly woven braids) display a very specific minority aesthetic that is linked to an authentic or radical Blackness in the imagination of the colonised majority. This reflects a normalised preference for whiteness or even an expression of internalised hatred for hair qualities related to Blackness.
In Black Rage (1968), William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs delve into the differences in hair grooming processes between Black and White women. They highlight that the hair “taming” process for Black women is not only painful but does not actually result in the women being seen as beautiful but rather only acceptable. Any pain endured by White women in hairstyling results in the enhancement of their beauty – beauty, the authors argue, that is already celebrated even before they enter the hair salon. However, Black women had to submit to painful hairstyling methods to be seen as presentable while their features remained uncelebrated, despite their agony.
This resulted in a lot of emotional and physical pain – no matter how Black women chose to wear their hair. Sociology professor, Maxine Craig points out that when “[Black] women first started wearing natural hairstyles, they felt pulled between feminine ideals and racial pride”. Natural hair was deemed incompatible with dominant norms of beauty and femininity. As a result, decisions about Black hairstyling were very much decisions about racial representation, pride, femininity and female presentation – could wearing your hair naturally make you less of a woman?
Eurocentric beauty standards affect the perception of one’s hair, which also affects every aspect of a woman’s life – her education, her job, even her sense of self.
I love everything about you, from your nappy curls
To every single curve – Beyonce
Unlearning Eurocentrism &
Decolonising the Body
How then, does one begin to unlearn this warped beauty standard in order to embark on the process of decolonising one’s body? This work of unlearning Eurocentrism in beauty and decolonising one’s body was largely pioneered by Black scholars and thinkers. For example, Jamaican professor of sociology – Shirley Ann Tate – argues that beauty is performative, something that is done – through mimicry, hybridity and performativity in her book: Black Skins, Black Masks.
According to gender and sexuality studies professor Carolette R. Norwood, healing from colonial violence often begins with new knowledge that can only emerge from deconstructing colonial normativity. This entails a re-centering of the beauty contained within people of colour and the construction of beauty standards that no longer elevate “White” features. Norwood suggests this process frees the indigenous, native self into existence and visibility. This self that was once silenced now becomes audible and strong. The rejection of Eurocentrism means rejecting a life of servitude and inferiority to Western standards. Instead, one is free to embrace one’s natural aesthetic – which is a rebellion against the White hegemony that perpetuates an anti-Black aesthetic. Consequently, culturally specific analyses of hair become extremely necessary as hair symbolism and significance is so different across various cultures and heritages.
In Decolonization, Beauty, and Black Hair Aesthetics, Kristin Denise Rowe asserts that if we are serious about “decolonizing beauty studies, we must confront how “women in general, and Black women in particular, are passive subjects within a larger racist and sexist system”. Current hegemonic standards of beauty – which are inherently racist because they are dependent on global white supremacy – are critical to our understanding of body politics today. Rowe argues that decolonising the body encompasses a freedom and willingness to reimagine a framework of “bodies, beauty, and aesthetics outside of a framework of ‘Eurocentrism’ as the end all be all of aesthetic choice”. Configuring this new framework that includes a space for everyone and privileges diverse bodies and beauty standards will gradually allow the effects of our post-colonial hangover to ebb.
I wanna take all of my hair down and let you lay in it –SZA
Return to the Self
My own relationship with my hair matured and developed, as I grew up. I lost more than half my hair volume in my late teens. The experience really shook me but it also taught me to appreciate the gift I was born with. My hair never did anything to deserve the extreme taming, hatred, and resentment it endured when I was younger. She just grew and tried her best to survive, while I did everything in my power to drastically alter her.
The grief I felt as I lost my hair was overwhelming. As I slowly physically recovered from that, I also actively took steps to restore my relationship with her. Through exposure to new trends in hairstyling like the Curly Girl Method and the natural hair movement, extensive un-learning and de-centering of conventionally white beauty standards, I began to love my big, bouncy, unruly curls. My gradual, burgeoning love for my natural hair translated into me cultivating more love for myself and my entire body.
This sense of personal empowerment provided me with a means of resistance and rebellion against colonialist, Eurocentric standards of beauty.
At the core of seemingly casual, everyday rituals, – washing, drying and styling one’s hair – exist complex narratives of identity politics. Knowledge and consciousness-raising can lead to resistance, which often fosters a new self-definition. Despite this newfound love for my hair, I am still negotiating different aspects of my femininity and identity in relation to my hair. I am no longer ashamed of it, no longer desperate to force it to fit the mould carved out by years of Eurocentric beauty standards. My hair is an extension of myself, my identity, and my femininity. But it does not define me.