The Politics of Hair

Hair has always been an interesting topic for me. I’ve got naturally wavy, frizzy hair, which occasionally carries the perfect ringlet curl. Growing up, I always wanted to straighten it—all of the (white) girls in my high school seemed to have straight hair and they were the ones who were beautiful and popular.

When I got my hair straightener, and applied heat over 200 degrees to my hair, I couldn’t help but to feel more beautiful. Looking back now, it seems bizarre. I remember getting compliments like “Wow, your hair looks so much better straight!” or “You look really nice today!”. Interestingly enough, I rarely got any kind of affirmation when I wore my natural hair down. Recently, I’ve realized how political hair really is.

I’m taking a class right now on the intersections of race and media, and we recently had a discussion on the politics of hair. In the book Hair Matters: Beauty, Power and Black Women's Consciousness, Ingrid Banks talks about how hair, specifically for women of colour can affect their lives a lot. For instance, a lot of black women are judged on their curly, kinky hair, and this allows them to fall into stereotypes of being uncivilized (which is total crap). She also notes that what’s considered desirable is measured against white standards of beauty, which includes long, straight hair (and usually blonde).

 I never thought that hair could have such a huge impact on the way that people move through life. Reflecting back on my own experiences, I’m really saddened by the fact that I tend to not embrace my natural hair. Instead, I succumbed to these normative beauty standards that completely denoted any sense of my cultural identity, or individuality, for that matter.

I even sometimes made up excuses, too. For instance, I would say that I would straighten my hair because it was easier to deal with and manage. That might be true for some people, but for myself it led to the recognition that a lot of stores don’t even sell products to help me manage my natural hair. If they do, it’s not that great. It’s almost as if all the products in the hair aisle are meant for people with straight hair, or hair that’s been styled with the help of a heating device, altering its natural look somehow. In a sense, hair is political, and also a big part of capitalism.

According to Banks, people with curly hair are taken less seriously, are seen as uneducated and even unclean. There was even a set of really awful ads by Nivea, encouraging men to chop off their hair so they could “re-civilize” themselves. And speaking of men, I think gray hair between the binary of men and women is really strange—men are considered ‘silver foxes’ and hold authority with gray hair, yet women are told by society to dye theirs to slow down aging.

And what about body hair? As a brown girl with roots in Fiji and India, I’ve inherited arms that grow pretty noticeable hair. If I had a dime for every time I got a comment on them, or felt insecure, I would be as rich as the hair cream removal industry.

The point is that hair can mean a lot of different things for different people. It might make someone successful, it might make someone politically ostracized, or might make someone feel insecure. Clearly, there is a set of beauty standards that exist in the world. The implications of how people wear our hair, and the meanings invested in whatever styles they rock, might differ from yours. That doesn’t mean that you should be commenting on it in an offensive way. 

As much as I try to wear my hair down naturally, embrace body hair, and confront aging, I still sometimes feel as though people think that I’m messy. I feel like I’m not going to be taken seriously, and I feel like I’m being judged for ‘not taking care of myself’. I hate it. I feel like we just need to break down these standards of beauty, one hair strand at a time.

Why not try and normalize natural hair? “Perfect hair” is impossible—people are not monolithic and we all come with different hair colors, textures, and styles. So whatever you’ve got going on your body or head (even if it’s nothing!), keep going! Dye it, straighten it, curl it, leave it, or chop it—as long as you’re enjoying the way you look, you’re helping to redefine beauty…and you look great doing it!