Friday, 23 August 2013

Hair and Identity

"I am not my hair, I am not my skin, I am not your expectations no...". 

I remember singing along to this song by India Arie in the mid-noughties. It was taken as a song of empowerment and I guess as a pop version of the furtherance of the freedom struggles - to be seen as a person. I took it as an excuse for my unkempt hair. I have always hated combing my hair and the necessity of this task as part or a 'normal' grooming routine never motivated me into putting more effort than the bare minimum. 

One of the things I relished after moving from Kenya to Britain - was the general ignorance on what 'decent' Afro hair should look like. I mean decent as taught to me back in the motherland - always combed, always oiled and dare I say - as far removed from natural as possible.

I remember begging my mother when I was 16 to let me use a hair relaxer and she soon relented. My argument that my hair texture was unmanageable won out. I was so proud of my relaxed hair - all straight, down my neck and shiny. I was hooked, I was hooked to the 'creamy crack' - as I have now heard it referred to.

Two days ago, I shaved my head, I now have a 7/8th of an inch 'twa' - which refers to a 'teeny weeny afro'.

In my year in America, I have encountered all sorts of perspectives on hair. And as trivial a topic it may seem I saw an insight into the thinking that fuels a lot of social interactions and organizations. Allow me to share some of these attitudes with you.


Sadly, I have heard from my fellow dark skinned folk, that having an afro makes you look 'too African'. This was not intended as a compliment. There is an association of African-ness and backwardness. Africa is sometimes referenced to as this far away land - which it is, inhabited only by dark-skinned people - which it is not, and socially primitive - which is definitely not. 

I felt insulted and kept feeling insulted. My expectations were that for those of us for whom our ancestry was rooted in slavery, a more nuanced position on Africa and African-ness would be the norm. That African-ness would be not just in reference to a point of Origin - African American, but an affirmation of an identity that was equally human and equally beautiful.

After a while I realised that many African Americans are plagued with the same issues that my fellow Kenyans are plagued with. When I was growing up, the land of plenty and opportunity was always a Western country and for many of us, success was to be found in getting out. Our standards of beauty were also heavily if not exclusively influenced by Western Media.

I guess that is not too dissimilar to an African American living in the land of plenty. Their standards of beauty are heavily influenced by Western Media. The sad part, is that as a collective - African Americans still do not have a deep enough hold on Western Media. 

There is still the definition of 'nude' tones as akin to white/caucasian skin. There are still only maybe one or two tones in make up counters for black skin - Beyonce or Alek Wek. Ignoring the multitude of colour between, before and after these parameters.

Hair is defined as a crowning glory and part of our (people of African origin) assimilation more often than not involves manipulating our hair into un-natural positions. This could be done chemically, we could sew it in or we could tease it with heat day in and day out.

I have seen more movements in trying to take more control on these standards of beauty. Affirming Viola Davis and her move to wear her hair natural while nominated for an Oscar. 

We still need to see African women with their big or small bottoms, big or small lips, freckles, big or small bosoms, dark or pink gums as beautiful people, because they are. We need to see beyond the 'flower phenomenon'.

Flower Phenomenon

I am trying to coin this phrase in reference to the long flowing wavy hair, white eyes, tanned skin (not too tanned), super white teeth brigade. If you feel you belong in this category, do not be offended - you are on the winning side. 

For some reason, we women have made an expression of 'normal' femininity to take one form. A deviation from this is seen as being a rebel and/or making a statement. You only have to turn on any news outlet to see many a woman clad in a figure hugging dress with long flowing wavy hair and distinctly pointy yet demure noses. Watch any red carpet to see the same. You may argue that this is the Media, not the norm, but it has crept into our suburbs and into our cities. 

The 'super mom' is always well manicured and long flowing locks are the aspiration, if time and messy children allow. The 'working women' are no longer suit wearing androgynous beings that they were in the 80s. The long flowing locks exist there too. Almost as badge of honour - I made it with and in spite of flowing locks.

I hear in order to attract bees and other pollinating creatures, flowers need to be colorful and hereby attractive to the bees. Given that the flowers are immobile, a lot is riding on their attractiveness in order to fulfill their obligations to the circle of life. 

I would like to argue that we have all evolved to not all have to meet this obligation or we have choices, in how to go about it. We do not all have to be flowers. I may have stretched the analogy too far but I hope you are still with me.

Let me end in a typically American life-affirming way. You, as you are - flower, fern or however you see yourself - are beautiful.

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