‘Hair is political.’ I don’t think I truly understood what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie meant by this until I had my head shaved for charity.
There was literally no other reason for my head shaving except that I hadn’t had a new experience in a few weeks. When work suggested someone do it to raise money for charity I jumped at the chance.
Even just a few days afterwards people started staring and making strange comments. I was oblivious until someone came out with it and asked if I was a lesbian. It was then that I realized that my hair was more than just the stuff that grew out of my head- it was part of my identity. By shaving my head but not altering my identity to suit social stereotypes I messed with people’s view on the world, and it angered some people (a woman in a nightclub actually told me it should be illegal to have a shaved head and Doc Martins and not be gay).
It is worse for women than for men. A friend of mine had his head shaved for a part as an extra in a BBC drama a few years ago in order to preserve historical accuracy, and the only comment he ever has on the subject is that it “was the easiest 15 quid I ever earned”. The reason for this is fairly obvious- the reduced judgment on men for their appearance- however it is still confusing that a man with such an openly extreme haircut receives less social backlash than a woman.
However it wasn’t until my recent reading of Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, that I began to fully understand the politics of hair, particularly in relation to black people’s hair. The first time the reader meets the protagonist, Ifemelu, at the start of the novel she is travelling to have her hair braided. Throughout the novel the subject of hair, and how it shapes our identity, is called into question, as Ifemelu struggles to adjust to her new life in America and the specter of race, something she had never considered when she lived in Nigeria.
Her hair is a key part of her identity that Ifemelu decides to reclaim when she realizes that she is being changed by America, as she realizes that she is changing herself to suit the views of others. It is the realization that damaging her hair to achieve an ideal created by someone else was not worth it which causes her epiphany;
At night she struggled to find a comfortable position on her pillow. Two days later there were scabs on her scalp. Three days later, they oozed pus. Curt wanted her to see a doctor and she laughed at him. It would heal, she told him, and it did. Later, after she breezed through the job interview, and the woman shook her hand and said she would be a ‘wonderful fit’ in the company, she wondered if the woman would have felt the same way had she walked into that office wearing her thick, kinky, God-given halo of hair, the Afro. (p204).
So does this mean that hair is definitely the reason people judge us? Is it simply a small, intrinsic part of a wider social judgment or something much more?
Whilst Americanah does not answer these questions- indeed no novel could without being incredibly long and dense- what it does do is change the space hair takes up in literature. Although other novels have touched on the issue of hair and identity, for the most part hair is merely a descriptive device, used in characterisation in the same way that a handbag or a pair of shoes is- to provide an overall view of the character. Stiff hair makes the character uptight; hippies always have dreadlocks; pretentious types have perfectly coiffured up dos, etc. But in Americanah, hair becomes something more; here hair is a political issue, a social problem, a construct to be overcome. The same goes in real life, as emphasised by the people who told me off for being a straight girl with a shaved head, the people who claim that braids and afros are not professional hairstyles and try to have them banned from schools in order to intimidate and control black children. The fact that this has worked its way into mainstream literature shows that we are opening up to the idea that judging someone based on their hair is both wrong and abhorrent, and this can only be a good thing.