Why it’s Never ‘Just’ Hair: The Relationship Between Hair and Our Identity
Main image – @Lupitanyongo/Instagram
I got a bad haircut the other week. I mean – we’ve all been there haven’t we?
We go asking for a light trim or a new style or colour, and somehow, something goes drastically wrong. And you pretend it’s fine, only to go home, look in the mirror and vow never to return to the same hairdressers again.
It may sound dramatic, but it’s incredibly disappointing when you have an image in your mind of what you desire to look like, and reality falls short of that expectation.
Hair is a huge way a person chooses to express themselves, and a bad haircut, or hair day, can have a significant impact on a person’s self esteem, a study conducted by Yale professor Marianne LaFrance concluded.
As a woman from the Afro-Caribbean diaspora I know all too well just how complex the relationship with hair can be.
My low porosity, 3C, seemingly untameable hair was the bane of my adolescence and I spent much of my time chopping it, dyeing it and straightening it out. No matter what I did it never looked how I wanted it to look.
Little did my younger self know that I wasn’t just fighting with my hair, but a complex historical and cultural context too.
Getting to the root of hair’s meaning
In ‘Untangling the Roots of Black in America,’ authors Ayana Bryd and Lori Tharps explain, “Since African civilizations bloomed, hairstyles have been used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, and rank within the community.
“In some cultures a person’s surname could be ascertained simply by examining the hair because each clan had its own unique hairstyle.”
The ingenuity of Black hairstyles has also been passed down through anecdotal stories, which claim that during the transatlantic slave trade enslaved people would braid maps in each others hair so they could remember the routes to escape from the plantations.
We also see hair as a symbol of status and wealth during the 18th century, in the wigs French aristocrats wore. The more opulent and outrageous the wig, the more difficult it was to do manual labour (a logic I love, by the way) thus indicating the higher social and financial status of the person.
Loss of identity
On the flip side, hair has historically been used as a means of oppression too.
One of the first things that enslavers did was shave the heads of the African people they had captured. This communicates one thing: your identity belongs to us now.
Many Black people still face the repercussions of these oppressive legacies, struggling in schools and the workplace due to facing discrimination because of wearing natural styles.
In 2020, the story of 15-year-old UK schoolgirl Ruby Williams made headlines when after she received a £8,500 settlement after her London school repeatedly sent her home for wearing her hair in its natural afro coils.
Disturbingly, cases like this are not uncommon on either side of the pond, with a 2019 study by Dove and the CROWN 2023 Workplace Research Study finding that over 20% of US Black women aged between 25 and 34 have been sent home from work because of their hair.
The problem has become so widespread that more than 24 US states have now passed The CROWN Act, a law prohibiting discrimination against race-based hairstyles in both the workplace and public schools since it was created in 2019. Moves to pass the law at federal, country-wide, level were blocked in December 2022 however, showing we still have a long way to go.
Interestingly, the act of shaving one’s head can be seen as a reversal of this, especially in modern times, and as reclaiming and rejection of typically feminine beauty standards.
Lupita Nyong’o did this recently, and we all remember that Britney moment when she shaved her hair off in 2007. The whole world went into a frenzy. In her recent memoir Spears claims that: “shaving my head and acting out were my ways of pushing back.”
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?Hair in this way becomes symbolic of rebellion, of a choice towards non-conformity, empowerment and a shift in the relationship one has to self and the outside world.
I spoke to Cynthia Gentle, a psychotherapist, mother and founder of mental health charity The African and Caribbean Society in Scotland, who can vouch for the cultural, economical and emotional impact hair has on a person’s relationship with themselves, after being diagnosed with traction alopecia herself.
A common condition amongst Black women due to the overuse of weaves and relaxers, Gentle explains traction alopecia had a significant impact on her overall wellbeing, and ability to be present in her life.
In a bid to regain her identity, Gentle opted for a hair transplant, sharing her journey on TikTok to help others understand how common the condition is and how it’s ok to connect your hair and identity.
She explained, “My life has changed overarchingly post hair transplant, I am more at ease, I am much more positive”.
There’s always the risk that we’re viewed as superficial when we’re disappointed with a bad haircut; and that’s because our hair is connected to an image that we want to present to the world.
But since we know that hair has a history and language of its own that is connected to status, expression and self-worth, the impact is definitely more than skin deep.
So, next time you get a dodgy haircut and someone tells you not to worry because ‘it’s just hair’ you can look at them and smile, knowing that it’s so much more.