Don’t touch my hair. My hair is ground zero in a cultural war that insists on perfect bodies, perfect hair, a culture war that privileges the straight and the white and the undamaged. The docile. The normal.
But my hair is not docile or straight.
My hair falls in wild, big curls. Not the kind you see on TV commercials. No, my friend. Those are generally curls that someone spent hours perfecting–glossy, symmetrical, and fake. My curls are natural, which means frizz and flyaways and wishing the rest of my hair would look like that one perfect curl in front.
When I was young, my mother tried to tame my curls, to straighten them with a round brush and a hair dryer and sheer will power. She’d pull half (or all) of it back and pin it up with a hair-bow bigger than my head, likely one made by my grandmother. My hair was never entirely smooth though, and if it was humid outside—-which is basically always in lower-Mississippi where I grew up—-my hair turned into a great big frizz ball. “Medusa,” a boy in my elementary class called me.
I was in the sixth grade when my brother decided to get married. I was to be a junior bridesmaid, and my mom took me to a local hairstylist. She cut my hair and coaxed the big natural curls out into the open. I looked at myself in a mirror, and I didn’t think that was my hair. It couldn’t be my hair, that long and wild and beautiful mess. It was, though.
In the seventh grade, during what can only be construed as a moment of temporary insanity, I cut my hair. I don’t mean a little bit cut—I mean that my hair, which had been past my shoulders, was suddenly so short that it just grazed the tops of my ears.
I punched the only boy I’ve ever punched that year. It was the day of try-outs for our junior high dance team, and I was very nervous. I’d never tried out for anything before, and all my friends were trying out, too. I’d fixed my short hair so that it was pulled away from my face, as per tryout instructions. In science class, the boy behind me whispered “who’d you let mess up your hair.” I turned around and punched him in the stomach, surprising everyone in class, including myself.
In high school, one of the basketball coaches was my health teachers. He was young and handsome, but there was something I didn’t like about him. One day, he asked me if I “had a little sister” in me, if that was why my hair was so curly. It was the first time, but not the last, that people would ask about my race, assuming that my curls were something that fit into categorical boxes of White and Other. Even now, when it happens it surprises me as I think through the invasive nature of the question and all of its implications.
I dyed my hair for the first time when I was 17, choosing bright highlights. As a college student, I colored my hair most every natural color, and several unnatural ones, too. I learned for the first time how to
straighten my hair without the frizziness. Straightening irons, I discovered, were the key. Good ones. And my straight hair got attention, turned heads that were accustomed to large curls framing my face. Reactions tended (and still do) to vacillate between “oh, why did you straighten it” from the self-professed curl admirerers, those who would like to have curls themselves, to “you should always wear it like this.” But at least no one touched it. When my hair is curly, people can’t resist touching it. Close friends, mere acquaintances, and even strangers have, at various points in my life, just reached over, pulled one my curls so that it stretches to its full, straightened length, and then let it go, all for the pleasure of watching it spring back into a curl.
As I’ve gotten older, moving out of college and into graduate school and now a married woman in her 30s, fewer people have reached out for those strands. A 30 year old woman commands more respect than a 10 year old girl. She has more control over her body, at least the parts of it that aren’t being legislated.
And she can say, loudly “Don’t touch my hair.”