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Black Experiences / Body Positivity

I Am Not My Hair (But, of Course, I Totally Am)

"I shaved my head because it makes me feel powerful and badass. Because it’s a decision that feels more autonomous. Because my time is more important. Because it feels queer as fuck. Because it’s freeing. And because I can. These are the real reasons I shaved my head. And no, you still can’t touch it."

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Written by Zo Watt.

“Oh my god!” My co-worker stares at me, eyes wide, mouth agape as I join her behind the desk.

“You shaved your head.”

“I did,” I say with a tight smile, knowing full well where this conversation is headed because it’s one I’ve been forced to have repeatedly over the past 10 years. Don’t say it. Don’t say it. Don’t go there, I will.

“But whhhhy?” she cries.

My shoulders sag. “It’s easier,” I say on cue which technically is true.
“You could’ve at least kept the top bit,” she mopes. “That looked so cool.”
Ugh, I’m so sorry for your loss, I think wearily.

“Are you talking about Zo’s hair?” Our supervisor walks over. “I’m going to miss the little afro puffs. That was my favourite. Oh, and the twisty things.”
“Yes! I liked that too,” my co-worker chimes in.

It’s just hair, I want to say but this is both unfair and untrue. For women in our society, it is never just hair. And though my relationship with it differs from most, it wasn’t always this way.

As a child, I could often be seen prancing around the house with a dish cloth or bath towel on my head. I would flick it over my shoulders the way I had seen white women do on TV, enjoying the way the fabric swished around me, the way it cascaded down my back like the silky tresses of Ariel, Belle and Jasmine. I was only four years old and already I understood: long hair was beautiful, my crown of coils was not. I still have the self-portrait I drew at age six where an intense amount of crayon has gone into the creation of my thick, voluminous mane that is not only blonde, it trails the floor.

Sadly, my own culture still upholds these European beauty ideals. Good hair, according to much of the black community, is hair that is soft, smooth and straight. Growing up, this meant spending every weekend sitting on the cold, hard floor of my parent’s bedroom, trying not to move lest I get hit as my mother tended to my head with rollers, blow dryers and straighteners.

I shaved my head because it makes me feel powerful and badass. Because it’s a decision that feels more autonomous. Because my time is more important. Because it feels queer as fuck. Because it’s freeing. And because I can. These are the real reasons I shaved my head. And no, you still can’t touch it.

Things changed once I reached high school. No longer wanting to pass as white since frankly I couldn’t (white people were forever coming up to me asking, “What are you?” making it clear that although I’m half-white, I was not considered one of them) and realising that my unique thread of hair was a drawcard amongst my curious white peers, that it verified what little blackness I was allowed to claim as a light-skinned South African, I began to adopt more afrocentric hairstyles. I taught myself how to micro-braid and cornrow and would spend 8-12 hours every Sunday braiding my hair in front of the television, declining all invitations to hang out with my family and friends because this was more important. Let me repeat that. My hair was more important than going outside and kicking a ball with my brothers or seeing a film with my friends.

I urge you to try name ten black female celebrities who permanently rock hair that could be described in some circles as “nappy”. And no, I’m not talking about the manufactured, glossy curls Oprah will often sport. I’m talking about the thick, woolly afro so many of us Africans are blessed to have. Name ten black women in power. Fine, name five.

It wasn’t until I met my first boyfriend, ironically a white man, who encouraged me to embrace my natural hair, that I finally rocked my kinky mane in all its untamed glory. I was twenty-one. Now if you’re not a black woman reading this or have not dated a black woman and therefore cannot grasp the magnitude of this act, I urge you to try name ten black female celebrities who permanently rock hair that could be described in some circles as “nappy”. And no, I’m not talking about the manufactured, glossy curls Oprah will often sport. I’m talking about the thick, woolly afro so many of us Africans are blessed to have. Name ten black women in power. Fine, name five.

A few years later, I decided to shear it all off. That’s right. I did away with what I had come to believe was my best asset (and of course in doing so, discovered it wasn’t). It was easy.

As a bisexual opposed to heteronormative ideas around femininity, it was liberation, not loss I felt as my hair fell away. Now had you asked me why I took to my head with my father’s Wahl clippers, I would’ve been honest because ‘to raise money for charity’ is a socially sanctioned reason for a woman to rock a shaved head. No one takes offense to this. No one grows defensive. No one gets confused. I would later go on to shave my head three more times and would remain honest about my motives each time (to erase the damage caused by a white hairdresser who had no business attending to African hair, and then later, to erase the damage I caused having no business cutting my own hair) but now…now I offer up the digestible lie that is, ‘It’s easier’.

But if I am to be honest about why I shaved my head this weekend, it is because I no longer care for your racialized beauty standards, your gender norms, your social conditioning.

I know firsthand that a woman’s relationship with her hair—be it on her head or on her body—is complicated, and I want to be mindful of that when women ask about my buzzcut. But if I am to be honest about why I shaved my head this weekend, it is because I no longer care for your racialized beauty standards, your gender norms, your social conditioning. I shaved my head because, to paraphrase Jada Pinkett-Smith, my value is not measured by the length of my hair. I shaved my head because it makes me feel powerful and badass. Because it’s a decision that feels more autonomous. Because my time is more important. Because it feels queer as fuck. Because it’s freeing. And because I can. These are the real reasons I shaved my head.

And no, you still can’t touch it.


About the Author

Zo Watt is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Autostraddle, MadameNoire and Star Observer. When she’s not busy burning an inordinate amount of incense or researching ‘yurts’ and ‘Earthships’, you can find her blathering on about women’s rights, mental health awareness and arthouse cinema.

 

Follow on IG: @zo.watt | Follow on Twitter: @


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