As an eccentric, enthusiastic young girl, my hair was never a concern of mine: I don’t think I ever gave it any thought. The odd times I did were when my Dad had to braid my hair into thick plaits for swimming lessons (which were expertly done, of course). Thoughts about my hair started to creep into my mind when I started primary school, and my entire class would use my hair as a pillow, ecstatically screaming: “IT’S SO SOFT, LIKE A BUNNY RABBIT!” I didn’t mind them touching or playing with my hair, but I stared at them, thinking: Isn’t your hair soft? Is mine that different to yours?
How I viewed my hair changed when, in kindergarten, Walter accused me of cutting my hair before an arts and crafts activity. My teacher looked at me crossly, and I spent the remainder of the activity in time out. My extension had actually fallen out – but because no one understood my hair nor cared to listen when I tried to explain, I couldn’t participate. Nowadays I just laugh when I think about what a tattletale Walter was, but this was the first instance in which I truly felt alienated from a group of people. I had experienced racism before, but I never truly felt ‘different’ until I realised that my hair was a barrier to communication, understanding and acceptance.
When I entered my teens, my relationship with my hair changed for the worse: my school culture was bleached with hatred, anger, approval and validation from others. I grew up in competition with other women of colour, thinking that my hair wasn’t enough, that it had to be cooler and longer than it already was. I constantly braided and relaxed (chemically straightened) my hair in order to somehow fit into this toxic culture. It was never about my hair, but instead about the social order that I belonged in; I was lowly ranked, and in order to be at the top, I had to change myself.
It took a couple of years for me to realise that my hair wasn’t handling it; it is naturally soft, so it was suffering from the huge amounts of chemicals and being braided without care. My hairline receded (I’m not even old yet!) because of the rough way the hairdressers would try to control it. My hair still had some spunk left, but it wouldn’t if I continued mistreating it.
I had to shift from treating my hair as an object of people’s attention and desire, to treating it as my own. I needed to spend my energy managing and maintaining it. As I slowly started to research hair maintenance and care, I realised that black women unwillingly face a dilemma: society simultaneously seems to care so much and so little about our hair. Afros can be seen as dirty and unprofessional to some, but to others, as self-expressive, artsy and rebellious. That’s not to say that hair shouldn’t contribute to an individual’s personality, but why is it up to another’s judgement what it signifies? It shouldn’t be – it’s up to the individual. Everywhere I go as a black woman, my hair is the first mention of my blackness – either from sly looks by people who think it’s unmaintained, or others who ardently ask: “Did you cut your hair? I swear it was longer.” No, it is just that the straight, dark-brown braids that I had look nothing like the black, curly, short hair that I currently have.
Black hair has crept into pop culture as a characteristic of blackness through the African-American experience. It seems that “black” is synonymous with “African-American”, and that every. single. black. person. is. the. same. What I’ve struggled with when dealing with my hair has been this perspective; most hair products and maintenance techniques are customised for the ‘African-American experience’, and although that’s empowering for some, it feeds into the idea that all black people have the same experience, which is inaccurate.
Throughout Africa, hair isn’t discussed or considered. The maintenance techniques used are therefore terrible because there hasn’t been a wide shift in how hair is viewed. Many resort to relaxing because there hasn’t been a discussion on how best to manage our hair, which in the end severely damages it by wearing down the strands and altering the texture. It’s easier to ‘Westernise’ our hair because that’s the only way we know how to maintain it; there’s numerous Western hair manuals, techniques and products that are easily accessible, whereas you often have to search far and wide for acceptable products and maintenance techniques for black hair – especially in Australia. In some ways society is still trying to control our hair, and even when we fight back by not conforming or wearing it in a certain way, society questions us – it bans natural hair at school or work, gives a quizzical glance our way, or states an opinion on something it’s never dealt with.
My hair journey has been a long one, with many stops, halts and diversions. I’ve struggled to commit, given up, and ultimately realised that I should be caring for my hair for myself. I ask myself: What do I want to see in the mirror next year? In three years? In five years?
Everyone has bad hair days (I’ll wear a beanie when I can’t be bothered to style my mini afro) but we shouldn’t be discouraged or ignored for our individual – not homogenous – experiences with hair.
Subversion of Beauty Standards
A child’s misconceptions clash with how the world sees her (2005)
“All those who wear glasses may leave!”
We all sat up a little straighter, with spines curved just slightly, envious of those who stood and hopeful the teacher would pick us next.
“All those with black hair may go home”, Mrs Blackburn trilled.
I grinned and stood. As the only one in class with black hair, she had obviously picked me.
“Lyndsay! Where do you think you’re going?”
Confused, I froze.
“Umm, home, Mrs Blackburn.”
“Your hair’s not black. Sit back down!”
I stared at my teacher in disbelief. Was she serious? I did not sit back down.
“Lyndsay, sit down now, or you’ll be the last to leave!”
I stamped my foot. I answered back. I was last to leave.
One hour later I was at home with my father.
“But my hair is BLAAACK”, I wailed.
He held up a black book next to my head.
He looked at me through the mirror, a little sheepish, and said: “Actually, no it’s not.”
Eight-year-old me assumed that because I look like my mother (“Oh, I see where you get your looks from!”) that obviously I would also have black hair.
A child’s positivity cannot be dampened (2006)
I arrived at school with new hair.
“Like Princess Diana”, my father had beamed.
But the little shit sneered and said: “Haha! You look like a boy!”
I’m not sure that my fist connecting with his face proved him wrong, but it felt good.
I got to practice my handwriting in detention.
The next day I wore a hair clip with a flower on it
And smiled at the little shit as I sailed into class.
Somewhere in Tasmania (January 2016)
In 2016, I spent January camping. This might sound like your personal version of hell, but I have never felt freer. Except for one thing; maybe I’m just a particularly grotty camper, but brushing my hair everyday was excruciating.
“This is impossible. I may as well shave it all off”, I probably said with my brush stuck in another nest of knots.
“Then do it”, my boyfriend replied.
“Bet you wouldn’t,” he challenged, “you’re too scared.”
All I could counter with was: “Fuck off!”
The idea had never even occurred to me.
National Gallery of Victoria (26 January 2016)
The air-conditioning makes my sunburn tingle as a weave my way through Lurid Beauty (Pisch, 2015). There were many amazing works of art, but the memory of one will never leave me.
I can hear rumblings of male anger throughout the exhibition and when I finally find the video installation from where they originate I am relieved, momentarily. (In the video) Jill Orr walks onto a stage to a male audience chanting “witch, bitch, dyke, mole” over and over. She attaches her waist-length hair to a series of suspended chains and invites female members of the audience to cut off pieces of her hair. These suspended pieces float around her as she recounts the stories of women who have forcibly had their hair cut.
Throughout history, women have been expected to have “nice” hair. Though what “nice” means varies between cultures. At Javanese weddings, women attach sanggul (hair extensions fashioned into a big bun) to their hair and adorn them with gold pins as a status symbol. A Vietnamese friend recently told me to be beautiful in Vietnam you have to have long, shiny, black hair. If we look to contemporary Western examples of “beauty” – Beyonce, Adriana Lima, people who put makeup on, people on YouTube, Kylie and Kendall, et cetera – I would argue that to be “beautiful” in Australia women must have clean, kempt hair as well.
There are many examples throughout history of women having their hair removed as punishment. But surely, the amount of money we spend to make our hair appear acceptable is a form of modern punishment. If I spend $7 for 350mL of shampoo and use the Head & Shoulders recommended amount of 10mL per wash, my shampoo will last for 35 days. That’s $73 a year, or about $5700 if you live to 80. And that’s just shampoo.
Orr’s performance rattled me and really made me think. I don’t shave my legs, or armpits, so why am I so worried about what people think of my hair? It is because it’s more visible? I think for a woman, shaving your head is the most visibly defiant subversion of beauty standards you can make. Suddenly you have no hair to keep clean. You’re saying you don’t care what others think of you – which can be scary, for both you and others.
After shaving my head, I learnt what it feels like to be ready in ten minutes. I now know how the rain and wind on my scalp feels and that my ears are quite big. I recommend that every woman tries it, at least once. It grows back after all – and our beauty and our strength is not contained in our hair.
Hair and …
Hair and racism
Growing up in Chinese-dominated Singapore, my naturally curly hair was unlike the hair of most people around me. The way it would frizz up in the humidity, its defiance of gravity and unfamiliar shape fascinated my schoolmates; I won some pretty unflattering nicknames that led to me coming home from school on some evenings crying about how I wished I had straighter hair like the other girls. Brushed, oiled and braided daily, my hair was something truly unique about me – and something I was deeply ashamed of.
I often got my hair cut at home when I was younger, but when I started going to the hairdressers for a trim, I was met with suggestions about how my hair could be “tamed”, “managed” and “controlled”. The Chinese aunties peering over my shoulder would ask me whether I would like it to be rebonded, or suggest a simple treatment to “relax” it (with a hefty price tag attached, of course). My hair was something I was born with, and something I was told left, right and centre that it was a burden to carry the rest of my life.
I began coming to terms with my curls – at their best after a wash the night before and slept on slightly damp – when I was in my later years of school. YouTube videos about deep conditioning, how often to wash, and dealing with humidity taught me that my hair wasn’t isolating, and that there are so many people out there who get it. I grew to love it, and be proud of it; it became something I got excited about showing off to the world.
To this day, I’ve only heat-straightened it thrice – and every time I’ve washed it it’s felt like I’m back home. I don’t wish my curls away anymore.
Hair and rebellion
Our school didn’t allow us to dye our hair, and I’d always wanted to do something fun and exciting to it, so one day during my gap year I swung by the hairdressers and got bright red streaks through it. Upon coming home, my shocked mum told me to hide in the kitchen as she broke the news to my father when he pulled up in the driveway. I was brought up to perceive those who dyed their hair to be “troublemakers”, and that I was a good girl whose world existed separate to theirs. Yet, there I was, confronting my parents with a situation where they would have to justify and explain my rebellious hairdo to our community.
To those around me, my hair was a statement to society about the circles I would stereotypically occupy. It was a (flawed) indicator of how much I respected my parents and elders, and my professionalism and credibility to the working world. And so, when the red faded to a light brown, it was a relief to everyone.
I dyed my full head of hair brown on the afternoon before I left my life in Singapore behind, and flew to Australia for university.
Hair and queerness*
It was 31 July 2016. The barbers in Macquarie Centre, Sydney were both amused and immensely excited when I stepped in and asked them to shave it off. My hair was, at this time, halfway down my back, with the dark brown roots exposed and transitioning to a lighter shade after half a year of growth.
“Like a number zero?”
“To the skin?”
“Are you sure?”
They had lots of fun gelling it up into a mohawk using handfuls of gel, playing around with leaving awkwardly hilarious bunches of hair while the rest of my head was bald, and getting lots of photos. And then, it was all gone.
Suddenly, I was visibly queer* (even though there is no way to ‘look queer*’). I was still the same person, and yet now the world saw me as a whole bunch of new stereotypes I’d never been associated with before. I was now perceived as a “butch” lesbian. My pronouns, which were never before questioned, now had to be clarified/corrected (which, can I just say, is problematic in itself that they were always assumed to begin with). My partner at the time and I were also less likely to be mistaken as friends, and were more vulnerable to homophobia. I also had to assert my femininity, now more than ever, through make-up, clothing and words.
My mum refused to see photos of me for three weeks after it happened, until she had no choice but to face the reality that was my new Facebook profile picture. Our phone calls started to conclude with: “Sumi, please grow your hair out again. I miss my baby’s beautiful curls.”
There were things about my womanhood that I assumed were universal, which I only then realised were conditional. This is something I am still coming to terms with today, buzzed hair and all. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it is that I am me and my hair is mine.