The rhetoric of hair

Flickr: konka*, Creative Commons

Disclaimer: I am no expert on hair politics. I’m tired and am always happy to be corrected.

Body hair is natural for most people. It grows fine and thick, and just about everywhere. Your face is covered in tiny little hairs, and no matter how hard you try and shave, laser, epilate, wax, or thread, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Growing up, I was faced with conflicting ideas of what kind of hair is good or bad, and how your gender presentation affects the kind of hair you’re allowed to have in different places. It’s interesting how we find it difficult to balance removal versus appraisal, and how both can be taboo simultaneously.

Culture and Body Hair

Being a person with Pakistani heritage, hairiness is accepted, by doctors and the public alike, to be in my nature. Whilst I grew up around women who were naturally not very hairy, and men who were really hairy (my family is like that), I felt isolated when I looked at that beard and moustache in the mirror, wondering why I couldn’t be like my mother or my sister and have a “normal” face. I was allowed to try and remove it were herbal remedies. One such remedy involved crushed seeds mixed with water to be put on the affected areas overnight, and scrubbed off. It never worked, except for painfully tearing out the odd hair.

At the same time, I was praised for having long, flowing locks of head hair, and when it started to fall out, many remedies including nightly oil sessions were sought out to stop me from losing so much hair.

There are a lot of confusing messages surrounding hair. It depends on the culture, but there are strange dynamics in play. One cannot have hair in the wrong places, but is also discouraged from changing it. Similarly, if one does not have hair in the right places, one has to encourage it to grow. It’s interesting that when I search for “body hair” on Google images, the photos are predominantly of men with hairy chests. Too much hair is considered a sign of an untidy, unclean, and unkempt person. Yet, a lack of hair is considered equally taboo.

Balding is generally conceived to be a problem between the binary genders. Male balding, so to speak, is considered to be both a natural part of life, yet also a topic which is less acceptable among younger men, who are often affected by it. Similarly, a lack of chest hair or facial hair is considered to be a regressive sign, pointing out that man has not reached puberty, or is somehow “less masculine” for the lack of hair.

It seems to me that, in conceptions of “male” and “female”, we have similarities in that there are areas considered to be acceptably hairy for both, but they are often the reverse of each other. However, this stereotype is harmful and damaging.

Hair Politics and Mainstream Media

I was never a fan of dyeing armpit hair, because firstly, when it’s dark hair, that takes a lot of effort. Secondly, it felt like an exclusive campaign which limited participants to being objects of fashion magazines, rather than making a statement on body hair politics. I do however wish I didn’t feel self-conscious about my hair to the extent where I felt confident enough to let it all flow gently in the breeze. However, hair politics this year has been dominated by the interpretation of cultural appropriation and fashion trends.

When I saw images of the Kardashians and Jenners sporting cornrows, my first instinct was not moral outrage. It was to see what members of the black community felt about the trend that was popping up all over the Daily Mail, and in other newspapers. Some reacted favourably, saying culture is there to be shared. Others stated it was appropriation, and played back into the image that #whitegirlsdoitbetter, and a few said that this was not a battle to choose in race politics. Whilst that is a huge generalisation of the array of opinions on this matter, and I cannot purport to be an expert of any kind on black hair, it’s not difficult to see why hair politics is fraught with problems.

It’s no secret that it’s difficult to maintain black hair if you want to conform to unrealistic beauty standards set by a hair industry which mostly caters to caucasian hair. Relaxing and straightening is a pain, and afros are seen by some to be a sign of laziness. Furthermore, weaves are political in that some shun the idea outright, and others believe it’s a great way to be in control of how your hair looks. All of these ideas boil down to one collective thing: hair is political because of conformity being seen as a means to erase or cover up identity.

Fashion turns hair into an objective thing to look at. That’s fine, and I can’t pretend that I don’t buy into glossy magazines on occasion and think about how beautiful people’s hair is. But when there is a history of oppression due to the way people’s hair looks, it’s difficult to ignore the stark difference between how reality differs depending on your culture or background. It is predominantly because of a consumer culture, where the desirable is the unattainable. We are sold the idea that we should have that which we do not already possess; as though somehow, we are not good enough, because everyone else has more than we do.

The same can be said around the politics of hair. It is seen desirable to imitate the hair of others for the ability to simply fit in with current trends. Yet, what these magazines and photoshoots fail to acknowledge is the political significance of hair. For some, their hair is a means of expression which can stand up against the stereotypes they are told to conform to. For some, their hair is a means of showing that natural hair is beautiful, and that a history of oppression and degradation need not reduce them to changing their hair for the sake of fitting in. For others, it’s simply an opportunity to take charge of how their hair is portrayed.

Hair and Identity

No matter what you think about how people should wear their hair, put it away. Because that is not a decision you or I can make for someone else. If there is anything to be learned from hair politics, it is that people have the right to have the hair that they naturally possess, and that no amount of changing, waxing, dyeing or chopping can allow you to take their identity away. You can be black and have a weave. You can be white and have cornrows. It doesn’t change the fact that you’re subject to entirely different beauty standards and pressures.

In each community, regardless of the background of that community, there are people who oust each other for not being “something-enough”. By doing this when it comes to hair, we isolate people from the outset and cause the debate around identity to become convoluted.

I am not my hair, but at the same time, I am. I think hair politics needs to move away from how people treat their hair physically, and focus on the inherent mental effects that cause people to view themselves as inadequate in the first place. That can only really begin to happen if our own communities stand up and accept the people who are different for whatever reason, and celebrate them as being enough by virtue of being alive.



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