March 2, 2015

A New Hair Social Order


by Dori Phelps

So, first of all I want to state some givens. I’ve been black all my life. I don’t know what it is like to be anything else. My life experience consists of the fact that I have never been skinny: never very large but svelte is not a category I would fit in. Nor have I ever been reserved or without opinion; my personality bubbles into every situation. And I’ve never met a stranger.

However, I am in American culture, the other; too dark, too big and too loud. Basically, I am taking up too much room, heard too much and seen as well. That thought experiment can be parked for now. I mention that only to say I am not stranger to otherness. For to add to that, I have short hair and wear it naturally.

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 Now when I went for the look, I never thought a black woman with short hair would be controversial. For me, if my hair grows out half an inch, it is too long for me. My hair is so thick, each strand as it grows begins to curl into the strand next to it and it pulls at my scalp. The tight curls, traditionally called “naps,” feels like an itch because the hair is pulling steadily at my scalp and causing irritation. So for comfort and convenience, I keep my hair short. My hair tells me when it is time to cut it by the amount of discomfort. Sleeping on an afro is like sleeping with a throw pillow strapped to my head. The strange circumstance of this hair style is the amount of discrimination I’ve received from all the above named “descriptions” of me. So one of the givens is that women must have long hair. I didn’t know this when I decided to chop all my hair at thirty-five. Even amongst black people, I am perceived as aggressive because of my hair length. I thought only Samson needed hair for strength but women, I’ve picked up, need long hair to be seen as beautiful and safe.

Dori

What generally happens when I feel hair hostility, I start to take note of the people around me. There is usually a lot of synthetic hair, whether braids or full wigs. I am generally the only woman wearing my hair naturally. Thus the wigged woman rules the day. The natural haired woman is seen as the risk taker, the interloper, judging all “real” wigged women as invalid. The odd pervasive ickiness is that they see me as judging them and give this strange authority over them. As this judge they’ve made me into, they seek to thumb their nose at my self-righteous confidence. This makes my hair style more about not wanting to be bothered and less about how culturally pleasing I want to be to the world around me. My hair thought process is never longer than a half an inch. I cannot be bothered. Should I choose the group thought?

Now, as a young lass, I drank the hair koolaid for years. My younger years took place in the era of the gherri curl. I had hair down to my shoulders and spent over $6,000 or $600 a year for about ten years of having a person wrangle my hair with this yicky hair product. The other accoutrements, the hair gel and silk pillow case (so the hair product would not be absorbed while sleeping), rounded out a lifestyle. The curl allowed for the taming of the hair with the use of lye, of which I was no stranger having endured the relaxers for ten years prior to that. So $15,000 worth of hair wrangling, which was just too much trouble! I could have gone to the wig but I just could not be bothered because wigs have a certain level of upkeep also.

I decided to chop off my hair/leave my hair dresser. Even in asking my hair dresser to cut my hair, she cut off as little as possible, wanting to keep as much length as she could. Perhaps she thought I would wake up crying the next day. My first glimmer of change came in the awareness of tones of voice. I found that anger would escalate in situations that seemed unnecessary. Friends told me to wear more make-up and jewelry but I, being from the school of “I can’t be bothered,” did not listen.
I remember when Anne Hathaway cut her hair for “Les Miserable” in 2012, she said, “I looked like my gay brother.” On first blush, I was struck by the fact that by cutting her hair, she became a different gender and her sexual orientation changed. Now her brother happens to be gay, so there’s that. Yet, her reaction helped me to understand a perception people were giving to me. I’ve long been aware of the cultural controls over everyone in our society. I am also a person who enjoys my citizenry, neighborhood and life in general. I’m just wondering what the need to keep me in line says about them. I’m always amazed at how much of a polarizing figure I am, how much I seem to occupy an image seen as dominant and to be scapegoated simultaneously. What all this means, what can be done? 

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