The History and Politics of Hair

In honor of International Women’s Week, the Ci3/Section blog is spotlighting the experiences of our staff and constituents. Today, Political Science Doctoral candidate Dilara K. Üsküp discusses the history and politics of hair.

Since December I have decided to embark on a journey wearing wigs and weaves until June. My only experience with hair extensions was at Michigan when I walked in college fashion shows. Thus far I have received a variety of reactions from friends, colleagues, and complete strangers about my hair. Some were convinced I cut my hair, others were not so sure what I did, and those that I considered friends knew.

As an American woman of both Turkish and African descent I recognize hair becomes a cultural, religious, political, economic, gendered, sexualized, and racialized expression.

Hair has a rich global history. Particularly, within the American experience African American hair has been associated with an ideology of ascription of White conceptions of femininity, beauty, and womanhood. There are those that believe Black women have embraced hairstyles and beauty approaches that are reflected of prevalent Eurocentric notions and standards of beauty. Some maintain that replicating Eurocentric standards of beauty, styling, and grooming directly enable Black women to be accepted by White culture and potential employers, educational institutions, and the like. Others have argued that historically during the 19th century Black women practiced hair processes such as straightening to reduce perceptions of being hypersexual. African American hair procedures, styling, and performance are intrinsically rooted within a cultural history acknowledging the ways race, gender, class, and sexuality interact in the way one performs their identity.

Recently, the natural hair movement has emerged as a means for African American women and men to present their “natural hair”. Now the term “natural” is fully loaded and depending on who you ask you may receive a different answer. Some define “natural hair” as a maintaining one’s normal texture—not altering one’s hair texture through chemical straighteners, colors, relaxers, texturizes—and using minimal heat processing. Others profess that “natural hair” consists of being wig and weave free. There is a cadre of natural hair definitions complete with various tutorials and a growing industry of hair care products to support this burgeoning hair care movement. As a person who wears her hair “natural” in the summer time—I wash it with conditioner, throw some oil in it and leave the house—and styled in the wintertime—I go to the salon biweekly and have it blow-dried and flat ironed—I do not necessary consider myself as a complete natural hair devotee. Admittedly, I enjoy coloring my hair once a year and trying new hairstyles.

As I noted recently I am embracing weaves and wigs. During this past month, Black History Month, I became frustrated when on occasion scrolling through my Twitter or Instagram profile and seeing memes—an image with usually a funny header and or footer—conflating “natural hair” and “Blackness”. Interestingly enough many of the memes I saw were being uploaded by Black men. I was so fascinated with these memes I began searching hashtags associated with Black power. One in particular said “Natural hair is fly (but you know that)” with an Afro pick depicted as the image with a caption below of “Stop trying to look like White #blackgirlwithnaturalhair #girlswithdreeds #blackqueens” the comment went on. I found this incredibly frustrating and problematic.

hair beauty meme

By wearing hair weaves and wigs was I some sort of race traitor, was I not Black enough? To associate one’s hair with one’s racial and ethnic identity is just as degrading and problematic as associating one’s skin tone with one’s racial and ethnic identity. Factually, the association of phenotype with race has and continues to have devastating consequences on the identities of men and women. I began to wonder if these self professed enthusiasts of the Black Power movement were in fact so imprisoned by these generic delusions of Blackness and so shackled by the cuffs of White hegemony that they failed to see any other nonracially motivated and logical explanations for a woman who wears wigs, weaves, or styles their hair in a particular way? How acceptable is it to make a gross assumption and generalization of Black women and hair that seeks to further marginalize them, their choice, their gender display, their self conceptualization and their image?

hair beauty meme

Furthermore, many of the memes conflating natural hair and Blackness were projected by Black men—this could of course not be statistically significant and there are all sorts of selection biases through social media—but there is a unique relationship about the Black bodies in relation to one another specifically how we see each other, evaluate standards of beauty, and notions of ourselves through others. Arguably, men have too added to the self-conceptualization of women by desiring particular hairstyles, hair lengths, and hair colors. I find it admirable that Black men are growingly supporting diverse expressions of Black femininity, gender, and womanhood. However, we must be careful not to make assumptions and generalizations about one’s gender performance. Obviously, this conversation is steeped in a larger conversation about gender display, standards of beauty, and bodies in general and I in no way intend to minimize the natural hair movement, movements of Black Power, and larger movements of identity but I do challenge ourselves to relate more deeply and more consciously to the human experience.

Late last year, my mother who I fondly call “The Mommykins” was diagnosed with Her2Positive Breast Cancer. As a result of her diagnosis and treatment she has endured surgeries, now chemotherapy, and radiation. As a result she has suffered side effects associated with her treatment, not limited to nausea, and more importantly, hair thinning and hair thinning. When I asked her what made her feel like a woman she answered her breasts and hair, for her cancer has attacked the two things that make her feel feminine—thus her own perception of herself. The Mommykins and I are very close she is truly a best friend, a motivator, a consigliere, I could go on ad nauseam. I decided to start wearing weave as a result of her treatment because I knew according to the evidence, research, and conversations with her providers that she was going to lose her hair. If I could I would go through the treatment for her so she would not have to suffer but I cannot. I, however, can wear wigs and weaves in solidarity as she embraces them. We are becoming “Weaveologists”—experts in weaves and wigs together. It has become a family affair as even my partner Michael has purchased The Mommykins a wig. As I travel back and forth during the quarter to attend my mother’s chemo and other treatments we embrace wig shopping and the eternal quest for her to find a Weaveologist as expert as mine, Shari in Chicago, in metro Detroit. The truth of the matter is that cancer sucks and through this experience we have to find ways to have fun. For The Mommykins and I we are having fun with experimenting with our hair through this moment of health devastation. I know there are some other Weavologists in training out there and no one should have to feel judged as a result choosing to become one. Life is complicated, hair is complicated, and the human experience is complicated. The more we are accepting and open to a multitude of human expressions the more we can grow to understand each other. We truly never know what someone else is going through so who are we to judge.

natural hair meme

 Dilara K. Üsküp is a second year Doctoral Student in Political Science at the University of Chicago. Her broad interests include public opinion at the intersection of religiosity, race, gender, and sexuality.

(All images courtesy of Essence Magazine)

One Response to The History and Politics of Hair

  1. Pingback: “Female Unauthorized Hairstyles” and the US Army | Sexual and Reproductive Health & Justice Blog

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