Hair Stories Redux

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.

  1. I’ve had a few complaints that I’m not devoting January to answering questions about writng like I did last year. []


  1. Rebekah on #

    I have truly remarkable frizz. Even on cold, wet days (free from humidity), and when my hair itself is cold and wet, there is frizz. I used to be slightly distressed by it – after all, it persisted even when it was supposed to be impossible for hair to frizz – but not I am simply apathetic. And besides, when light is shining behind it, it looks like I have a halo (due to the natural dirty blondeness of my hair).

  2. Ariel Cooke on #

    Didn’t get to post my opinions about having curly hair in the last one so I will stick in my two cents here. My hair is dark brown, fine and not especially plentiful but thanks to my lovely curls, you would never know. I keep it shortish to keep it as curly as possible. I am always amazed when I go to a hairdresser who asks me if I want it cut so I can blow it straight when they must all be able to see that I would look like a Chihuahua (but chubbier) if I had straight hair. These are the same people who are always surprised that I don’t want to be redder or blonder, as if there is something wrong with having true brunette hair. Being white, I don’t my hair travails to heart the way my black friends do, but the whole thing is really mildly offensive, being steered gently but inexorably toward this whitebread ideal of beauty.

  3. Kiera on #

    I have very thick wavy brown hair. A few weeks ago a girl from Liberia in my class was braiding my hair in because she was bored. When she stopped, my hair didn’t fall out. She remarked that I have “black people hair” even though I look “like an albino.” It amazes me how often hairdressers and random people ask me if I have black ancestors because of my hair. As far as I know, I do not. I used to hate my hair and would straighten it at least once every two days. Even though I wish it would be a little more tame sometimes, I’ve come to love my hair. As my self esteem has gotten better over the past two years, I’ve started leaving my hair go natural. People compliment me more on my wavy hair than they ever did on my product filled and heat destroyed hair.

  4. Tara D on #

    I have an afro and I don’t consider my hair frizzy. I consider it nappy. So I always say I’m happy to be nappy! Some people kind of see this as negative, which is sad, and some people see my hair as a social statement. Truthfully, the only statement I’m making is that I cannot use a curling iron or flatiron correctly and I’m too lazy to straighten my hair all the time and spend ours at the beauty shop getting it done.

    I had straight hair, courtesy of a relaxer, from the ages of nine to nineteen. It had its conveniences, but it did a lot of damage to my hair and scalp. Also, since I couldn’t do hair and refused to learn how, I always had to depend on someone doing it for me. Now, I have way more independence and it only costs me about $15 to get it cut!

  5. mpe on #

    Frizz annoys me because it flies forward and sticks in my face. A quick stroke of moisturiser settles it, though.

    (I have long brown Nordic hair with a slight natural wave, about as trouble-free as you can get.)

  6. Brynne on #

    My mum is an anthropologist, and I spent much of my very early childhood (ages 2-3) living in Belize while she did research (on ethnic identity and the conundrum of racial mixing when part of school curriculum involved teaching children about their heritage – what do you do with a kid who’s 1/4 East Indian, 1/4 Mayan, and 1/2 Creole? You assign her an random ethnic group! Tell her she’s Garifuna! Oh, that solves problems! Anyway, it was interesting) and I had this mop of ringlets about the same diameter as your finger. All the girls of African descent used to come and play with my hair because, although it was curly, it was *different*. But I think that experience – living there, with girls who had no access to straighteners, who had to learn to live with little bubbly curls – was what, more than anything, taught me to love curly hair and to love my own.

  7. Justine on #

    Brynne: Another child of anthropologists! We should form a club.

  8. Brynne on #

    Indeed. It makes us awesome. 😉 (Or . . . well-traveled, anyway.)

  9. Lucy on #

    Okay, so I’m confused. I was about to tell you about the plights of my non-curly, bendy, “Oh please just make up your mind” hair, when I glanced in the mirror and saw curls. Now I’m not talking corkscrew ringlets, but still.
    Story of my hair. It can’t make up it’s mind most of the time, whether to be bendy and frizzy and generally obnoxious, or curly.
    When I was little, I had mostly straight, slightly wavy hair that was forever entrapped in a high ponytail. The baby hair around my hairline did not appreciate my efforts to make myself presentable, and staged a revolt in the form of a crown of frizz. Looking at me from the front, without a view of the ponytail in the back, you would swear I had an afro.
    Then I got a (really bad) haircut around third grade that made my hair “poofy”, and worse than it was before. I cut it again at the end of fifth grade/beginning of sixth (donated to Locks for Love), to a very short bob that was not the most flattering thing on my poofy-haired self, althouh somehow managed to look pretty good in my 6th grade school picture.
    Then it slowly grew back to the horrendous poofy length. One day my friend invited me and another friend over. She had a haircut appointment that day, but REALLY didn’t want a haircut, for some reason. Her exasperated mother protested that it was already paid for, but she still refused. Finally, her mother asked if either me or our other friend wanted a haircut. I said gave a tentative yes, on the grounds of “Free hair cut, sure, why not?”
    So I was thrown into a chair, where my hair was washed and I was told that I was using the wrong shampoo/conditioner. After the woman dried it, she sat me in a chair, and I told her to do whatever she wanted.
    She informed me that my top layer was too heavy, and it was making my hair weighed down and frizzy. Okay.
    So she straightened it (they always do, it just bothers them, it’s weirdness making it nearly impossible to cut) and cut it into layers, a style we’d previously thought was unattainable to me, due to the nature of my hair.
    Turns our it wasn’t. After I showered the first time and the straightness went away, I was pleasantly surprised to see it curly. It was a weird sort of curly, and I wasn’t quite sure if it should be classified that way, but it was good enough for me.
    Then of course, it started growing out, hence my sometimes this/sometimes that current hair, which I plan to have cut soon by the stylist who actually did it, not my old one, because apparently (according to my Mom, and I guess me) it comes out better that way.
    Before this, I would spend time every morning curling the fronts of my hair. As a kid, I went through that phase of wanting pin straight, white-blonde hair (I’m a brunette) but I got over it. Currently, I’m wish for loose red curls.
    I have a friend who has the most BEAUTIFUL curly blonde hair. It’s not tight little corkscrews, it’s thick, volumous spirals that make me salivate with envy.
    She, of course, hates them. She recently started straightening it, and brushing it out (something I can’t do, for fear of looking like Hermione Granger in the 1st HP movie). It looks (sorry) BAD this way. It’s frizzy, and greasy, and just tired looking. Also, she showers less so she won’t have to straighten it as much, and that’s just…yeah.
    So anyway, sorry this got so glaringly long (due to my lack of a life, and can also say that it might’ve been much longer if I hadn’t restrained myself).
    PS- My hair’s bendy again.

Comments are closed.