Beauty

Hair, sex and politics

Hair is one of the most searched topics on the internet for reasons that go beyond how-to’s, and ‘what to do for my wedding’. Rosalind Jana untangles the politics of your hair

Rosalind Jana | 25.10.2019

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Hair is a complicated affair. The stuff that grows from our heads, and the decisions we make about how to style, wear, colour, cut, cover, or remove it all form part of the vast and complex business of being a body in this world.

It’s a different business for each of us, coming with its own unique set of choices and expectations. Questions too. Does a close crop offer refusal of the male gaze? Or a bob feel like a new beginning? Are there pressures to straighten or smooth things out? What meaning lies in dyeing hair bubblegum-pink or bright green? Is the decision to wear one’s hair naturally both personal and political?

Like pretty much every other aspect of appearance, hair is a tricky thing to (ahem) untangle: wrapped up in a series of intricate considerations around gender, sexuality, race, religion, power, and visual identity.

The personal

My own hair, for example, is long and curly. It has been for years. It’s a big part of who I am and how I view myself, but is ultimately very conventional. It doesn’t possess any subversive power (other than perhaps that I might not immediately be read as a gay woman) or refusal of mainstream expectation. It doesn’t make the navigation of job interviews or everyday encounters more difficult.

Although there are a hundred and one different ways to think about hair, in recent years conversation has been much more closely focused on those whose hair challenges the status quo. A status quo that still largely prizes a very narrow (white, straight, glossily-locked) type of femininity.

The political

These are conversations that have become increasingly urgent: from explorations of the symbolism of a shaved head – as found in the extended commentary around activist and gun control advocate Emma Gonzalez’s buzzcut – through to the wealth of discussion and writing on the particularly pressing challenges faced by women of colour. (Pick up Emma Dabiri’s book Don’t Touch My Hair for a brilliant examination of the history, legacy and potentiality of black hair.)

EMMA GONZALES made a powerpoint presentation to convince her parents to let her shave her head 

Earlier this year, California became the first US state to pass the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), following a number of widely publicised hair-discrimination cases centered on employment and schooling. New York soon followed. These protections are small steps forward, but there are plenty of battlegrounds – legal and otherwise – left on which to fight.

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The societal norms (or lack thereof)

Bwalya Newton, the 31-year-old journalist and founder of basketball club Hackney Gazelles (pictured below), tells me she doesn't necessarily think of her hair as political, but is forced to by others. As she says, perception of hair is a reflection of who holds power. “We’re still policed in terms of the way we have to present ourselves,” she explains. “If you look at recent news [reports] … there are children being sent home because braids or dreads are seen as not au fait with school regulations, but really those regulations are restrictions, or respectability politics. In a hierarchical structure, society doesn’t hold enough people who are black, of colour and queer, and so ultimately, we see things through one lens.

"perception of hair is a reflection of who holds power"

“I look like a pencil,” Claire sobs to Fleabag on a park bench

Perhaps hair feels particularly charged because it’s so personal. The cliché of drastic haircuts after breakups or similarly seismic moments of change certainly speaks to our understanding of hair’s intimate relationship with our sense of self. Sometimes the transformation can be unfortunate (see Clare’s tight-lipped mutter: “I look like a pencil” after her lopsided cut in Fleabag), but often it’s joyous: experimentation offering fresh possibilities. As Bwalya adds, “I know that because my hair is the specific set of coils I’ve been blessed with, I’ve been afforded a playground that straightness of hair can’t achieve.”

The homecoming

Transformation can also serve as a powerful riposte or a way of coming home, especially for those in the queer community. Cornelia, 26, a writer and editor, first cut their hair short as a teenager living in Paris. “My refusal of this signifier of socially acceptable, highly feminised and heterosexual womanhood was a refusal to adhere,” they say. “Cropping my hair as short as shearing it is shorthand to others for ‘queer’ or ‘trans’ and made me legible to myself again.”

That said, it’s a haircut that comes with its own practical, unnecessarily gendered negotiations, too. “Getting a haircut is a complete nightmare as a queer person because it is suddenly awash with codes you didn’t know existed until you accidentally stopped following them,” Cornelia reflects. “There are questions like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want some feathering to make it more feminine?’, a subsequent arduous period of reassurance in which you have to say, ‘It’s fine, really, please cut it off, yes all of it,’ followed by a transaction in which you end up paying through the nose for a ‘woman’s haircut’ when Kevin over there has waltzed out with the same, sometimes even more technical, haircut as you for half the price.”

In this way, hair can be so many things: a language, a badge of belonging, a practical question, a fresh start, a frustrating reminder of the balance of power, a space to play, a way of coming home.


Rosalind’s Curly Hair Kit

Very zesty and lovely smelling, this is wonderfully soothing for flaky scalps. 

The Body Shop, Ginger Anti-Dandruff shampoo, £9.50

Small enough to slip into a coat pocket or handbag, and great for detangling without frizzing.

Tangle Teezer, £11

Bouclème’s range does wonders for curls. This perfectly pocket-sized trio offers all of the replenishment and definition one could need.

Bouclème, Travel Kit Curls, £22

I am always on the look-out for good conditioners, but largely return to Aussie because it’s what my mum used and I am ultimately a fan of the familiar.

Aussie, Miracle Moist conditioner, £5.99

IMAGEs: LIAM HART /ASOS, GETTY IMAGES, Two Brothers/bbc, shutterstock

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