As a woman, you are told that your beauty lies within your hair. Society has pressured us into believing that having long hair is the ultimate symbol of femininity and beauty. They have conditioned us and pressured us into believing that femininity is what every woman should strive for. They say that your hair is a highly communicative tool that can send messages of health, sexuality, religiosity, and power. Hair is an aspect of a woman's identity, and losing that aspect of yourself can be just as fatal as losing all of your limbs or all of your teeth. It can completely alter how society views you and values you. You are told that if you cut your hair, you lose a part of you. You then will be considered a “lesbian” or a “tomboy,” as if those labels are considered evil.
As a black woman, however, you are especially told that your hair is the focal point of you. From being in an afro that sits on your head like a crown to being in hundreds of braids that fall down to your hips. It is not just a symbol of health and sexuality, but it is a sacred symbol of survival, resistance, and celebration. This, however, was something that I did not understand when I was a little girl.
In early elementary school, I was too young to understand the importance of my hair. My mother would always tell me how beautiful my hair was and would always style my hair whether it was puffed out as an afro, tied up into two giant puffs, or twisted up in braids with a colorful array of clips and barrettes.
I, on the other hand, could not stand it. I absolutely dreaded when my mother would style my hair. I was, and still am today, extremely tender headed, and there never was a time where I didn’t cry when my mom combed my hair. It was non stop crying, pouting, and screaming from me, and I just wanted it to end.
I never really felt that I had a connection with my hair in my early years. After all, almost all of the kids in my grade didn’t have hair like mine. If I can recall correctly, I was one of the only few black kids in my classes. Sometimes, I was the only one. All of the pretty girls had long, blonde and brunette hair, and they never seemed to have any problems with their hair at all.
None of them knew what it was like to never have a comb glide smoothly through their hair. None of them understood why I couldn’t get my hair wet at the pool because then it would result in me having to go through hell having my mom wash and style my hair for me. None of them knew what it was like to never get attention from the boys at school because all of the little white boys never went for the little black girls. Everyone else had it easy. I did not. Everyone else’s hair fell to their shoulders, mine did not.
It wasn’t until I was in about fourth grade when my mother made the decision to relax my hair. To preface, a relaxer, similar to a perm, is used to transform tightly coiled hair into smooth straight hair. My mom’s hair was also relaxed like mine, and thus, we had an uncanny resemblance to each other. This decision to chemically alter my hair stuck with me for almost an entire decade. But then my hair finally fell like the other girls did, and it flowed like the other girls did, and I was finally able to comb my hair like the other girls did without it hurting me. My confidence grew knowing the fact that I felt like I finally looked like the rest of my peers.
When middle school rolled around, so did a lot of social changes. It was the start of wearing makeup, shopping for “big girl” clothes, and of course, talking about boys. As a middle schooler, I’ll admit that I didn’t care a lot about these things, but I did watch as a few of my friends got into short lived relationships and talked about their class crushes. Especially my best friend, Valerie, who was the pretty blonde girl that everyone liked. She and I did everything together, and I always wanted to be like her for how popular she was, even though she didn’t like to admit that she was. I wanted to have as many friends as her, but I wasn’t too worried about not having a boyfriend at this point in time. I always thought to myself that I had until high school for my time to shine.
Then, when high school came around, it became almost vital to care about the way you dressed and to care about being in a relationship. As time passed, more and more of my friends got into relationships and it seemed like there was never a time when they weren’t talking to another person or being hit on by someone. The same, of course, went for all my other peers, and I felt like I was “falling behind” in life.
I desperately wanted to fit in, and I still idolized my best friend. She helped me shop for clothes at times and was always a great help at letting me know which clothes were in style and which clothes would look good on me. When she wasn’t there to help me shop, however, I was lost.
Was I too picky? Were the clothes just ugly? Why am I struggling to shop for clothes, when Valerie can shop for them just fine? Due to the pressure, I tended to stick with clothes that were safe for me like tank tops and t-shirts, and I rarely ventured elsewhere.
As for my hair, I made the ultimate decision to cut myself bangs during my sophomore year. This was the first “major” decision I made with my hair since I got it permed back in fourth grade. I had always been insecure about the size of my forehead since middle school, and getting bangs was the perfect solution to my problem. Since I cared too much about how I dressed in high school, this translated into me caring too much about my hair as well.
Now let’s talk about how to take care of your hair when you sleep as a black person. If you have naturally coily hair, no matter if it’s relaxed or not, you must wrap your hair in a satin scarf, bonnet, etc. when you go to sleep so it turns out right in the morning. If my hair didn’t look exactly how I wanted it to look, I would straighten the messed up part with a flat iron. It is, of course, bad to apply too much heat to your hair, and I was already applying a lot of heat by blow drying and straightening it with a flat iron every week after I washed it. And to add the cherry on top, the chemicals from the relaxer added to the damage that my hair had endured.
Looking back on how I stressed over what clothes to wear and how my hair looked, I realized that I wasn’t being my true self. I wasn’t wearing these clothes for myself, I was wearing these clothes because other people said that they were okay to wear. Because that was what you had to wear to get boys to like you. I acted like I liked what I was wearing. I had never thought of changing my hair in a dramatic way because I thought it would be too difficult to take care of it, and I stressed too much about how I would be perceived with a different hair style. I wanted to fit in and have a big friend group, and I wanted to be noticed by boys and finally have a boyfriend, but none of that ever happened. But did I ever want all of that to happen in the first place?
No, I did not. The pressure from society forced me into being a person that I did not know. I wanted a big friend group because I wanted to be posted on other peoples’ social media instead of just on my best friend’s; but in reality, I already had an amazing small group of friends that were right in front of me. I said that I wanted a boyfriend because all of my friends had boyfriends, and I thought that I was supposed to marry a man for the rest of my life. However, it had always been in the back of my head since middle school that I wanted to kiss a girl, but I shunned those feelings thinking that it was just a phase.
It wasn’t, and I kept those feelings that I had about women to myself because who would believe that a girl who dresses like a girl and has long hair would be convincing enough to be a lesbian?
The more I think about it, the more I realize how much of a hindrance my hair had on me finding my true self. Once I graduated high school, however, my life began to change for the better.
Fast forward to the middle of my freshman year in college when the pandemic hit. When the entire world shut down and everyone was left alone to their thoughts. Since all non-essential stores had been shut down, this meant that I couldn’t get my hair touched up at the hair salon.
My new growth started to bud, and I went almost two months without getting my hair touched up when I was supposed to get it done every six weeks. And just like how I felt in early elementary school, I started to dread taking care of my hair.
Whenever I combed my hair, all I could think about was how much new growth had been piling up at the base of my head. But this time, I wasn’t upset about my new growth, I was upset at the rest of my hair.
Alone in my thoughts, I pondered the idea of getting rid of the hair that I had once strived to maintain its good appearance. But how could I do that? Getting rid of my hair would mean getting rid of my bangs, and how could I ever show the world one of my biggest insecurities? Not to mention the fact that I would be perceived as being too masculine with short hair—a lesbian even. Although, I had accepted the fact that I liked women, the word still terrified me, and it still took me a while to accept the fact that I did not like men and that I wasn’t bisexual.
As I looked in the mirror with all of my hair tucked neatly inside of a beanie that I had, I realized that I needed a change after almost ten years of having virtually the exact same hair style.
Then on May 14th, 2020, I made the daring decision to chop off all of my hair.
Before I did it, I thought to myself that I would lose a part of my identity, but it actually did the opposite. My fear of not looking feminine enough had dissipated. I finally felt free with how I wanted to dress. Shopping for clothes became a million times easier, and if I compare my wardrobe from my senior year of high school to now, it is almost completely different.
I also finally stopped dreading taking care of my hair. Originally with my relaxed hair, it took me about a total of two hours to wash my hair with shampoo and conditioner, have the conditioner sit for twenty minutes, rinse my hair, apply product, blowdry my hair so that it was completely dry, and flat iron it. Compared to now, all I have to do is scrub shampoo and conditioner into my hair, rinse it out, apply product, and twist my hair which takes less than half the time. My hair has also been the healthiest it’s ever been due to the fact that I don’t put chemicals in it and apply heat to it anymore.
Cutting my hair has also made me finally feel proud being a queer black woman. If you were to ask me a decade ago if I loved being a black woman, you probably wouldn’t have gotten a clear answer from me. But if you were to ask me now, you would hear a confident “yes.” As for my sexuality, I absolutely love being perceived as a queer woman dressing in masculine and androgynous clothing, and I don’t have a fear of the word “lesbian” anymore. Most importantly, my confidence has been the highest it's ever been in my life.
If I had never made the daring decision to cut my hair, I think it would have taken me a lot longer to learn how to accept myself and love myself for who I am. We must fight against the social norms that have been used to define our worth. We must tell all women, especially young girls, that it is okay to not look like everyone else because their skin tone and hair texture are different from the other girls. We must tell them that having shorter hair does not have to dictate their sexual orientation. We must tell them that it is okay to not want to “dress girly.” We must let them know that society’s definition of femininity is not what everyone else has to follow. We must dare to be different.
Now the question that lies here is: “What exactly does it mean to be feminine?”
Being feminine does not just have to apply to your looks or how you act. To me, femininity comes from being confident in being a woman and from loving womanhood. It comes from how you feel on the inside and not how you are perceived as on the outside. It is about embracing who you are and not what society wants you to be. There is no clear definition on what it means to be feminine which is what makes the definition of it absolutely beautiful.
About The Author:
Kennedy is a queer, African-American student at UNLV who is pursuing a B.A. in Psychology and plans on going into the field of marketing after graduation. She was born and raised in Las Vegas and has a dream of traveling the world one day. She is usually found playing video games, drawing, online shopping, or posing cute for the camera. They also have a love for bucket hats and have a plethora of fancy earrings to wear for each day of the week.