A little more than a year ago, I published this post about how my and everyone else’s relationships with my hair, my race (which isn’t nearly so simple as “I’m a white person!”), and my apparent social gender radically shifted overnight when I started shaving my hair clean off for a full year and a half. In this piece of writing, I am revisiting the subject. In my original piece of writing, I struggled between a celebration of coming into myself for the first time — being able to really see myself when I looked in the mirror at me with a shaved head for the first time — and a sense of double-consciousness, in which I measured myself against the ignorance and anticipated condemnation or terror of other people. For years, I let this bifurcated self-view simmer while I allowed it to emotionally paralyse me every time I looked at myself in the mirror with hair I never wanted. But there is a lot more going on there than a simple fear of being Concern Trolled everywhere I go and write, no matter if I shaved my head or dreaded my hair. Everything else I didn’t say last year is what this post is about today.
First, I need to acknowledge something fairly critical to this monologue. As a white person, I have fairly persistently felt actively discouraged by other white people from writing about certain subjects, such as hair, that are often highly racialized in the dominant discourse. I still feel actively discouraged now, as I occasionally observe other white people invalidating the power of engaging with their own experiences with these aspects of their day-to-day lives, as if to imply that they aren’t worthy of speaking to it because they aren’t people of colour and “don’t experience racism”. Well, my pale-faced friends, you do experience it at the same intervals and frequency as people of colour do. It’s simply not directed squarely at you, but it is very much systemic, and thus, literally unavoidable. Everyone experiences it, and it is more a matter of who is disproportionately impacted by it (i.e., people of colour). I feel very strongly that the dominant cultural attitude is already premised in part by such a fragile construction of what it is to be white that it is as if white people are told in so many ways that they don’t even have a race/ethnicity. This happens every time a person of colour is told that by being racialized, they don’t measure up. Thus, automatic self-invalidating behaviours on the part of white people are actually contributing to the systemic erasure of our diverse ethnicities. As white people, we are equally driven away from who we are and have always been, as people of colour are, and by the same forces of racism and colonialism. It is in this process of losing our cultural connections and memories of our roots, that we lose ourselves. For white people, it is when we lose ourselves that we get to the point that we can’t recognize ourselves in the experiences of people of colour. These ideas that sound like “I can’t talk about racism because I’m white” or “I can’t engage with my experiences the way people of colour have because I’m white and it’s not the same” are products of systemic racism. The way white people invalidate their own experiences, and especially our diversity, is part of what it truly costs white people to be steeped in racial inequality and colonialism. We live by such a rigid and narrowly defined idea of what it means to be white, but we first need to be indoctrinated into accepting that myth and losing ourselves in it before we are no longer able to see ourselves in people of colour—Othering isn’t natural. And so, as a white person, I am now going to tell you about my hair, as a radical act of self-acceptance and a part of my daily strategy against racism and colonialism.
I have now been re-growing my hair now since the first week of 2012, and the only “hair care” product I have been using since the day I put the foil razor down is a shampoo made entirely from natural products. This is the first time I’ve ever let my hair simply exist in whatever state it naturally occurs as it grows. I’m nearing a year and a half of growth, and it is one of the most radical forms of self-acceptance I’ve ever engaged in. By the end of this Summer, I have plans to pursue another first: having my hair put in dreads. This decision was met early on by a few dissenters. Virtually every single one of them was a white person, and though they were very brutally policing me over my plans for my hair and my very identity before my hair had even reached a quarter inch length, I have come to understand these experiences in a way that I couldn’t wrap my head around then. First, those people really were hurting me. I tried to deny that, but I wouldn’t have gotten angry about it enough to write if it wasn’t hurting me on some level. They hurt my feelings, they made me feel like I was being bullied simply for thinking things they didn’t like to hear coming from a white person—and they made me feel like all of this was happening to me for no reason other than that I’m white, they’re white, and therefore not only are they entitled but are obligated to treat me this way. I’m not talking about people saying “Well I think that would look stupid.” I’m talking about acts of lateral violence and threats of increasing hostility over time as I came closer to my dread dream. I’m also talking about white people using their own white guilt to attempt to manipulate my self-view, and using unnamed/unseen people of colour as mouthpieces for their self-hatred. It is wrong, and there was no question in my mind about that when it was being hurled at me a year and a half ago. I simply didn’t understand why until I stopped letting the fear of increased hostility prevent me from engaging this subject more honestly.
You see, at the root of shaving my head, and even more so at the root of every thing I did to torture my hair and my bank account before that turning point, I now realize I was very profoundly lacking self-acceptance. I didn’t see who I am when I looked in the mirror, because I only saw who I am socially permitted to be. I was not at all secure in who I really am or where I come from, and was very angry, hurt, and terrified about that. These are the kinds of emotions that motivate white people to perpetrate lateral violence against other whites for what they do with their hair. These emotions are at the root of white guilt, too. These emotions also cripple and paralyse white people like myself, who refused to attempt to escape them by hurling them either laterally at white people or horizontally at people of colour. Instead, I became the identity police over myself. I very gradually internalized a complex relationship to my racial identity—and by extension, to my own body. My relationship to my body was already enormously complicated, very early in my lifetime, by internalized transphobia and homophobia. I also turned these forms of bigotry exclusively against myself, as I tried to avoid facing the facts that my body is a mismatch for who I am on the inside, and that I have romantic feelings for people who inhabit bodies like the one I was born with. But while it was somewhat of a paradox, how much easier it was to come forward and be honest about my gender and sexuality when I was finally ready (i.e., when I was finally done trying to kill myself to keep it a secret), coming forward with details about my relationship to my white skin has been a whole other matter entirely. My hair is and always has been the written record of that relationship. So I’m going to share honestly about what that record looked like until I finally shaved it off.
I braided or tied my hair up, back, or out of the way for years. Often it was so tightly tied against my head that it would give me headaches, leave my scalp aching even after I took it out, and sometimes, it would even break the hair. I’d mash my hair down with gel, cover it in maximum hold hair spray, slide two dozen bobby pins in, or at least half as many metal snapping barrettes against my skull. Sometimes I would actually bruise my scalp from those bobby pins. I’d hold my hair down in a white trash trucker hat with my ponytail pulled through the hole in the back. I’d pull the entire length of my hair together and fold it in on itself multiple times, as if to hide it. I’d wrap a series of elastics around it as soon as I got out of a shower, and then jam a set of chopsticks in behind all the elastics. I’d flatten my hair with an iron. I coloured my hair a deep blue-black every three weeks with an ammonia-based hair colour for several consecutive years. I also coloured my hair a multitude of other colours—anything but my natural pigments. I’d blast my hair with hot air, cold air, warm air, or alternating temperatures and a ceramic round brush that couldn’t even take all the heat and product I was using. I’d force all my hair into a claw clip while it was still wet, and crack whatever was sticking out frozen solid when I touched it outside. I’d use three or even four consecutive boxes of drug store bleach on it over a period of three days. I’d hack off my hair using paper-cutting scissors. I’d shave the entire underside of it off with a Bic razor and soap in the shower, occasionally cutting my scalp and giving myself a harsh stripe of razor burn on the back of my neck. I’d put all of my hair in tight rollers and blast it with a hair dryer. I’d put it all in pin curls and blast it. I’d smear foam mousse all over it straight out of the shower and crunch it with my head upside down until all the moisture was wicked away and its texture no longer resembled that of hair. I’d cement my hair down with several kinds of pomade. I’d coat my hair in a half a bottle of conditioner and wrap it in a plastic bag overnight, hoping that when I unwrap it in the morning, it’ll have magically transformed. I’d spray it with anti-frizz serum and literally pray that the stray hairs would just stay the fuck down this time. I’d torture and batter my hair daily, inhaling as much aerosol propellant, fumes, and vapour from the chemicals I was putting on every strand as a professional hair stylist might be exposed to over the course of an entire work day. And at the end of every day, I’d wash it all down the drain.
I now find myself horrified by what I did to the environment every time I washed my hair. Horrified that I maintained this behaviour for ten years before I took the risk of finding a way to accept myself without it. And utterly mortified that I spent ten years torturing and battering a part of myself because I was so afraid of the lateral violence I might face for just being myself. I was a slave to other people’s assessments of my appearance, and also a wage-slave for the express purpose of trying everything in my power to measure up to those unattainable, unwritten and ever-changing yardsticks. I’ve listened to women of colour talking about the same relationship between their hair, their perceptions of other people’s appraisals, and their income. We all can if we take the time. But allow me be the first to acknowledge that while the qualities are the same, the quantities aren’t and the stakes are several magnitudes higher for women of colour. Systemic racism doesn’t impact me as directly or in the same ways as it oppresses racialized women—especially Black and indigenous women, who are fighting a battle several scales more challenging than the one I am faced with as a white person. We all find ourselves struggling against a tide that pushes up against us, against our shared goal of self-acceptance in a world that tells us how we need to look in order to deserve self-acceptance. All women are united in their shared experiences of systemic gender inequality. All people, too, can be united in their experiences of systemic racial inequality. It just takes a lot more work to realize it and see the reasons why.
Not only did I fail to comprehend how I even found myself spending as much money on a week of groceries as I spent on my hair, but I didn’t even know where that was in relation to what was reasonable, rational, possible, acceptable, or in any way better. I had very gradually become completely steeped in a white-dominated beauty industry that, even in my lifetime, still generates profits by systematically erasing differences between people. And it is not as though, by virtue of being a white person, I somehow profited from this industry myself. I spent tens of thousands of dollars on my self-image (especially so towards the end of that ten years), and the most I saw returned for it was a few hundred dollars on irregular paid sex work barely veiled as a modelling assignment. A single image of what it means to be valued for your appearances is advanced year after year by this white-dominated beauty industry. In recent years, it has more frequently promoted itself using racialized women, but it is essentially still the same image. These women of colour, with their hair flattened and even their eye colour frequently changed, are still being made up to look like they are trying to be white. And naturally, this portrait of beauty only becomes more and more unattainable as each of us ages but the faces and hair we measure ourselves against don’t. I wasn’t even a direct consumer of this beauty industry until my senior year of high school, but I still felt the daily impact of it on me, through condemnation and alienation from everyone who did consume it. And for the record, that was just about everybody. If you want to see it, an analogy for the effects of systemic racism on white people is right there.
I finally felt irrationally compelled to figure out how to apply some nice make-up and fake nails for my graduation night, and that was how I entered the white-dominated beauty industry as a consumer for the first time. The pressure created in part by my peers and in part by a domineering, white supremacist, misogynist culture finally broke through my resolve, and I started putting myself deeper into poverty so that I could live up to what everyone felt entitled to from me. The night of my high school graduation, my hair had been cut, flattened, hot-curled, tied up with rubber elastics and several dozens of bobby pins, and then coated in multiple glitter hair sprays. I had never seen anything like it, and actually couldn’t believe it, even when my hyper-femme age-mates were showering me with affections and compliments for the first time in my life. I literally told them to fuck off as soon as their disingenuous compliments were done trickling out of their glossy lips. I went on within months after that to model semi-professionally for ten years, during which time I learned and did just about every thing I could do to torture and batter my hair, short of expensive chemical treatments. I sincerely failed to acknowledge that I was doing all of these painful and inherently violent things to a part of myself.
When I was at last shaving my head a decade after that graduation night, my bifurcated self-view came fully into fruition. I perceived of two mutually extinguishing versions of myself at once in the same reflection. As I pushed the clippers across my scalp, I felt all of the memories and impulses of trying daily to torture my hair into being someone else’s falling away from me. I also felt a deep sense of panic, of how people would experience me when they gazed upon my white, clean-shaven head. I had come out as genderfluid and was about to come out as trans, too, and felt at once that I knew my Right Name really belongs to me. But I also felt an intense dread of being referred to by the wrong name behind my back, by people speaking in daggers about how their perceptions of who I am shifted 180 degrees, simply because of what I did to my hair. I soon found that I was right to fear all of these things. People changed when I shaved my head. Their perceptions of my social gender didn’t change, but their ideas of entitlement over my body did. I was still socially read as a woman, but except for an infrequent few who fetishized women with shaved heads, I was socially read as a woman who had lost her sex and all worth or interest as a prospective sexual partner. It was the polar opposite of what women of colour experience from a very early age. The way I experienced the change in other people’s attitudes towards me was also a paradoxical place of being simultaneously stereotyped as a sex-less white woman and a trans person who is sexually exotic. No one saw me as a person before I started shaving my head. It just became dramatically more obvious to me after the fact that even I didn’t think of myself as fully a person before. And it took me the entire first year to find that I was wrong to allow my fear of all of these things stop me from accepting myself and being who I am.
When I read stories about someone like bell hooks having her hair ironed flat every week by her immediate relations, it stirs up some deep emotions within me, and I know it has to do with these experiences. But it also has to do with a critical distinction between her experience and mine: while she reflects on the role of internalized racism for the very reason her hair was being flattened, she also reflects on the role this activity played in nurturing inter-generational bonds between the women in her family. When I failed to consume the same manufactured white beauty standards that bell hooks had to try so hard to live up to, I also failed to nurture the same inter-generational bonds with my two sisters and my mother as bell hooks reflects upon in her writing about having her hair straightened. I know her writing is about internalized racism, but I see a reflection of myself in there too. The beauty industry that cost her pride in Blackness for so many years also cost me pride in myself as a white person with a unique ethnic make-up and cultural heritage.
We are all being robbed. Some of us simply start off with a little more to lose. Or in my case, the mere illusion of more, when in actual fact, so very much has already been taken, generations ago. One year after my original piece of writing, and nearing a year and a half of new growth without constantly battering and abusing it, I am looking at my hair in its natural state as an act of decolonizing my body. Whoever you are, if you’re reading this and you understand what I’ve said here, I encourage you to do the same.