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01 March, 2008

The Dog That Bit Us

This post over at PlainsFeminist has me thinking about hair and identity. Which I've written about before, but I'm looking at a different angle today.

A year or two ago, I made a lunch date with a friend to talk about her hair. She had written a great deal about hers, about taking care of her dreds, about the time she cut them off, about being told by a Rasta one day, "Your hair is your roots in God" and what that meant to her.

A character in the novel I was writing at the time was, like that friend, a mixed-race young woman with a strong spirituality with roots that showed in the twists in her coiled black woman's hair. And while the world of that novel is not this one, is far separated from here and now, I wanted to give that young woman honest hair and treat it with respect. I wanted her hair to be her roots in God.

And so we had lunch, and we talked about hair and culture and dozens of other things besides, and somewhere in that novel is a scene where that young woman is taking proper care of her hair, surrounded by a culture full of people with heads draped with meaning in the colour of the ribbons they used to tie it back and not thinking of whether those carefully twisted strands might mean something else too.

Hair is so easy to fill up with meaning. Easier to change than skin or eyes, but nonetheless with its own innate properties that resist too much manhandling. Ephemeral in its way, and thereby able to serve as a vehicle for all kinds of significance, including significances that cannot be acceptably ascribed to something less transformable.

Hair gets political. Even without getting into the standing-wave femmobloggoflamefest about whether or not one removes leg, crotch, armpit hair, hair gets political; ask any long-haired hippie weirdo freak, to paraphrase Arlo. Ask any WOC told her natural hair is "unprofessional". The presumed subtext of defiance that goes with those rows of spikes is political. The comment of a friend that she wishes she had the job security to go back to her natural hair colour -- teal -- political.

When I cut my hair at fourteen it was political. Schoolyard politics, changing an identity symbol to someone-who-was-not-abused, but political nonetheless. And I probably present politics with my not-professionally-done hair (my husband trims it when it needs trimming), as much as I do personal preference, too.

When I didn't put the green streak back in it last fall, too, that was bowing to political necessity.

It's easy to encode things in hair. The vagaries of fashion can conceal things like the racism of declaring black hair unprofessional, if a professional woman dresses like so, goes to these hairdressers like so, gets things done this way. It can be a code writ large and subtle: I belong here, I'm one of you, I have the right hair to get past the door.

The same novel with the young woman and her dreds has a man who grows his hair far longer than the fashion, as long as it will go, simply because it is his, and he is tired of being cut short and thrown away.


S.L. Bond said...

Hair is also, for whatever reason, one of biggest gender cues; even though it's normal enough now for women to have short hair and men long hair, ask an average person what it means to be "feminine," and long hair will nearly always be in the first few things she mentions. Shaving my head in high school was one of the biggest political statements I was able to make, and everyone, from teachers to strangers, treated me differently with GI's haircut. And amongst the queer women in my town (and elsewhere?), cutting off all one's hair is a rite of passage nearly as important as coming out.

I've been puzzled before by all the meaning that gets tangled into hair. I think you're right that that's because it is a distinctive, innate part of ourselves that is nonetheless changeable at will. Sort of halfway between skin color and clothing, charged with the combined significance of both of them.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Kiya, fully intending to post this one day, with a long commentary on hair. I'll link you, when I do.

Because embarrassing as it is, it really does speak for me!

Almost cut my hair