When I decided to do my “Big Chop,” I found it almost poetic that it happened on April Fool’s Day. The joke was on everybody else.
You see, my hair has always been very important to other people, almost integral to the way that I’ve been received throughout my life. I am, for all intents and purposes, the average black girl. Those who take value in so-called ‘exotic’ features, will find nothing of note in me.
I’ve always had a head full of hair. Not especially long. But thick. Healthy. Quick-growing. The color of ink. It’s been currency with men; insurance for human resources; a point of pride for my parents. The only reason why anyone has ever asked me to clarify my ethnicity, and the crux of the “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” comments I received as a kid.
On April 1, 2012, I decided my hair was also mine.
I would think this to be a universal experience for black women. There is always it seems to be someone who, without invitation, brazenly speaks against the idea of a black woman doing something to alter our own appearance. It happens everywhere – in living rooms with boyfriends, in employee handbooks, at long distance on the phone with parents – there are consistent messages about what black bodies, black women, in particular – are supposed to look like.
Appearance is a tool of communication. How we dress, how we present ourselves to the world, is our means to tell a story about who we are. When outsiders impose their views in what should otherwise be a one-way conversation, it threatens individual agency.
There has been much chatter about the physical appearance of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s daughter, Willow. Barely into her pre-teens, Willow has had more hair colors and more platform shoes than I care to count for the sake of this post. Her style harkens back to the 1980s New York Club Kids scene, even though she’s a child of the millennium herself. Last week, Willow showed off her tongue ring, and the acceptability police hurled its ugliness at the Smith family in protest.
Would I give my 11-year-old that much free reign? Probably not. Am I raising Willow Smith? Not even. Is body snarking an 11-year-old a pretty pathetic undertaking for grown adult? Absolutely.
Just recently, I read that Smith said that Willow “has got to have command of her body.” It was a powerful statement, especially coming from a father about his very young, still-developing daughter. What a gift to give. How different would any of us be if we’d been given a full change to be ourselves as we saw fit?
Upon reading this quote, I instantly made me reflect on the policing my own family has done (even though my adulthood) about my decisions to not wear any jewelry on Sundays, my occasional affection towards eyeliner, and my beloved Ruby Woo lipstick. With my new short hair, the need for earrings was all the more self-evident in their minds. “What if we have company?” my mom said to me last week, looking over my very-comfortable ensemble of denim shorts, t-shirt, and Converse.
“Then you would’ve had company, and I would’ve been comfortable,” I retorted with a smile. My dad, the man who taught me what a curtsy was, added, “You should put some earrings on. But I love you.”
I left the house thinking how young girls daydream about their future daughters, creating expectations for human beings that don’t exist.
I thought about how deeply woven acceptability politics are in the way that black folks are reared as children, and how readily parents, grandparents and aunties will give unsolicited opinions about some mundane facet of a young woman’s life. The intentions, I’m sure, are pure. For some, they extend from a history of proving one’s worth to others. For others, a good-looking child is evidence of a job well done. In my house, elders have always told us to “look like you have some home training.” But those same politics can create a battleground for contempt, particularly between mothers and daughters.
And for complete strangers. A friend told me last week about how she heard two older women criticizing a person neither of them knew for her natural hair choices, with the woman within earshot. Go to any natural hair blog and Solange, who, depending on who you ask, is either the patron saint of the Big Chop or the embodiment of why protective styling is so important, gets evaluated with frightening levels of scrutiny by people she will never meet.
“My hair is not very important to me, so I don’t encourage it to be important to you either,” she tweeted.
It would be my recommendation that we take a few steps back and evaluate where our true merit lies. There is room for individuality in the midst of being acceptable. While our outsides do inform the world, they don’t define within. As women, our true battle is not in the dressing rooms with one another, but in the courtrooms, classrooms, and boardrooms with the real world.
How have you taken control over your appearance? Have you ever had people disapprove of your look and if so how did you respond?
Maya K. Francis is a writer and editor. Her biting and insightful commentary on pop culture, race, politics, gender, and sexuality has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and digital publications including The Root, XXL, Clutch, Hello Beautiful, and 215 Magazine. For more, visit her blog or follow her on Twitter.