It has occurred to me that although the scientific community makes ground-breaking developments in understanding the details about medicine, atoms, outer space, etc. there seems to be a slight lack of acceptance and credibility around the social sciences. Therefore, I thought it would be fitting for this article to delve into an atypical societal issue that is significant nonetheless. I am interested in mental health illnesses, however recently I’ve explored a rather unusual factor, that I believe may affect this: Hair. Initially, this idea may sound illogical – how can hair affect your emotional wellbeing? Over the last two months I have attempted to gain insight to this uncommon query through autoethnographic research and my findings were shocking.
Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore their personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political and social meanings. I was triggered to carry out this form of research spontaneously which then turned into a two-month project when I began wearing a full afro to school. My hair was described as “wild” and something that needed to be “tamed” by teachers and pupils alike. This terminology to describe something that naturally grows out of your head that eerily resembles animalistic jargon is dehumanising and provoked me to evaluate the language we use when we describe afro textured hair. Why were these words used? My afro being described pejoratively as “rebellious” and “unruly” on numerous occasions led me to ponder over the idea that racialised hair styles/texture hold weight and meaning within society and most probably can impact upon one’s self-esteem and mental wellbeing if these discreet messages about the worth of your natural self are internalised.
During my autoethnographic research I also found that many people (often people that I didn’t know) upon seeing my hair felt the need/right to touch it, several times a day. “It’s just hair!” I was told when expressing my discomfort in these situations. At first glance this may seem an innocent display of curiosity; however I wonder are other people’s hair forcefully touched several times a day by strangers in the corridors? If not, why is there a variety in attitude towards respect of each other’s personal space? I also wonder if everyone would be told “it’s just hair” to legitimise this behaviour.
I believe that the media has a great role in the acquisition and maintenance of racial stereotypes from hair. Despite, gradual increasing representation of afro-textured hair in the media it is apparent to me by the persistent stares, overt language of disapproval “she needs to sort her hair out” and occasional nods of support over the course of this research that it may be becoming cool or trendy but certainly not seen as aspirational. Representation within the media can sometimes seem to come with stipulations of negativity as shown by the iconoclastic political cartoon depicting the Obama family as radical. As well as the outward harmful religious stereotypes that come with this picture, I also acknowledge and find interest in the way that in attempts to discredit the [former] first lady they depicted her with an afro. With excruciatingly minor representation of people that look like you within the media, when things like this are published, I deliberated again how is this affecting those that look like this? As media partially reflects the attitudes of people, this gives an insight into societal views of afro-textured hair. Moreover, using these messages of a lack of respectability attached with afro textured hair, I considered the likelihood of the Obama’s success in winning over the hearts of the general public if Michelle Obama herself had an afro.
One thing I’ve learned from this research is that racism, prejudice and stereotyping don’t always take the form of skin colour vs skin colour – it’s much subtler and nuanced than that. I think that talking and delving into the concept of afro hair as a political statement allows light to be shed on that fact that hair types are closely linked to racialised expectations. Why I describe my hair as a political statement is because it has the ability to mean something to people and holds connotations – it shouldn’t, but it does. It is apparent from the multitude of reactions – untiring stares, shocked expressions, nods of approval from some, unprovoked sharing of people’s own experiences of racism to me or explicit language of criticism “it just doesn’t look sophisticated”, that it is not “just hair” as it initially may seem. Ultimately, I aim for a society where what’s under my hair and in my head matters most.
Guest writer 17 year-old Nicolette Porter wrote this article about the politics of afro hair for her school after carrying out her own self-initiated social experiment.