I’ve had a complicated relationship with my hair since I was 8 years old. That’s the age when I was erroneously called ‘spring onion’ by my classmates because short, frizzy strands of my thick North African hair would escape from the tight braid my mother put it in and would stand vertically like little springs. The bullying made me self-conscious of my appearance and begin to resent my natural hair, but more importantly that was the first time that I had a concept of ‘difference’ and that I was not like everyone else in my almost entirely Caucasian public Primary School. To stop the name-calling I tried to cut off the rebellious frizzy hairs, which was my first act of trying to change my body to fit other’s expectations of what I ‘should’ look like.
Only a few years later mother changed my hair colour with a gradual lightening product. I was confused as to why she did so and didn’t like pretending to be something that I wasn’t and how the lighter brown hair clashed with my tan skin, but my mother wouldn’t hear any of it. In her mind fairer and more Caucasian-looking was better, a concept remnant of her own upbringing in post-colonial North Africa where skin, hair and eye colour still corresponded to class and social status.
At age 13 I finally convinced my mother to let me cut my hair short. Up until that point my mother had never let me cut my hair, so it was long and grew past my hips and was a nightmare to maintain coupled with its thickness and frizziness. I convinced her on such practical grounds, but for me it was a symbol of finally taking some control over my own body and making a decision for myself about how I ‘should’ appear.
Over the next decade I subjected my hair to every hair product and device you can imagine to make my hair look more Caucasian: chemical relaxers, flat irons, curlers, serums, mousses, sprays, gels, waxes, braiding, thinning, extensions… if you can name it then I had tried it. I spent thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of my time and my mother’s time trying to change my hair into something different. I tried to rationalise and justify it to myself on the grounds that it would be easier to manage if it were straighter, that it would look more professional or employable, that others would see it as more attractive, and so on. All the while I knew deep down that there was something amiss and that I wasn’t happy with the lengthy daily process of burning, stretching and moulding my hair.
In 2012 I took the plunge and stopped chemically relaxing my hair, cut off the remains of the straightened hair and left a curly, frizzy ‘afro‘. The main reason I did so was the simple fact that I could no longer afford both the money and time that went into chemical and physical hair-straightening process. I was also curious to see how my natural hair, unseen since I was a pre-teen, would look like. Neither of these reasons were particularly serious or heavy, but that decision would nonetheless still have a significant impact on my self-perception.
Considering how often I had changed my hair in the previous decade, I didn’t expect a change in the way that people would treat me after I went natural. However, I began to be subjected to ‘micro-aggressions’ in conversations where people would mean to compliment me on my “exotic” hairstyle, which as an occasional comment was fine, but would happen so frequently that by the end of a day I would feel ‘othered’ and constantly singled out as different and an outsider who didn’t belong. More damaging was my parents’ reaction to my new hairstyle which was of disapproval and shame, believing my hair to look “too African” and “ugly”, in denial of their cultural background and the lingering effects of colonialism on their self-hatred. Even more serious was that my personal space was frequently violated by complete strangers on the street, in shopping centres or at social events who would without asking for consent pat my head, run their fingers through my hair, or hug or embrace me while also touching my hair. In the first few weeks after changing my hair I felt dehumanised and reduced to an alien object on public display for Caucasian people’s amusement and whose consent was irrelevant.
That was the first time that I began to reflect on my relationship with my hair over my lifetime, how I had felt about it over the years, how people’s treatment of me changed with it, and how both I and others defined me by it. I began to see my hair as a site of resistance, where over the years I had fought myself, my mother and wider society for control over my body and on how I ‘should’ look. I began to understand why it was a site of such controversy, why hundreds of years of European colonialism has shaped what we deem as ‘beautiful’ and how that concept has never included my natural state. I questioned why my body was seen as a ‘public space’ that complete strangers had the right to comment on or touch without consent, and how that was compounded by the dehumanising way that this society views women’s bodies, people of colour, and fat people – all three of which were true of me. I began to realise that the very act of wearing my hair in its natural state was a political statement and a physical representation on my body of a “f*** you” message to a society that had warped my self-perception for most of my life. Most importantly, I accepted that I am not my hair and that I could define myself beyond just physical appearance and that how I wore my hair had nothing to do with how good a person I was or my potential as a human being.
Thank you for sharing your story, Hiba, it was really cool to read! While it’s horrible that people would just invade your personal space like that – *shudders* – I enjoyed reading that you’d come to accept yourself and your hair 🙂 Brilliantly written, too.