CommunityPam's House Blend

Good hair day

I just finished up an interview with a young woman, Heather Barnes, who is doing a documentary project on women and their relationship to their hair, the personal and the political. She found me through my personal web page with my “hair history” and asked me to participate.

She’ll be editing it in the fall, and all the interviewees will be invited to see it then. I don’t know if Heather is submitting it for any documentary outlets, but I think it would be incredibly interesting for an outlet like the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

I answered her initial questionnaire for the shoot, which she worked from in the interview. Here are a few.

What was your relationship with your hair like when you were growing up? did you like your hair? hate it? talk a bit about how it affected you, how you used it to express yourself, and any stories you can remember about how it shaped your growing up. (i.e. the first time you felt “peer pressure” to shave your legs, or got a particularly bad haircut, got your first perm, etc.)


My relationship with my hair was extremely complicated as a child. I came from a family of a varied ethnic history on both sides (black, American Indian, West Indian). No one in my family had kinky hair except me, so my mom didn’t really know what to do with it.

I was old enough to experience the “pleasure” of the thermal hot comb around the age of 5 — you rested it over the gas flame of the stove to heat it up. Then the grease was carefully applied to your hair and that comb sizzled through the kinks till it was bone straight, hissing as you prayed the comb didn’t touch your scalp — inevitably you got scalp burns because the “stylist” screwed up. [By the way, the “stylist” for most folks was usually a relative, but as I said in my case, everyone in my family had straight hair, so my mom had to take me to a salon till she figured out what to do.]

It was clear from an early age that something was “wrong” with my hair since it had to be “fixed.” You also learned not to let it get wet, humid or exercise too hard because if you did, it would “go back” at the least opportune moment. I hated my hair.

***

How does your hair affect you now? How do you use it to express your sense of individuality, your gender identity? Do you think that a person’s gender identity is expressed in any way through his or her hair style, decisions about body hair, etc?


I love my hair now. I wear it in locs, which I cultivated myself. I am proud to have locked my hair without anyone’s help and it gives me a sense of identity that is both ethnically aware and someone radicalized at the same time. I do believe that hair length, texture and style do reflect gender identity. When I wore my hair in a short natural (discussed in the next question), I was at times mistaken for a man. Black women, especially in the South at the time, did not wear their hair in natural styles. It automatically pegged you as unfeminine, or as a lesbian. Of course the latter was true, but I still wore makeup, dresses and other gender identity cues.

***

Tell about a time when you wanted to change your hair. Did you go through with it? How did the experience change your perception of yourself?


A landmark decision in the late eighties was to cut off all my relaxed hair – the goal was to transition to a natural style, which I wore for about 12 years because I didn’t want to continue killing my hair and scalp with a relaxer. The freedom I felt after it was done – no more rollers, curling irons, chemicals – it was marvelous. I felt empowered and free from all the time I spent dealing with humidity and rain and exercise and what my hair looked like.

***

Add any other thoughts, anecdotes, or reflections you might have about hair & gender, or the way our culture uses hair as a means of identifying & classifying people based on gender, class, sex, race, creed, etc etc.


By the time a young girl is school age, she doesn’t even know what her natural hair texture feels like. That’s why you see so many adult black women seeking out information on how to style natural hair (locs, twists, twist-outs, etc.). The styling implements (combs, brushes, conditioners, etc.) used in the dominant culture just cannot be used on kinky hair without often breaking or damaging it. Their mothers have no idea how to handle natural hair other than to “tame” it. You get messages like “you won’t get a man if your hair isn’t straight” or “you’ll shame the family with that bushy head”. Crazy crap like that can be found all over hair groups on the Internet. It’s as if kinky hair is dreaded leprosy or hairy mole that you want to hide.

Surf over to BET rap videos, and you’ll see the ‘hos dancing around with straight, processed hair (or it’s a weave). Black men have been conditioned to dislike kinky hair on women as well. When you see a natural hair style in the major media, it’s like a cheer for sanity.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding