I AM (not) MY HAIR: A Social Psychology Experiment

These days, it seems people are becoming a lot more enlightened and presumably conscious of their actions and biases against others in the society.

I’ll explain.

We aren’t new to the word, “WOKE” which according to dear Wikipedia, is “a political term of African American origin that refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice”.

On the back of this “Stay Woke/ Enlightened” movement, the subject of diversity in hair textures has been brought under the microscope once again like in the 60s and 70s. We hear people talk about being called names, marginalised or prejudiced based on the texture of their hair. We’ve also heard creatives — poets, visual artists and musicians alike, speak up on this issue of hair. I mean, in Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Humble’ music video, he illustrated this by featuring a light-skinned African-American woman with half of her hair straightened and the other half left in a cute mass of puffy curly hair.

I totally understand these actions and the fact that the end goal of all this is to make the African-American woman feel comfortable in her skin, to see her hair as an extension of herself as opposed to being a reflection of the biases in society in which she finds herself. All fair and great!

But… what if the issue of race in this context is just scraping the surface? What happens when we extrapolate this issue of hair and apply it in the context of an African country (Nigeria) where almost 99.9% of the indigenous population is black?

I recall having a seriously heated argument with my mother in November 2014 just because I‘d decided to keep my hair low cut and natural which she thought wasn’t for a young girl who’s still yet to find a husband. So, I proposed saving up for weaves to cover my natural hair, which led to a different argument entirely. Trust me, it wasn’t pretty!

I’m also very aware of the look my father gives me when I don’t have my hair in braids or hair extensions. I laugh about it when I tell my close friends that whenever I have my hair in it’s natural form, he looks at me like the bourgeoisie would look at commoners — like they aren’t worthy.

This drove me to allow my hair grow out just so I could wear braids and avoid being looked at like a dumpster diver by my folks. I decided to read up on hair movements of the 60s — 70s and made up my mind to dress how I want to dress, when I want to do so while learning to love my hair more than the people around me do. In my mind, that was going to be my way of standing up to them and society. Luckily for me, that was the period when the natural hair trend was on the rise and I was going to ride this wave until I learned to love my hair for what it is - an extension of me.

Fast forward to present day, after giving in to pressure to relax my hair on several occasions, I finally put my foot down and I love my kinky coils so much that I wear it everywhere. It also seems like the “natural” bug is here to stay; it seems like the men have even caught on that they have embraced facial hair and have seen to the rise of the Beard Gang. The un-plucked brow is the “in-thing”. Minimal to zero makeup has become a bragging right on social media. Some African and African Americans have chosen to keep their hair in dreadlocks as a symbol of their consciousness. I even have people telling me how much they love that I wear my natural hair with pride. By people, I mean Nigerians. Oh by the way, I’ve always wondered why choosing to be the way you were created should be treated like an alien phenomenon.

I recall one beautiful day in October 2017, I brushed on a sliver of powder, my signature feline eyeliner, a dark brown lipstick and my untamed afro to work. I happened to get into a conversation with my former colleague that day and somewhere along the line, he decided to give his two cents on my look. He mentioned that he felt my makeup was “too much” but that he loved how I kept my hair because he happens to “love women who are natural”, he added that I should do the same. I nodded in disbelief at the fact that this man thought he could tell me how to dress or what I should look like. Anyway, I told him I’d heard him but I love wearing makeup and that’s not going to change, besides, I also care about my skin not to use a heavy hand when applying or wearing it frequently. In hindsight, I really shouldn’t have even dignified his comment with a response. I had nothing to explain.

All of this madness just wasn’t making sense. An experiment needed to be conducted.

You see, there’s an increase in the number of young women in Nigeria who choose to bleach their skin and the main reason I’ve been told is that a lighter complexion tends to attract the opposite sex. I had also noticed that men turn to almost break their necks to see a woman who walks into a room with European-type hair in comparison to one who wears her kinky coils naturally. So much so that I’d seen so many ladies who made the decision I’d made years before — to keep my natural hair and cover it with a wig or weave — even though it wasn’t necessarily because of the dirty looks from their fathers, like it was for me. It was because of societal pressure — mostly pressure to find a mate, followed by pressure to supposedly look “clean, prim and presentable”.

I was determined to prove these theories for myself.

I wore my natural hair out as usual, to work, bars and restaurants and well, I can tell you that no necks were broken. A dark-skinned, chubby but somewhat curvy igbo girl of not-so tall height with an afro hair might turn a few heads but will definitely not mildly fracture any necks. My control experiment was established.

Following some introspection on turning 25, I decided to put more effort into my appearance and actually care what I look like. Thus, I decided to test my hypothesis by treating myself to a lovely wig. Hopefully, that would set me off in the right direction.

I happened to be late for a work training, so, I quickly wore my wig, slapped on mascara and some lipstick. On getting to the venue, guess who came running to me with a mouth filled with praise and eyes lit with lust? It was the same young man with the preference for ladies with natural hair. All I could do was laugh — inside obviously.

Months later, by July 2018, I’d forgotten my mission to confirm my hypothesis as a theory. However, I was starting to feel myself slide back into depression because I felt like I was just merely existing instead of actually living. For some reason, I decided to splurge and damn the consequences on my bank account balance. Yes, I splurged on something— HAIR. I received my shipment on a Wednesday but I just couldn’t wait to feel something else that wasn’t sadness. That’s the point of retail therapy right?

As soon as I wore my new wig, I actually felt happy momentarily. I danced with it, combed and straightened it for another 30 minutes before I decided it was enough and went to bed. My mission was back on.

I got to work with the same amount of makeup I’d wear on an average day, put on my usual clothes — one of which I was told makes me look older than I am in a verbal feedback from a lovely colleague of mine. Guess what?! Necks were fractured! In the last five days, I’ve received more compliments on my outfits, hair and general look than I have in months both at work and on the street. Bear in mind that nothing else changed, just my hair. I all of a sudden look “sophisticated”.

I guess I was right. Despite our increasing “Woke-ness”, beneath it all, could it be that we are still latching on to the belief that we are more acceptable if we have European-like features. Isn’t that the reason why the little Nigerian girl who was named the most beautiful in the world had on a wig with a texture that’s literally far stretched from our beautiful coils?

As much as we want to blame this on someone else, maybe it’s time for us to accept that the issues we face, though, consequences of colonial rule and slavery, have gotten to this level because they have been perpetuated by us.

It’s a lot like being taught something that is detrimental to the self as a child, having it drummed into our ear drums as teenagers, discovering the truth in our thirties but choosing to practice the “truth” without unlearning what we were previously taught. This inadvertently leads to us subconsciously displaying behaviours from the old dogma.

Agreed, the teacher should be assigned much blame for teaching us the wrong principles but we should also share in the blame because we, by all means, need to be held accountable for feeding the beast despite being “Woke”.

Finally, did you notice that there’s one group of people that all of these events and actions are centred around? Men. More specifically, the constant need for affirmation from men. That’s a can of worms which I am not ready to open today.

I’ll leave you with the words of Indie Arie in her 2006 hit song titled ‘I am not my hair’,

Good hair means curls and waves (no)
Bad hair means you look like a slave (no)
At the turn of the century
It’s time for us to redefine who we be

I am not my hair….. or Am I?

Product Manager at Alta Labs. Budding UI/UX Designer. Aspiring Afrominimalist. I feel as I exist. I write as it transpires. I learn as I experience.

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