UNTANGLING the racial politics of hair has preoccupied casual observers and social analysts for centuries.
Cutting-edge anthropological analyses suggest contemporary hair styling is about “fashioning futures” since African identities are “works in progress that refuse to be impoverished by dichotomies”.
However, hair is also about the past and specifically cultural heritage. It is both tangible and intangible, a palpable thing that has long-term symbolic value. As a changeable part of the human body, hair has long been modified for aesthetic and other ends.
But skewed power structures entrenched by racism and sexism have meant women, and particularly women of colour, have borne the brunt of stereotyping and prejudice.
Even so hair reveals the diversity of human history and cultural creativity. The politics of hair has deep roots. Ritually cleansing themselves, ancient Egyptian priests would shave their bodies and pluck their eyebrows every other day.
In ancient Ghana, historical hair grooming involving hair combs and pins revealed leadership and status, while in 19th century Madagascar the Tsimihety did not cut their hair, presenting their tresses as a sign of their independence. American slave traders, on the other hand, shaved their captives' heads supposedly to cleanse them.
For many Africans, that act further stripped them of their dignity and symbolised cultural death.
In Zanzibar and Mauritius the short hair of African descendants was derisively described as pepper corns or sugar, major crops of the slave colonies. In South Africa, racist references to kort kop (short head) links short hair with inferior intelligence.
The association of short hair with deficiency even makes it into song jou hare kan nie pom-pom nie (your hair cannot be tied in a bun).
But hairstyles are acquiring new meaning. In Madagascar, women wear “braids of love” to signal (from afar) a woman’s sole interest in marriage.
At marriage, a woman will ask her sister-in-law to braid her hair to symbolise the strengthening of the marital bond between the families.
Many Africans living in the US today (and many African South Africans) wear their hair in dreadlocks to publicly validate the natural texture of their hair and symbolise a return to roots. Women everywhere are relinquishing “white crack” – chemical relaxers. As a black woman who has done some interesting things to her own hair, I would say that hair heritage is profoundly gendered. It reflects not only racism, but the impact of patriarchy in society. Many rituals of womanly beauty, including hair styling, involve making a woman look younger.
Fulfilling a patriarchal desire for youthfulness, women have endured the challenge of acquiring longer hair. Anyone who has had their hair braided in singles or cornrows knows about waiting for the “tightness” to subside and the fact that the pain might drive you to find a toothpick to loosen those unhappy baby hairs.
Clearly then, there is more to hair politics than hair straightening. What about the association of hairlessness with femininity? Women of all colours routinely request a “Brazilian” or a “Hollywood”, rituals of intimate depilation and purification. Billions subject themselves to plucking, waxing, tinting, electrolysis, crimping and perming.
Interestingly, the rise of manscaping suggests women are not alone in this hair styling frenzy. Predictably, immigration and globalisation are diversifying hair heritages.
Given the rapid pace and intensity of globalisation, global trends may overcome local prejudices. The rise of metrosexual masculinity might well encourage more ritualistic waxing of backs and other body parts. Until then, things remain unequal.
● Boswell is professor of Anthropology and Executive Dean of Arts at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
This piece first appeared in The Conversation