Thank you so much for all the wonderful, moving, scary, funny stories about hair.
I wanted to highlight this comment from Wonders of Maybe because it underlines how hair and fashion and politics and identity (self and imposed from the outside) co-exist:
Hmm — I’m multiracial (Black/Native American/White) and very, very light-skinned with extremely thick, curly hair. I’m talking spirals on “good” days and fluffy frizz on “bad” days! When I was young I wanted to straighten my hair because of how much I got hassled but once I turned 12, I was intent upon my hair staying natural. With such light skin, I feel it’s an honest indicator of what I am and who I am since I so often am mistaken for being Latino or Italian or Jewish or “something.”
Have you all heard of the “pencil test”? I learned about it as a child and it was, apparently, used in apartheid South Africa. If a pencil was stuck in your hair and it fell out, you could be counted as white (or coloured, if you were darker skinned). If it didn’t fall through, if the pencil simply stayed right in your hair, well, you were coloured or black. As a youngster, I was obsessed with learning about the various tests governments, leagues and clubs had through out history to determine someone’s background based on their hair. Interesting hobby, kid!
So for me, taking care of my natural hair is part a matter of respecting my history, as much as it is part of trying to look nice.
I remember my friend, the wonderful South African writer, Yvette Christianse, telling me about the pencil test. Like everything about Apartheid it was hard for me to get comprehend. A person’s race was reclassified, they were made to move, to lose their jobs—sometimes their lives—because of how a pencil sat in their hair.
Of course, as Susan, points out people are still being discriminated against because of their hair. Though, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s really only hair we’re talking about. How often in the US do racist commentators go after a black person’s hair and then claim they’re not being racist because they’re just talking about hair? Answer: too often.
The other thing Wonders of Maybe touches on is the “good” hair versus the “bad” hair debate. Frizz seems to be a key indication of badness. And as someone with straight hair, I can attest that sometimes the short, new, flyaway hair sticking up everywhere causes me despair. Lay flat, damn you.
So, why do we hate frizz? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with frizz. I think we’re taught to see it as “bad” hair. I think years and years of ads and movies and tv shows full of women with “controllable” hair has shaped how we see hair and what we expect of it. It’s even worse now when the vast majority of hair product ads are photoshopped into shiny, unfrizzy, unmoving or moving-in-a-really-weird-way, impossible-to-achieve hair.
About ten years ago, an acquaintance with very tight curls left the house without doing anything to her hair as an experiment. It was a ball of frizzy fuzz haloing her head. It looked amazing. I wish I had photos to show you how great it looked. Many people commented. Most were very positive, but she abandoned the experiment because she couldn’t handle everyone staring at her and everyone commenting. Bad enough, she said, when it was in its usual state of curliness.
Her chief pleasure in straightening her hair is that, other than people who know her, it’s the only time her hair is what she thinks of as “neutral.” People don’t comment, people don’t ask to touch her hair. She isn’t seen through the lens of her hair in quite the same way.
To bring this back to writing,1 I think what goes wrong in many books is that writers give their characters traits to distinguish them, such as curly hair, without thinking about how that would shape who the character is and their experience of the world. Not to mention how long they spend doing their hair. So, you know, don’t do that.
Thanks again for all your responses.