I’m thinking about the ways in which (non-white) women represent ourselves. And, again, I’m thinking about my hair.
I love my big curly hair, because it’s different, because it seems to have a mind of its own, and because it marks me out ethnically. It’s the main thing people notice about the way I look, for better or for worse. I am very emotionally attached to it, and feel like it is a big part of who I am, which is a little messed up.
So it’s a major part of how I represent myself. The first photo I used of myself in blogging was one of my hair. I play with it a lot. When I draw myself, it’s the main thing I focus on.
It’s a little messed up that the main thing about me that screams feminine, not white is what gets the attention, and more troubling that my self-image is so caught up in it.
Women who have hair like mine as an ethnic/racial marker are taught to downplay it. I can get away with it most of the time because my features tend to go towards the normative. But it took me years to voluntarily wear my hair out, because I thought it was too wild and frizzy, not pretty and smooth like straight hair. I’ve managed to shake off those racially coded beauty standards and realise that hair like mine isn’t dirtier or worse looking or less appropriate than the straight and tiny variety.
The other day, I walked into a room full of young women from cultural backgrounds like mine, and I was the only one rocking curls. One of the men there congratulated me on my hairstyle choice: I wasn’t wasting an hour a day with my hairdryer, I wasn’t in danger of rain. Well, yeah, I wasn’t. But it says a lot that these young women had already faced so much social pressure that they were going to spend that much time making their bodies more normative. And when they did conform, they got hit with being accused of being impractical and frivolous women. One can’t really win. They had been taught that to properly represent themselves as women, they had to do away with a feature associated with their ancestry, which is really, really sad.
I’m not saying I’m immune to this, not at all. I’ve recently realised that, when sending photos of myself to overseas family and friends, I tend to almost always send photos of myself with straight hair. In fact, even before that, the camera goes on me the most when I have straight hair. That’s me dressed up, that’s me “prettified”. My hair might not, for a time, have the curls and complexity that bothered me so much growing up, but straightness doesn’t mean smooth representational politics by any stretch. When work involves a speech or a photoshoot, or when I’m posting photos of myself on my blog, I make sure I have curls, because I’m representing an ideal of social justice that includes proud ethnic and cultural expression.
These are strange and divisive lines, and I’m not happy with them.
(All this is partly by way of saying that I scheduled a hair appointment for today, and it turns out that my hairdresser insists on straightening it so he can get an even cut, and I was a bit worried about all the photos of me that are going to appear on the blog over the next few days in which I am not my usual self, but part of the reason why I post photos of myself on this blog is to be proud and not scared and visible and refute ideas that there is a particular way that non-white people look, and altering my most visible “non-white feature” doesn’t change any of that. But I wanted to talk about the why.)
Previously: Hair, hair, hair.