My hair is naturally coily, curly, knotty and big. I love it that way; it is willful, arresting, and uninhibited. Truthfully, my full embrace of these qualities didn’t come until about 3 and half years ago when I finally stopped all attempts to systematically suppress its defiantly kinky and voluminous nature.That decision, to wear my hair as it grows from my head, was from the start an explicitly political one. By that I mean that sporting my irreverent ‘fro in everyday life has functioned for me as an unmistakably forthright assertion of my love, value and confidence in my Black womanness – especially in the face of a social order that would have me default towards feelings of shame and embarrassment regarding my identity. In this context, wearing my ‘fro is a confrontational act.
Indeed, I have very strong feelings and strong politics about my hair. I would guess that these last 3 and half years, my network of friends and acquaintances have also come to read my politics and political personality into my hair. At the very least, it’s clear to me that my hair generates strong opinions because last week when I straightened it, I noticed that mad people in my circle seemed – colloquially speaking – to feel some type of way.
To be fair, moving through the world as I did with straight hair produced in me the strange sensation of being a sleuth in my own social life. While I knew I was still the same person, it was clear that folks – from my friends and coworkers, to my lovers and street harassers – were receiving me a bit differently. I had about me, the same radical and confrontational politics in spite of my decision to temporarily flatten the hair that so often serves as a visual representation of those politics. Unfortunately, the new people with whom I came into contact whilst sporting loosened locks didn’t know that; and I felt that implicitly, my friends and the people who know me – though I may be projecting – needed some explanation.
I would be lying if I said that my straight hair didn’t make me hyper sensitive to people’s perceptions of me. If I’m honest, it’s probably because I admittedly let my ‘fro speak my politics for me more often than it should; especially at those times when I know I should be actively doing my politics myself. I felt especially self-conscious in the presence of the guy I’m dating – a guy who regularly fawns over my ‘fro, calling it “so dope” and “amazing” with a frequency that’s embarrassingly endearing. In addition, I suspect that it’s my ‘fro that at least in part makes him feel like I’m so much more different from the women he’s used to dating, as he likes to remind me. Upon first insecurely unveiling my straightened hair to him, I explained this uncomfortable tension I felt around the social impact of my newly tamed tresses, to which he agreed that they were indeed “pretty vanilla”.
For the first couple days, those sorts of reactions fueled my inclination to go out of my way to explain that this straight hair was just temporary; that it had been a whole 2 years since it had been straightened last; and that I had straightened it mostly because I was just curious, not because anything about who I was or the politics I have, had changed. I was looking for a pass from people and hoping that my rationales were acceptable enough (especially to my political friends) to validate my decision.
But despite being comfortable when my natural, “political” hair speaks for me, I was super uncomfortable at my basic-ass, straight hair speaking for me. The whole time I was rocking it, I knew I wasn’t basic, or regular or plain, even though I felt like that’s how people were reading me. I felt like people were reading me that way, because (again, if I’m honest with myself) that’s how I too often read other women with straight hair. I deny them the capacity to be radical, political people from whom I can learn stuff, when I judge their decision to wear their hair straight over their natural hair as not political or “conscious” enough. That’s not fair, or right, but I understand that that’s why I felt incessantly compelled to explain away my straight hair – and I’m working on that.
This reckoning informed my eventual indigence at feeling as though I had to explain my own straight hair to people. While I firmly believe that no individual decision made in this white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy is ever made in a vacuum of completely individual choice, I recognized that I had reasons for making the decision to straighten my hair. Those reasons, just as the hair itself, are mine (even if necessarily informed in some degree by warped, socialized standards of beauty) and they don’t need external approval from people. Just as Beyonce so aptly articulates, I am an agent equipped with independent decision making faculties that are rational for my purposes, and which I have the freedom to exercise as long as they’re not hurting anyone (I believe her actual words were, “I’m a grown woman and I can do whatever I want”). And that is precisely what I did.
It has not been lost on me that many will read this as my attempt to absolve myself of feelings of guilt or political contradiction. But rest assured that for me writing is an exercise in thinking through complicated feelings and and even more complicated ideas. So this, is me dressing my thoughts in something halfway understandable for myself, and whoever else may find these insights useful.
My explicit radical politics – those politics that from the jump have informed me wearing my hair big as I do – don’t preclude me from exercising the prerogative to try on different versions of my aesthetic self. Acting upon the desire to shape-shift does not undermine my politics. In that way, I realized that my hair is not something over which people get to advance an opinion. My hair – whether natural, straight, big, small, blue or green – is just that, my hair. It just is.
Written by Kristen Maye