Imani Stewart: Her Hair, Her Story

When people presumptuously ask Imani Stewart, “what are you?” she has a lot she could say. She’s an ambitious student at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, a writer, an uberfan of Friends, Supernatural, and Harry Potter. She’s kind, brave, profoundly funny, and strikingly intelligent. She’s a fighter for goodness and truth. She’s a daughter and sister. She’s a black woman.

Being a black woman in Canada comes with challenges deriving from stereotypes and prejudices. She also has the expressive opportunity of her hair. I got the chance to ask her some questions about her experiences with her hair as a part of her identity and self-expression.

  1. How many different hairstyles have you had?

    Too many to count! I’ve been changing my hairstyle frequently since I was a little kid, so it’s been hard to keep track. I’ve had around 14 in just the last 3 years

  2. What's your favorite? Why? I remember this one style I had around 4th or 5th grade. It was this braided bob that fell to my shoulders. I remember how much I loved it at the time. It is the only hairstyle that I’ve tried to repeat multiple times, unfortunately with little success. I think I loved it because I chose it during a period of time when I was really happy. I try and recreate it when I’m in a similar state of happiness.

  3. How long do you generally keep each style? I typically keep each hairstyle for 2-3 months, especially if my hairstyle involves any kind of extensions. You shouldn’t keep extensions in for any longer than that.

  4. How long does it take to change hairstyles? It’s quite a process! I usually spend about 3 weeks or so deliberating over my next hairstyle. I spend a great deal of time looking for photos or celebrities to influence my next style or to reference from. It always takes a while to decide on the colour I want to dye/change my hair to. And then, each hairstyle usually takes multiple hours to do. Braids take the longest, I can spend up to 6 hours in the chair. A weave takes less time, usually about 3-5 hours. And if I choose crochet braids or just my natural hair, it takes 2 hours or less.

  5. What factors influence your decision each time you change your hair? I always change my hair when I’m going through a change in my life. It seems a bit ridiculous, your life changing every three months, but that’s how I live. Whether I feel like my life is coming together or falling apart, I change my hair to reflect it. More importantly, changing my hair helps me to deal with those changes and show the world who I am. When things get rough, I cut my hair or take out my extensions. For a lot of women, cutting your hair makes you feel like you have control over something in your life. If I’m feeling particularly happy or excited for something in the future, I tend to add extensions. Longer hair seems to give me additional confidence and I have more fun doing my hair in the mornings. A big influence is also the hairdresser who is doing my hair. Each person has their own unique style and strengths, so I pick particular hairdressers depending on the hairstyle I’m trying to achieve. In the end, no hairstyle comes out exactly, or in some cases, even close to what I imagined, but they still look great.

  6. Could you describe the different kinds of reactions to your hair? How do they make you feel? Oh, I get so many different reactions to my hairstyles, ranging from cringe-worthy to kind of funny. Most people act polite and compliment me. My family is very honest, making sure to tell me which style suits me and which does not. Sometimes I wish they’d hold back. My friends can either be the best or the worst. Most of the time they give me amazing encouragement. But other times, they make jokes that make me feel worse about a particularly bad style. Strangers have the most interesting reactions. When my hair is braided, they feel the need to touch it. It’s not uncommon to just randomly feel a hand on the back of my head, running through my hair. Personally, I don’t care much for the different reactions. I like when people acknowledge that there’s been a change, but I could do without the opinions. I don’t change my hair or choose a style for the people in my life, I change my hair for myself. Even some of the worst styles made me feel really good about myself because they were what I wanted at the time. And I could really do without the random touching of my hair. I understand that as a black woman in a predominately white society, my hair is new or unusual for most people. But it’s disrespectful to touch another person without permission and to make comments on the “weird texture” of their hair.

  7. Could you characterize the role of your hair in your identity as a black woman? Black women have had a very complicated past with their hair. We’ve been discriminated against, oppressed, and humiliated because of the texture and styles of our hair all throughout history. The fact that has stuck with me is how black women used to be forced to cover their hair as a way of showing they were “second class citizens.” In the present day, black women lose their jobs, get kicked out of school, or made fun of for their hairstyles and natural textures. I see the way that black women have had to fear to wear their hair the way that they want, while white women get to take our styles and call it “fashion". My hair is’ such a big part of my identity as a black woman because it’s one of the first visual things that people use to mark me as “different.” I want to take that and turn it into something that expresses me and have it give me the power to determine how the world sees me. I want my hair to show the world that I’m more than just the colour of my skin or the texture of my hair. I want people to see that there’s so much more to me.

  8. What statement, if any, do you think your hair makes? I want my hair to say that I have the right to express myself how and when I want and I won’t let people’s ignorance or hatred stop me from being strong and proud of who I am. I know that frequently changing my hair seems like something small, but that’s only where it starts for me.

  9. What do you wish more people would understand about blackness and black hair? I wish more people understood the importance of our hair to black women. Our hair is such an integral part of who we are because it’s an experience. When I think about my hair, I think about my mom trying to tackle my mane when I was little. I think about the long long hours I’ve spent with my regular hairdresser, who I’ve known my whole life and is like family. I think about all the people I see when I get my hair done, who all seem to have known me when I was a baby. I think about how hard it’s been to accept my natural texture and what a pain it was learning to manage it. And I think about how many different women I’ve bonded with over the different styles and extension brands and processes along the way. Our hair carries a special importance because of the struggles we have to endure because of it. I remember crying when I learned what the “comb test” was a few years back. For those who don’t know, it’s when someone would run a comb through your hair to determine “how black” you were. If the comb catches, you’re too black. I wish people understood how incredibly disrespectful it is to see Kylie Jenner wearing cornrows and getting praised, while I get made fun of and called a boy for rocking the same style. And I wish people didn’t make such a big deal about how different my hair is. Having someone tell me my hair texture is weird is the equivalent of someone asking me “what are you?” Or having people give me nicknames like “dreads”, which only stem from my race, culture, or difference from you. I wish people could stop boiling me down to just what is different or “weird” about black women or black hair and just appreciate it for its awesomeness instead.

  10. What advice do you have for black women for their relationships with their hair? Be proud of your hair. I’ve struggled with mine for a long time. My hair texture always seemed impossible to manage, but now I confidently wear it natural. I was always afraid of the companies that I worked for or the jobs I applied to discriminating against me because of my hairstyle or the colour. I’ve had a few companies warn me that I can’t rock any “unnatural” colours. Now I work for a fantastic company where we’re free to show off our bright colours, our piercings and our tattoos. So, my advice is don’t let the world dictate what you do with your body. Don’t let hate or ignorance keep you from proudly and confidently showing off who you are. Your hair is only a small part of what makes you special, so start with that and work your way up to the harder things. And never apologize for who you are.

 

Edited by Veronika Potylitsina