Just after my 50th birthday, I shaved my head as a political act.
As a Black woman, hair is a big deal. For most of my adult life, others have remarked on my hair, usually with some variation on, “you got that good hair”. This is ironic, given that as a child, I was ridiculed because my hair did not favor my father’s soft Indian curls.
Straitening was introduced to me young, when it was decided I was too tender headed for proper upkeep. My step mother cured me of my tender-headedness; she was not easily deterred by tears. She then taught me how to take care of it myself, so I could get rid of the rollers and hood dryers.
I’ve spent a lot of good money colouring and straitening my hair, and way too much of my life maintaining it – 1.5 hours to wash, blow dry and style and 20 minutes each morning with my curling iron. After all that work, 1 minute spent outside in humid weather, and I looked like Sideshow Bob. Clearly too much of my self-worth was connected to my hair, and relied on mimicking western aesthetics.
My first foray away from western styles came with cornrows. I did not like this, as it always made my hair look shorter than it was – length is a big deal for a coloured girl. When I got older, I was introduced to extensions. What a blessing, a whole month of low maintenance hair. Still, I recognised that my choices were all about being socially acceptable.
So in an act of self-reclamation and thumbing my nose to convention, I had my husband shave my head. Talk about your wild experiences. Every woman should try this at least once!
First was the feel. My driveway lays between two buildings. The first time I went out there after shaving, I got a lesson in aerodynamics. I could actually feel the air go over and around my head and swoop down my neck and back – cool beans!
Then was the freedom: wash and go hair? Well I never!
Best was the reaction. My husband loved it, not only aesthetically, but that it freed me from the work and products. My mother’s partner told me that if I was his woman, he would leave me. Mom tried to like it, but accepted it best when I explained the politics of it – “that is so you” – Young women admired my “courage”, and older women admired my spunk. The middle had mixed reviews.
It was such a big deal, that I kept my hair at ⅛ inch for over a year. Not so much because of the reaction, but because of how little I cared what they thought. My choice became a challenge to others – accept it or be dismissed.
I discovered however, winter and a bald head do not make a good match.
The following winter I decided to let it grow back for the season. This is where I made my next big discovery. It turns out I do have my dad’s curls; I just have very thick hair.
As my hair started to grow, the styling battle began anew. I know it has become vogue to walk around looking unkempt, but to me, bed head just signals nasty. The next few months would be a lesson in care for real Black hair – as opposed to chemically treated – and culminate with me shaving again.
While I embraced the comfort again, I also felt like I had given up. I hate to give up on anything –both strength of character and flaw. Moreover, I started to feel something else gnawing at me.
It took a stroll through a photo album for me to clue in. While I was feeling strong in my Blackness, my bald head was undermining my sense of femininity. My favorite earings no linger looked right, certain neck lines were a problem, and frankly, I like having bangs to feel hidden behind.
I know that gender is more than just my window dressing, and I am comfortable with myself au natural. Yet when it comes to feeling well put together and girly, I need two things; my eyeliner and hair.
Thankfully styling products have changed a lot, and my crone hair is coming in silver rather than grey. Now instead of getting caught in a battle with my hair, I recognise the blessed flexibility nature gave me. When it is hot and humid, my hair is wash and go curls, and in the winter, a blow dryer and flat iron gives me a layered bob and reduces daily washing. Best of all, a trip to the store and a little Black girl magic, and I am weather proofed.
I may even shave it again, or I may lock it as I originally planned. See while I recognise that my hair has a role in how I perceive myself, now I feel that it is no more important than what nail polish shade I wear.
On an aside: as you may have noted I have a thing for words and their meanings. Many people have chosen to wear their hair in locks. While I firmly believe that not everything is for everybody, I also feel to each their own. I have but one small request; please call them what they are, locks. A Dread is a person; technically one who is Rastafari, which is a religion that proscribes the locking of one’s hair. So when one says they are wearing dreadlocks, what they are saying is they are wearing the locks of a dread (said that way sounds like appropriation, but not my point.) My point is that when you say you have you have or are wearing “dreads”, you are saying you have or are wearing people.