While 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?