A weekly digest of varied conversational musings on day-to-day life, society & whatever the world throws our way.

Posts tagged ‘Natural hair’

You Can Look, But You Can’t Touch

AfroWhile scanning some social media sites this past week, I came across news that the state of Pennsylvania will enforce a law making it illegal to touch a pregnant woman’s belly without asking her permission. There are, it turns out, lots of blogs and forums about the issue. Many pregnant women, for some reason, don’t like it when creepy strangers fondle their baby bumps. Go figure!

The story generated some empathy on my part because, although I’ve never been pregnant, I can understand this particular form of ‘stranger danger’ – strangers reaching out to touch a particular part of your person out of curiosity and ‘interest’. NB. To be clear, this form of ‘stranger danger’ obviously doesn’t include touching of a menacing nature – it’s just touching of the annoying variety.

For example, as the owner of a newly minted teeny weeny afro (TWA) that is quickly morphing into a badass fro – if I do say so myself – there has been greater interest by others to reach out and touch it. There has already been some unsolicited touching of the fro. Not long after the big chop, a former colleague, seeing me for the first time with the new do, reached out  to touch the fro.  I can’t recall whether I visibly recoiled in shock, but I did cringe a bit inside.

I think I cringed partly because it took me back to the days of my youth where I would, from time to time, have my head petted like a dog by people who were curious and who wanted to know what my hair felt like. There would, invariably, be comments like: “It’s softer than I imagined” or “It doesn’t feel real” – I guess the definition of real is very subjective. I also suppose one can’t expect tact from ‘human petters’.

I mean, I get it. Things that are, from our individual perspectives, peculiar or different from what we know peak our curiosity, but that “desire to know” doesn’t override respect for personal boundaries or according respect to others. This is why I find the “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit, and resulting short films on YouTube, particularly fascinating.

The project, developed by Antonia Opiah, explores society’s fascination with black women’s hair. The women who participated in the project did so for various reasons: from wanting their texture of hair to be put on display, to a desire to engage with an audience beyond the black community.  The reaction by onlookers is mixed: some black women engaged in a mini-protest of their own against the project; some passersby (particularly non-blacks) are reluctant to touch the women’s hair, while others (black and non-black) are gung ho to act given the permission to do so.

While I support initiatives that encourage dialogue and cultural understanding, which the project does in part, I also have an involuntary aversion to the method used. I want to celebrate what Opiah is doing – given the importance of sisterhood and all – but I can’t do so wholeheartedly.

First, on a personal level, I can’t imagine subjecting myself to this type of engagement with strangers in the venue Opiah chooses – and willingly allowing them touch me to satiate their curiosity. Perhaps that is the introvert in me. Second, and maybe this is extreme, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between this endeavour and the freak show attractions that took place in Europe in the 19th century, such as the ones that Sarah Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, was subjected to.

Of course, the circumstances and economic and social conditions in which these exhibits were situated are markedly different: the women involved in the “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit are willing and independent participants, and it’s questionable whether Baartman had the personal agency to control her life and how she was presented to society.

I can’t help but analyze the exhibition beyond a basic and literal level. It seems to me that the medium is the message.  The exhibition has the whiff of a circus side show displaying the “other”’s anomalous state. Even though it is a person of colour at the reigns of this project, is it less of a freak show?

Signing off,

Y.

 

 

 

Crowning Glory

kozzi-scissors-and-comb-for-a-hairdresser-859-x-605A lot of emotion and cultural and social connotations are caught up in hair – from the colour of it, to how it’s cut and styled. Hair has significance. The state of it tells others how healthy we are, whether we spend a lot of time on our coifs, or prefer the ease that may come from a shorter do, and if we’re creative, iconoclasts, or conventional.

For women, in particular, hair also signifies beauty. It’s a woman’s calling card. Even the Bible makes reference to it:  1 Corinthians 11:15 – But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given her for a covering. (King James version).  Hair in many cultures is a woman’s crowning glory – even her greatness.

We’ve all seen the myriad ads for shampoos and conditioners with women with long, shiny  and swishy hair – Pantene hair I call it – informing us of what our own hair should do and what it should look like. It’s unrealistic of course to think that the look can be replicated in real life without the assistance of a hair and makeup team and strategically placed fans, but women the world over buy the products that promise to make our hair as fabulous as what we see on screen.

But what are you to do if your hair isn’t swishy and doesn’t match the cultural norm? Well, for so many, it means doing everything and anything against your own hair’s nature for various reasons: from ease (if you’re naturally curly-haired it can be nice to comb one’s hair from root to tip with nary a knot or tear) to fulfilling cultural norms of “good” or “respectable” hair.  Brazilian blow outs or keratin straighteners, Japanese straighteners, and chemical relaxers for women of African descent all “tame” and bring hair into “conformity”.

There comes a point though for some women when they just get plain tired of “the process”. Chemical straighteners can wreak havoc on a sensitive scalp; and for any of you who have watched, or are familiar with Chris Rock’s film Good Hair, where he shows the actual chemical composition of a relaxer, well, you know it’s frightening to think that a product that you put on your scalp can also eat through an aluminum can!

Not long ago, I had an enlightening conversation with a friend who had been relaxer-free for several years. One thing she said that resonated with me referred to the prospective dangers associated with the various chemicals we use – for our hair and our skin. She said: “If I become ill, with cancer or some other illness, I want the cause to be a mystery.”

It made a lot of sense to me, especially given the dietary changes I had made in recent years- eschewing meat, etc. Being relaxer-free meant being free from products with compounds I can’t pronounce. And it also meant being free from social conventions and allowing my hair to do it’s own unique thing – kinky, curly, or fro-like depending on its mood – defying what the broader  society may deem as “proper” and “professional”.

My intention isn’t to sound high and mighty or self-righteous given that it’s only been a week since I cut off my straight, relaxed ends. I’m not in a position to tell any other woman what to do;  there’s no single choice or style or method that all women (especially those of the curly variety) should abide by. Hair is personal and the decisions made with regard to its treatment and care are individual choices.

I  loved my relaxer when I had it –  I just outgrew it. Now I’m head over heels and falling in love with my curly hair – my real crown of glory. I missed it!

Signing off,

Y.