Let’s talk about hair. It’s not just a halo to the perceptions of our beauty, it has deep roots in many of the ‘-isms’ that confound women. It creates insecurities, keeps us struggling to reach beauty standards that are unattainable. Hair, along with body image, often become shackles that occupy us for hours either enhancing or trying to change. I’m not averse to that, I do my fair share. But here’s a thought. What if we focused half as much time and effort on our spiritual development and improvement?
I spent all my childhood into early adulthood in Durban, Kwazulu-Natal. My family has a diverse heritage that includes a multi-cultural mix of Zulu, Indian, English and Irish descendants. We’ve been mixed for three or more generations. This brief background is important to understand the diverse range of skin tones as well as hair textures. Our skin-tone palette ranges from the very fair to dark-skinned and our hair textures have a similar range from short, coarse and curly to ‘curtain’ straight.
Rain was something to dread as any sniff of moisture was enough to send my ‘hair home’, even with regular relaxers.
I was gifted with tight curly long hair. I say gifted now, but as a young girl, it felt like a curse. Straight long hair was desirable. Emphasis on long. Living on the coast, humidity and tropical weather made for many unpleasant hair encounters. As the only girl-child with this ‘wayward’ hair, it was chemically straightened to comply. Made it ‘easier’ for my Mum to ‘manage’. Rain was something to dread as any sniff of moisture was enough to send my ‘hair home’, even with regular relaxers.
Dad didn’t approve of the straightening of my hair. So much so, that Mum had to hide it from him. Since most of these hair routines took place at home and not in a salon – lest anyone discovered that it wasn’t your ‘own’ hair – this was done in his absence, discarding all the evidence, the packaging and that horrible stench. My only ‘saving grace’ was that my hair grew, way down my back, which gave it appeal in certain quarters. But for the most part, its original texture and thickness had to be ‘tamed’ by endless products to give it a more ‘palatable’ veneer. When it was blow-waved straight, the positive comments were affirmation of this preference.
I recall one of my prized moments as the only bridesmaid at my cousin Gillian and Anthony’s wedding in Durban mid-Summer. With humidity at its highest, I still ‘forced’ a straight hairstyle for the ceremony and official photoshoot. I could feel the curls materialising like unwanted facial hair. It always made me so uncomfortable and ugly. Sanity prevailed and before the reception, I wet it and let it dry, with lots of product of course, into its natural curly state. Their wedding album tells my before and after story. It provided a good laugh when some pics surfaced on Whatsapp a few months ago.
Spent my most impressionable years never feeling pretty enough.
So, straight hair was always desired. The kind that my baby sister and a few cousins were ‘blessed’ with. They didn’t have to go through hoops to roll, swirl or straighten their hair. I was so envious. It wasn’t scared of rain, moisture or wind; it would remain beautiful regardless. Spent my most impressionable years never feeling pretty enough.
But there was always something about this that didn’t feel right. In my heart, I was a ‘no fuss’ kind of girl; never bothered with make-up and generally preferred a more natural look. The hair thing was the antithesis of this. I guess this is what drove me to rebel in my late teens; I refused any further straightening agents on my hair and let the natural ‘frizz’ grow out. It was after Mum passed away and was the first inkling that my soul needed peace. My almost two-decade-long yearning and concomitant turmoil would begin.
My hair was so intricately linked to my concept of beauty that it took me leaving my closed-community of Durban for the cosmopolitan bright lights of Johannesburg, where my hair, almost overnight, became a crown of glory. Feted as my defining feature. Always described as the ‘tall one with long hair’. That, too, would eventually become my downfall as I grew attached to this ideal of attractiveness.
On the back of this was the end of my thirties and words from my late mother.
On the face of it, accepting my natural hair was a good thing, right? A previous piece What Do We Want? expresses my realisation that there is no good without the bad. My self-worth became entangled in my long hair. How could I still be beautiful without it? On the back of this was the end of my thirties and words from my late mother. “An older woman with long hair is like mutton dressed as lamb”. She believed that once a woman reached a certain age, beyond forty, she had to shorten her hair so as ‘not be something that you’re not’. It’s funny how certain things stay with and influence us.
As you know, the onset of my forties was characterised by pregnancy and motherhood, that time when most women struggle with self-preservation and care. Try it on the ‘other side of life’, when society has told you that you’re way too old. Exhaustion is not just a feeling, it’s a permanent look. My longer hair soon felt like a burden. I felt haggard and constrained by my locks but didn’t have the guts to make the drastic snip.
I voiced this desire often to those around me, my soul knew that it would give me the release I needed, but I was hindered. At first, it was the identity issue; could I could carry short hair? Would I still be considered attractive? Even though Mr T had never indicated any affinity for long hair and actually encouraged me to make the change. The apps that superimpose different hairstyles also didn’t inspire confidence.
When I eventually found the resolve, it became a budgeting issue. I truly appreciate the talent but as a freelance writer with erratic income and our flailing economy, one must think twice. I even tried to change the colour in the hope that it would give me the sparkle that I desperately needed. Failed. A week later, I picked up the phone and made the appointment with Michael, the magician, aka my long-time hairdresser.
Why all the drama and debate?
Some of you are wondering, what’s the big fuss? It’s just hair. Why all the drama and debate? No, my sisters, nothing is ‘just’ in our patriarchal world. In the main, men don’t over-analyse and have their self-worth wrapped up in their hair. Yes, some buy styling products and more visit hair salons these days, there may be anxiety around balding or greying hair, but there’s no billion-dollar industry creating and supporting it.
I was that girl-child whose self-worth was defined by her hair, amongst other physical ‘flaws’; nose too big, legs too skinny. When I look back now, I marvel at the insidious damage at the hands of our corrupt socialisation. Patriarchy, overlaid by our historical inequalities and racial trauma, ensured that our external features were, and still are, at the heart of our success or failure as human beings. Lighter skinned, better-haired, European-like features and thinner body shapes remain the aspiration.
These are the things I wish I had known as a young, vulnerable soul.
I have no interest in sharing for fame. It took a lot of internal wrestling to reconcile my need for privacy with my innate desire to help others. These are the things I wish I had known as a young, vulnerable soul. My writing is solely dedicated to ensuring that young girls, in particular, and women, of any age, understand that power and beauty emanate from within and are independent of any external manifestation.
The soul does not need to be ‘made-up’. It has no anxiety around ageing. All it requires is acceptance that will bring peace, joy and understanding. And here’s the beautiful part. Once we reach that level of acceptance, we learn to treat ourselves with love and kindness and the beauty automatically radiates for all to see. There is nothing more attractive than a confident, self-assured woman. She rises head and shoulders above status, class and everything else that money can buy.
Here’s to your beautiful self!