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I linked to a post of Justine Larbalestier’s on hair back in August, and I wanted to write about the follow up, Hair Stories Redux:

‘So, why do we hate frizz? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with frizz. I think we’re taught to see it as “bad” hair. I think years and years of ads and movies and tv shows full of women with “controllable” hair has shaped how we see hair and what we expect of it.’

Only just in reading this post of Justine’s, only just then did I realise that frizzy hair isn’t bad. I was going okay with the curls, but I’ve always seen my frizz as disgusting, unclean, gross and wrong. When I have a lot of frizz, I tie up my hair, stuff it in a ponytail at the base of my head, making sure the frizzy parts are tucked behind the undercurls. My hair’s dry: that’s just the deal with curly hair, and nothing of which to be ashamed. So, abig sigh of relief, and I didn’t even know I was holding this particular breath. I’m going to try and simply rock the frizz and not be ashamed.

Justine goes on to talk about the experiences of an acquaintance.

‘Her chief pleasure in straightening her hair is that, other than people who know her, it’s the only time her hair is what she thinks of as “neutral.” People don’t comment, people don’t ask to touch her hair. She isn’t seen through the lens of her hair in quite the same way.’

Every eight weeks or so I get my hair trimmed. I’ve finally found a hairdresser who gives me a good haircut. (This is a rarity: you’d think that my kind of hair came from outer space.) We’re slowly getting it stronger and healthier and longer after years of bad cuts and damage. The problem is that he has to straighten it in order to give me this cut. Which, on the one hand: cool, free straightening. It’s lovely to have that smooth, silky feel. I get to enjoy my hair in a different colour because light reflects differently off curly and straight hair. Most importantly, I get more of the length I’ve wished for almost my whole life.

But also, it’s a bit of a nightmare. I won’t rehash my issues with being misracialised; see practically everything I’ve ever written on my personal experiences with race and racism. Suffice it to say that my curls are the most prominent marker, for a lot of people, as to what I am, so when I get my hair straightened I get tense. It’s also a really different experience simply walking down the street because I don’t attract so many looks, and there aren’t hands reaching for my head. I get to blend in more and, like Justine’s acquaintance, don’t get seen through the lens of my hair in quite the same way.

It’s a mixed pleasure for me, however. The other peculiar thing is that I get to see how much people I know see my hair as a big part of who I am, or my primary visual identifying factor. I went to meet a good friend immediately after a haircut a few months back. I was bent over a book while waiting, my straightened hair swinging in front of me, and I heard my name called uncertainly. I was hardly recognisable to my dear friend, and, indeed, this has happened with a few of my good friends now. By the time it’s time to wash my hair again, I jump in the shower and feel my hair curl and darken and weight with water with much relief.

I’ve not really found a hairdresser who knows how to cut my curls properly while they’re curls. About five years ago, my hairdresser at the time was straightening my hair for a formal occasion (this was the second time in my life I’d had it straightened, it was exciting) and she realised she’d been cutting it unevenly. She gave me a trim, but, looking back at the photographs from the night, it’s obvious that she didn’t have a clue what she was doing with my hair. It’s as though… it reminds me of those old medical textbooks in which lots of time was devoted to, shall we say, what was constructed as the male form, with the constructed female form being treated like an optional extra, a variation on the male, an anomaly common enough to have its place in the book.

That is, it’s like curly hair is just some bizarre thing hairdressers encounter not quite so often, so there’s no need to really explore it as its own thing or learn how to nurture it properly; it’s adequate to treat it like a strange cousin of straight hair and to just go along dealing with it as best one can. It’s not normal or expected, so there’s no need to learn how to treat it on its own terms.

Now, I can understand this on the level of not knowing how to deal with something unexpected: I’ve always had trouble doing the hair of my straight-haired friends, and when mine is straight I find something as simple as tying a pony tail or plaiting it an odd experience. (‘Why on earth won’t this plait stay in for longer than ten seconds? You mean I have to put a hair tie in so that it will hold? And it won’t even hold a hairbrush/a pen/various objects when I stick one in for safekeeping. What kind of hair is this!?’) But when you’re talking about professional hairdressers, this gets a little peculiar. And when it happens for a lifetime, it’s systemic.

I’m pretty used to having people gather around me at the hairdresser’s, becoming the centre of attention for the duration of my haircut. Well, I don’t think I’ll ever get really used to it, but it’s becoming quite routine and expected. Being treated like an exhibit as routine: how bizarre and mundane.

My hair gets called wild. I’m asked if it’s natural. People walk up to me and touch it, tangle their fingers in it, are surprised when they ruin the curl with their curious/harsh fingers. My hair gets treated like a fascinating toy, separate to my body. Can you imagine if I started going up to white women in the street and scrunching their hair with my fingers, telling them how wild and strange their hair is?

It’s all very odd indeed.