Women, hair politics and choices!

A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life – Coco Chanel. 

Marvelous things happen in the bathroom! Whether taking a shower or in a bathtub or using a basin, it is the one place where there is a high likelihood (likelihood 😊) of being alone in your thoughts. Many of us read and check phones while in the toilet, but that cannot happen in the bathroom unless you are soaking in a bathtub over a glass of wine. Well, I digress. Let us just say that when water is running down your body in a shower, many brilliant talents get nurtured, and many will only dare to sing when they are in the shower. For me one Saturday morning in September 2020, while water was running down my head, through my sister-locked hair, I had an aha! Moment. “Why not cut this hair?! Wait, yes! I could shave this hair and not worry about re-tightening. Just like that, I decided. I am quite a decisive person and I can decide at the spur of the moment and rarely have regrets. Or as we say in Kiswahili, kama ni mbaya, mbaya (If it is wrong, too bad) The physical distancing and masks among other recommended behaviors around COVID-19 had made life more challenging. As the cabinet secretary for health repeatedly said, we can not afford to “live normally or the virus will treat us abnormally”. I had struggled with hair management and even considered a DIY (do it yourself) but realized this is not my skill. The loctician used tocome to my house, but that was no longer a straightforward decision for me. After agonizing that week on how best to plan to have my hair re-tightened, the bathroom moment felt like getting out of slavery. Why was hair holding me at ransom?

It was a simple decision for me to make. However, what was interesting were the reactions I received. Most people got surprised or annoyed at My decision to cut My hair. Notable outliers were my 11-year-old niece Bakhita and my friend Rahma. It excited Bakhita that her aunties (my younger sister joined in the decision 😊) had cut hair, like her. She had the most beautiful long hair when one day about two years ago; she stepped out of a salon into a barber. (Let the records show I in no way influenced that decision). She has never turned back! She attempted last year, then decided her short hair was more peaceful. Rahma amused me “I have seen your hair in all stages. Long permed hair, in braids, in traditional locks, short natural, in sister locks and now even shorter. It has been nice in all phases.” Well, it is true my hair has seen different days.

The reactions got me thinking, why is there such politics around women and their hair? Why should hair decisions, especially cutting hair, be an issue that requires a hair-steering committee? I reflected on my experiences with hair growing up.  

Having long hair was an important measure of beauty and as young girls, we were socialized to believe that hair, long hair represents beauty and girls needed to “look beautiful” however much pain it took. Having short hair meant you were “like a boy” who wanted to be a tomboy? This is in a community where taking care of the same hair was a task and an expense that was not a priority. The irony.  Our typical African hair was kinky and tough. It needed a lot of TLC which was difficult to get. We would make small knots and use thread to make it just a little bit soft and manageable. This made little difference, coarse is an understatement! To straighten the hair, we would use a tin that had holes percolated at the bottom and use hot charcoal as the ‘blow drier’ and cooking fat as the hair oil. Woo unto you if (or rather when) the smaller hot coals fell into your head!

The school required you to be “neat” hence a need to undo and plait the hair often. It was hard to get someone to make the hair as there were few hair salons but also, there was no budget to pay for such ‘nonessentials. You depended on the goodwill of your mother or older sister or neighbor if they had some basic skills in this. Many times, my mother would get annoyed at this task and threaten to shave your hair. It was a genuine struggle and among many other tasks she had, maintaining hair of her daughters was a tough call. Other times I recall my auntie coming to visit and helping to plait the hair. When you were lucky to have your hair plaited, you endured all the pain! Not a wince or you would get threat of facing a pair of scissors that was always within reach. No pain, no gain.  

We knew that very well, so you sat in between the legs of whoever was plaiting you and tried not to wince and persevered. Other times after roaming around holding the wooden comb and no success my mother would take a pair of scissors and quickly shave off the hair! That was traumatizing! You felt like a piece of you had been cut off… yes actually apiece of you(r hair) had been cut off and in a haphazard style. One desire growing up was being able to make decision about your hair and having long hair.

High school represented another journey into the hair political movement. There were chances that you joined a high school where long hair was not allowed! Even some primary schools have rules as to how your hair can be made including if to have locks or not! I was happy that my alma mater Alliance girls (I went to… lol) allowed long hair. Too date the rule remains, having hair open on Sundays and only up to eight plaited lines. I saw different journeys of hair in high school. Some girls who came with about 1 inch or hair had long hair falling down their shoulders by the time they finished high school. The struggles of maintaining the hair continued as this is in a cold environment so having open hair did not work for all hair types. However, there was more power in decision making as some girls plaited for a fee or free of charge and it was easy to get the basic products for hair when in high school. More so it meant you could make decisions about your hair and cutting was no longer a threat. Come university and the freedom was more! With more pocket money for the first time, I permed my hair! That was an exciting hair moment. I could finally afford the products and could watch my hair take different shapes, curls, and waves.

After campus and into young adulthood, the hair politics changes, it was now more of what I desired more than what I could afford. I maintained my permed hair until I turned 40! I am not sure if it was the 40’s and pregnancy or a combination but or the first time I made a decision to shave my hair to the shortest length I had had since primary school. It was interesting to see my head in short hair. That was also a moment for me, for some reason it was like “breaking lose” and breaking the rules.  Since then, time my hair has seen more phases and styles! I even had traditional locks (aka dreadlocks) for about 8 months that I untied. I then had sister locks since January 2019. Now in July 2020, let us say… I have shortest hair I have ever had since teenage. Ah now in braids 😊.

Hair for women tend to have many ‘political’ connotations. In some cultures, a woman can not shave her hair unless there is mourning. In others, there is relation to spirituality. In some cultures and religions hair is covered. It represents some cultures for example traditional locks. Hair is also economic venture! Some women can not make ‘radical’ decisions without consulting their significant other.  In some cultures, children get hair shaved at a certain age as a ritual.

Well, it is never “just hair” there is a lot of politics on hair.

8 thoughts on “Women, hair politics and choices!

  1. The politics of hair truly linked to how women need to look ‘beautiful’ to fit in a world that has judged her looks more than her existence


    1. As someone with butt length hair I can relate on the struggles I have had on even trimming it to a short size.I can relate to this inner struggles.A well written piece


  2. This is interesting and reading through your phases, I feel normal now.😇. I dont like to keep the same hairstyle for long so I have gone through the phases too. Also, choosing what to do with the hair on my head is so empowering and it is one of those decisions I have full control and power. It takes courage to be in that place though.

    Like many women out there I occasionally question my decisions and I have had friends say, dont do dreads, because we know you will cut them off in a month😇 and I am cool with cutting them off in a day. From this I also learn that we were never taught boundaries and that’s why everything is our “business”


  3. …😊 such a relatable article. While reading it, in my mind the song by India Arie “I’m not my hair” was the background sound track. For black women, hair has been a powerful political statement and will continue being so. My hair sometimes reflects my mood, and being free from the confines of prescribed hair expectations that culminate to hair raising moments is priceless. I remember the hot comb and the wooden comb with dread..thanks for sharing.


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