As a Bangladeshi woman of colour, my hair exists as the site of discussion for uninvited crowds at every end of the Earth.
Thousands of women of colour are discriminated against, according to how far their hair conforms to Eurocentric beauty standards. In the UK, there is no such law that prohibits discrimination based on hair texture – yet there are many black women who experience this type of discrimination at work, at school, in social settings and even at home.
Our hair exists as social communication that not only indicates our femininity, but our closeness to our ethnic roots and willingness to move away from them. My hair is a language, and I’ve spent years of my life perfecting the etymology of every word it says.
Here’s my hair maintenance routine:
- I shave my whole body once every 2-3 weeks. 3 weeks if I feel lazy.
- I straighten my hair almost every day. I would probably do it every day, but sometimes I don’t have the will/ time.
- I pluck some rogue eyebrow hairs.
- Coconut oil on the ends after every wash.
I asked a few of the other beautiful people at Diaspora Speaks what their hair maintenance routines were. Admittedly, I sort of tricked them into unknowingly answering another, undisclosed question: What kind of language do women of colour use when discussing their hair?
My findings suggested that all the women viewed their hair as an independent entity that they were in a relationship with – which sometimes lent the individuals more authority over it. However, it sometimes existed as its own site of political discussion for the minds of those looking into the locks or curls or hijab it arranged itself into. All the women I asked seemed to be in a power struggle with their hair.
Someone suggested that they’ve come to ‘treat (their) hair with respect’ after years of neglecting it, as this individual found it was easy to grow complacent with maintaining her hair’s moisture whilst practicing hijab. Her hair has anthropomorphised into an entity that demands respect.
Another individual said she ‘lets’ her body hair grow out when she’s feeling lazy, which would suggest that her hair is like a rebellious child that she lets off every now and again for bad behaviour. However, like a child to their parents, her hair has defined large parts of her life since it began to grow. She’s admitted she’d readily remove it (hopefully, unlike a parent to their child) using laser hair removal to ‘make (her) life easier’.
One of my interviewees prefaced the fact that her hair didn’t grow out quickly with the phrase ‘to be fair’. I found it interesting that she rationalised for her hair, like I would judge it if it grew too quickly. It made me wonder what her relationship with her hair was: was her hair a toxic friend that she apologised for a lot? Was it a pet that she was still trying to discipline? Was it a piece of art that she made and was proud of, but doubted, like any other artist?
Additionally, all the women I asked gave me 2 versions of their routine: one that they did when they were excited to do it, and one for when they weren’t bothered. I did the same thing too when I wrote out my hair routine above. This common denominator suggests that we all, generally, have an affectionate attitude towards hair maintenance. We truly want to do the things we do to our hair.
Regardless, there is also a shared consciousness amongst us all that there is an idyllic version of our hair routine and a practical one. We all get tired of our hair. I don’t think that this means that any of us are slaves to the social forces that insist on coating the strands of our hair with racialised stereotypes and femininity – but I do think that this implies that we are slightly conscious that the importance of our hair maintenance moves ahead of us, even when we aren’t bothered to chase after it.
In Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, Mary Douglas states, “the body itself is a highly restricted medium of expression. The care that is given to it, in grooming, must correlate closely with the categories in which society it is seen in so far, as these also draw upon the same culturally processed idea of the body.”
Douglas reminds us all that the relationship between a woman of colour and her hair is always imbued with politics. To some, my hair still suggests that I am an unhygienic South Asian nightmare when I go 3 weeks without shaving it all off.
It’s important to mention that each person I spoke to is happy with their hair and what they do with it. Each woman valued the health and wellbeing of their hair, and they had an emotional connection to it – their hair behaved as an expression of who they were and was entrenched with their cultural identities. One beautiful Caribbean woman called her natural type 4 hair, ‘her crown.’ A gorgeous hijabi said she was ‘super glad’ to be in a place where she maintains both her hair and hijab as they exist as part of each other. All the women, after a journey of working towards this result, were perfectly content with their hair. Me too.
I understand myself as liberated in my own sense, that is in harmony with the fact that feminine liberation comes in a million different forms. I am happy in all the little ways I adjust my appearance. Truthfully, I think that my situation has blinded me from the fact that we all are moving at different paces. If my best friend wanted to wax her back, then I would tell her ‘Woo! Good for you!’ However, her and I have had the chance to grow with our hair.
I cannot explain to a 16-year-old Bangladeshi girl to evaluate whether she’s shaving off her upper lip hair because some boys told her to, or because she’s decided that doing so will make her happy, without possibly influencing her with my own politics. Especially since I dyed my own hair bright orange at 16 to look more racially ambiguous (a perfect combination of producing an Orientalist allure about myself and desperately clinging to the lighter hair that is favoured by Eurocentric beauty standards). There’s nothing wrong with a hairless upper lip or even bright orange damaged hair, if that’s something that you want. However, the gap between comfort and conformity is ever changing.
When I planned this article, I feared that my discussion of hair would become too preachy. I am not insisting that you put down your razor or extensions or castor oil in resistance to our oppressors. My aim is to highlight the complications that exist within this discussion, and hopefully urge WOC readers to evaluate if they are in harmony with their hair. I have found myself asking if I am in harmony with mine. Is my hair, my hair? Is it Bangladesh’s hair? Is it my mother’s? Is it womanhood’s hair? Is it yours?