MR Round Table: Women and Our Hair

From the moment we grow it, we’re in a relationship with it. Guests Jessica Dickerson and Chanel Parks from The Huffington Post joined us to discuss the female life long affair.


Leandra Medine: I think a good starting question is, what is your relationship with your hair like?

Jessica Dickerson, Associate Black Voices Editor, The Huffington Post: My hair has been a journey. I went from long curly natural hair, to braids, to straighteners, to relaxers. I’ve completely cut it off twice, and now I have an Afro. It probably took about 18 years of my life to get there. I think all of that was completely attached to my identity crisis, which had to do with growing up bi-racial and not understanding where I fit in and what I wanted to look like. My hair evolved with my understanding of myself as that happened.

LM: Where are you now?

JD: Now I’m going to let my hair do whatever it wants to do.

LM: Does that sort of mirror how you feel about your identity?

JD: Yeah. I think that I’m comfortable with how I look, and people are going to see me however they want to. Even if I don’t know exactly who I am, people are going to decide for themselves who I am.

I let my hair do its own thing. I’m proud of it now. I’m proud of the statement it makes. It’s big and kind of unruly, I guess.

LM: Do you feel like when you were straightening it you were trying to sublimate anything?

JD: Definitely. I wanted to fit in. I wanted straight hair because no one else had a giant Afro. It also came down to where I grew up. I did not go to a school with predominantly black women with Afros. I was the only kid with hair like mine and I wanted to fit in. I also danced ballet for seven years – that’s another thing. I was pressured to not have the hair that I did. There’s also pressure outside of school about getting jobs. People sometimes see Afros as unprofessional, which is unfortunate.

Chanel Parks, Associate Style Editor, The Huffington Post: I have a similar story. I grew up in a predominately white neighborhood and went to a predominately white school, and I always wanted to flip my hair, and wondered why my hair wasn’t like the other girls at school.

I’ve had relaxers, I’ve dyed it, it’s fallen out and I’ve shaved it off. I just got it cut again two months ago. I think my “breaking point” came because I was sick of people asking me questions every time I changed my hair. I would have a different hairstyle and people would be like, “How did you do that?” I never asked other woman how they got their haircuts.

I went natural in college, so I’ve been natural for four years now. I think for me, that symbolizes finally being able to take care of myself and my own hair the way I want to take care of it. When I was relaxing it, I wasn’t taking care of it at all; it would fall out all of the time.

I think I’m in a good place with my hair now. It looks pretty cool and I’m into it. People still ask me questions but I just reply with, “Oh you know, I just styled it.”

LM: I was having a conversation with someone recently about how I feel about my hair. Instead of respecting my head and body, I’m favoring a very “normal” version of beautiful by straightening it, instead of letting my hair do what it does naturally. But that still doesn’t negate the fact that when I let my hair dry naturally, I lose 50% of my confidence. That’s a very honest proclamation I don’t think I’ve ever admitted for the purpose of Man Repeller.

CP: I can say that too. I can say that I totally feel better about my hair now, but even within the natural hair community, I look at someone like Solange and I think man, My hair is never going to look like that.

JD: Even when you’re looking at a diverse range of models or actresses, there’s still only a handful of types of beauty represented. It’s hard to not see someone who looks like you, and then still be able to appreciate your own beauty.

LM: And it totally comes down to adjusting your own matter of perception, right? I could’ve looked in the mirror a year ago in a pair of high wasted corduroy pants and thought, Wow, I look ridiculous. But there’s not doubt in my mind that if I put those same pants on today, I’d look in the mirror and say, “Wow, that looks awesome.”

Amelia Diamond: Hair is the only thing that’s ever cooperated with me. I’ve always struggled with my weight, skin, teeth, but hair’s been good to me. However, I’m crazy gray. I have a chunk of gray hair that if I grew out, I’d look like Cruella de Vil. People tell me all the time to grow my gray out, that “it’ll be so cool.” And it’s like, yeah it’s “cool,” but would I feel beautiful? The answer is no, so I spend a lot of money to get my hair frequently dyed so that I look like I don’t do anything at all.

I’m also hyper-aware of the fact that I rely on my hair as a security blanket, and the second it’s off of my face I feel naked and uncomfortable. I use my hair as a shield. I like to think that my hair is me, so I’m not hiding anything, but I definitely hide behind this part of me.

LM: That’s an interesting point because Zendaya, in response to Giuliana Rancic’s comments at the Oscars, referenced Indie Arie’s, “I’m not my hair.”

AD: I feel very much that if I got rid of my hair, I would not know what to do.

Kate Barnett: Last year, for a story, I cut off my elbow-length hair within an inch of my scalp. The people that did it were amazing, and when I was in New York I felt incredible. But I spend half my time in rural New Mexico, and when I went home I thought, I don’t know what I’ve done. I’m not cool enough to pull this hair cut off.

I never figured out how to style it, or learned how to have fun with it. I’m growing it out now and at that similar stage where I want to treat my hair well and use beautiful products that don’t have chemicals and see what my actual curly hair looks like for the first time in my life. But I still haven’t figured out what I want my hair to be. I’m in this in-between stage of trying to be really confident, and finding a way to make my natural hair look beautiful while also making me feel beautiful, and I’m not there yet.

JD: Hair is such an intimate thing. You can change it as much as you change your clothes or makeup, but because it’s attached to your body it’s so much more personal when people react to it, whether they think it’s strange or bizarre. Because we take it personally, it’s so much easier to focus on all of the money and pain we go through to make it something that it’s not, instead of embracing the healthy ways to naturally change and manipulate the style. That’s never the route we choose to go down though, because when we’re insecure about something, no one chooses to embrace it. We just want to run the other way.

CP: Part of that is because we’re really hard on ourselves about hair. We think it should be so easy: “I’m a grown woman. I should know how to do my own hair.” But it’s a constant learning experience. I think people need to be at peace with the notion that you can learn and take steps; you don’t need to know it all right away. I judge myself harshly for not knowing what to put on my hair. I don’t know how to style it, but I can always learn.

Charlotte Fassler: I have such an emotional attachment to my hair. Every time I’d get a hair cut when I was younger – big or small – I would cry. I decided to cut my hair for Locks of Love in high school. I cut off 11 inches, then immediately felt devastated despite how happy I was to support the cause. I beat myself up for feeling that way about a hair cut — something so petty and insignificant. But I spent the next year and a half growing it back.

Esther Levy: Your hair is an extension of your personality and yourself. Right now, since long hippie hair is trendy, I really want extensions. It feels like such an embarrassing thing to admit because it sounds vain. Extensions have this connotation of being girly and kind of high maintenance.

On a totally different note, I was taught that Orthodox Jewish women wear wigs to cover their natural hair to divert the male gaze. It’s interesting to me that hair has this dual nature: it can be seen as sensual, which, in some communities, is something that should be kept private within a relationship, or it’s viewed as an expression of independence — like a pixie cut, or an Afro.

LM: Right, just like anything else, it can either be a prison or a fortress.

Esther: [To JD] Your Afro is so cool, by the way.

JD: It’s funny you say, “Your Afro is so cool.” I finally cut my hair off in high school because it was literally breaking apart. I was in Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair, and I was sitting with these other high school girls who all had weaves and braids, and I figured, Oh, some other young black girls. We’re all on the same page. And we were not.

The entire time, they just insulted me. The only part of the documentary I’m in is when this girl sitting next to me turned to me and said, “No offense, but I’d never hire you for a real job with hair like that.” It was right then that I realized, Wow, we’re not on the same page. I also decided that I wanted to grow my hair out in defiance of that. I realized that I got a fair amount of pushback from adults and people who felt my hair should be pulled back or straightened, so I grew it out to piss people off. Now it’s become an extension of my personality, and it says, “I don’t care what you think.” But it stemmed from me feeling cool about rejecting other people’s opinions about me.

AD: Didn’t Chris Rock make make that movie because–

JD: His daughter asked him, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?”

CP: Which doesn’t really exist. You brought up fake hair earlier. That’s such a huge thing. When I was younger I had braids and fake hair, but I still judged other people who wore wigs or had weaves. Wigs are such a stigma. My mom wears super blonde wigs now, and I think we just need to change the way we think about these things.

JD: When people say a “weave,” a lot of time it has a negative connotation. But when people say “extensions,” it’s ok.

CP: I think the problem with weaves is that you can see the tracks. And people are automatically like, “Oh, you are so fake.”

CF: But then you think about all of those girls who bleach their hair and it’s so obviously fake.

CP: I want a pastel lob but that’s not happening; I’ll just buy a wig.

LM: Why do you think we’re so precious about hair? Why is this conversation happening, why are we all capable of expounding upon our relationship with our hair?

AD: We take it personally because it’s attached to us, and yet, we can instantly control it. I can put my hair in a ponytail and look like I’m headed to the gym, or I can blow it out and feel fancy.

CF: It’s so tethered to identity, too. I have a friend who had really dark straight hair, and she never felt like it suited her personality. She bleached her hair and now she feels so much more comfortable in her own skin. She thinks it fits her personality better.

JD: I think that hair’s precious because there’s a lot of historical power and tradition behind the idea of it. Doesn’t Samson lose all of his power when Delilah cuts his hair?

There’s a ton of religious and cultural connotations when it comes to hair. I think a part of the Giuliana/Zendaya dreadlocks controversy arose because, when you say something like “patchouli oil,” it’s making fun of the hair style that’s part of the Rastafarian religious culture. It’s belittling the tradition and the hair representative of it. That’s where it becomes problematic.

AD: Do you think the problem is that most people are not educated or aware of what different hairstyles can mean in certain cultures?

JD: Yeah. And I think that some things that are important to some people are not important to others. I’m not actively trying to make a statement with my hair, it is what it is – I am proud of it being a symbol of black natural hair. People see it and they think “black power” — I’m super aware of that, even though I’m just trying to grow my hair out and this is its shape. It’s very specific to personal experience. I’m sure Giuliana didn’t mean for her comments to sound racist, but I think because people felt targeted on behalf of their Rastafarian culture or history, they were immediately offended by it.

No one’s on the same page when it comes to “black hair,” which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that times are changing and people are evolving and living their own lives, changing locations. It’s complicated.

EL: Wasn’t there also a bunch of controversy over Blue Ivy’s hair?

JD: They started a petition that got thousands of signatures on it to “comb her hair.”  And that’s just another standard: to have your hair really combed out. I had my hair combed out today so it’s curly, but I can go two weeks without combing my hair.

CP: People just apply one overall thing to hair, which I think makes different communities so angry. It’s disregarding all of the different steps each individual goes through with their hair.

AD: It goes back to assuming that there’s a “normal” — “good hair” — and everything that doesn’t adhere to the strict guideline of “normal” is “weird.”

CP: And that never ends, because even in the natural hair community there’s still this norm that curls should be luscious, etc.

KB: Leandra asked earlier why we’re so precious about hair — I feel like both literally and figuratively, your hair frames your face. It’s what people see when they talk to you and how they think of you, and it’s therefore such an integral part of your identity. It kind of frames the lens in which people are interacting with you.

LM: I think part of the reason I’ve been down the past couple of weeks is because ever since I got this fringe cut around my face — which looked wonderful the day I got it — now just makes me look like DJ Tanner had at it with a stir fry pan. I have not felt beautiful since!

EL: There is some weird solace in that though. At least this is pressure that we put on ourselves because we want to feel beautiful, as opposed to wanting to look beautiful for someone else.

CF: I think about that when I consider getting a tattoo or a piercing. There’s this sense of control, of being able to alter your appearance, but it’s for yourself. It’s your own body and you can immediately change it, that is an empowering feeling. 

AD: I’m always really jealous of my hairdresser who changes her hair once a week; one week it’s pink, purple, long, short. I’m fascinated by her ability to change her hair in same the way some experiment with different clothing styles. I always have the same hair. I always wear the same type of clothes. How can it feel so non-permanent to her?

KB: When I cut all of my hair off, it was hugely empowering. I had no idea how much was tied up with my hair.

LM: When I cut my hair off a few years ago — I cut it off myself because it’s cheap and I have control issues — I was going to Scotland that evening for a Chanel show and I just wanted to look more French. That was literally the impetus of that haircut. I cut most of it off and felt so cool. And instead of just basking in the coolness I continued to cut it because I was so excited by that high.

At one point I looked exactly like Fran Lebowitz because I wear so much menswear and my hair was kind of frizzy and it was winter…I look back at pictures now and I think it looked kind of obscene, but at the time I really appreciated it.

It definitely bookmarks a time in my life. I also handed in the final draft of my book the day I was leaving for Scotland, so I’m always going to associate cutting my hair with cutting that responsibility from me.

CP: I like that idea. The reason why I went natural is because my second year of college, I dyed my hair this really awful shade of burgundy and it just all fell out. I did it myself, on my 20th birthday, and thought I was so cool. A month later I went to get it relaxed, and I put my hand through my hair and a chunk just fell out. It was really bad. I cried for a week. At first I was like, “What am I going to do to salvage this?” Finally, once I got all my hair shaved off I felt great. I’d cut off all the bad stuff — all of the bad emotions.

AD: Did you feel like you had to then change things about your appearance to go with your hair?

CP: Not at the time, but now I think it aligns with my style.

LM: I was actually just thinking that my relationship with my hair is contingent on where I am stylistically, byt I don’t necessarily think I’m very precious about my hair. I definitely think I’m hard on myself when it comes to my hair, I wish that I could get over this, “I’m not beautiful unless my hair is straight thing.” I don’t know where that leaves me.

JD: It’s easy to project your feelings onto your hair. You’d never wake up and say, “Oh, I feel so fat, but it’s definitely the sweater, it’s not me.”

AD: At some point, every woman has come to the realization of, “Here’s what I physically have. Here’s what I am working with. So how am I going to make myself feel best with these ingredients?”

KB: Being comfortable with — not just celebrating — the things we don’t consider perfect about ourselves is really tough.

AD: Maybe it only exists in an ideal world. But do you feel like once you reach a certain point where you’re comfortable with yourself, then you can experiment again without guilt?

JD: Personally, I would never straighten my hair ever again, because I feel like it was a huge part of me trying to change myself in order fit in. I felt weird about it. I didn’t realize what I was trying to do at the time but I realize it now. I’d never go down that road again.

LM: I feel like what you went though with your hair is what I went through with my face five years ago. I finally looked in the mirror and said, “I’m never going to look like a Scandinavian model, I don’t want to look like a Scandinavian model; this is me. The bags under my eyes are genetic. My mom has them; I see a reflection of my mother — that’s something I’m going to be able to carry with me through her mortality. And I just don’t care. If this isn’t beautiful to someone I don’t care, because it is to me.” It’s the same with hair.

CP: It’s like a teacher of mine once said: it’s just dead protein.

Today’s guests were Chanel Parks, Associate Style Editor at The Huffington Post — follow her on Twitter here, and Jessica Dickerson, Associate Black Voices Editor at The Huffington Post — follow her on Twitter here.  

And for more MR Round Tables, click here.

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