Looking like you give a damn: Belonging, masculinity and the Afro

My hair is something of a mystery, even to me. It is thick, tight, bouncy, and believe me, the shrinkage is real. My hair is an Afro.

I’ve always considered it to be something I have to control, something I have to tame, flatten, straighten and contort, all so it can look feminine. I am a Torres Strait Islander and African American, so my hair is a unique twist of Afro. In my grandmother’s Torres Strait culture, we call it kuridh (kuri-dth) hair – meaning hard or strong – because it’s not easily combed.

For those who don’t really have an understanding of this hair I’m describing, let me put it this way: my hair grows up, not down; it manages to dry the instant I get out of the shower, yet holds a reserve of water to pour down my neck the moment I leave the house. My hair started as large, brown curls that I could wear out as a child. As I grew, so did my hair (it seemed intent on adding to my height). The curls wound smaller and the colour grew darker. And it also became something I worried about.

I have spent a lot of my Afro life (particularly when it was short) wondering: do I look masculine?

I’ve had people say how cool my hair looks tied up in a bun, and I say, “No, it’s a ponytail.” But I’ve wished so much that it was just a bun, so that when I took the hairband out, it would fall lusciously to my shoulders. When I look in the magazines or on TV, feminine beauty is portrayed using straight or wavy hair that has the ability to fall to the waist.

In comparison, masculine beauty seems to be hair that is short and kept close to the head – or something that can be easily maintained in a man bun!

My father has hair like mine, but I’ve never seen it. His razor has kept it close to his skin, invisible to the eye. My younger brothers have those black springs too. They let it grow only a little, but I always thought the benefit for them was that it looked normal. That because I was a girl, the Afro somehow ‘un-feminised’ me.

I have spent a lot of my Afro life (particularly when it was short) wondering: do I look masculine?

In 2011, Nivea released a campaign with the slogans ‘Re-civilize yourself’ and ‘Look like you give a damn’. The advertisement depicted an African American man with a buzzed haircut throwing away his large Afro hair. There was public outrage at this. Social media acted as Nivea’s greatest critic as the ad was spread through channels like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. Phrases like ‘lack of cultural intelligence’ were headlining. Needless to say, the ad was taken down and Nivea apologised. But the violent image of the man throwing away his own Afro head was stuck in my mind.

I’ve only realised recently that I did it so I wouldn’t run the risk of looking masculine.

Apparently, the Afro wasn’t appealing as a masculine hair type – just as it wasn’t as a feminine hair type. It was depicted as something that was so ‘un-civilised’ and messy that, if you had an Afro, surely you could not care about your appearance. It became clear to me that it wasn’t quite right, appropriate or ‘normal’ for anyone.

When I cut my hair short once I got mistaken for a boy. I was horrified and, as soon as I could, I began the process of chemically straightening it.

The documentary Good Hair, by Chris Rock, aptly describes the process of chemically straightening hair. He went on the journey of creating Good Hair after his daughter (with curly hair) asked him, “How come I don’t have good hair?” Chemically straightening hair can involve dangerous substances, which ultimately destroy hair. It’s a practice that is most commonly used by African American women. In the past, it was even popular with men. The chemicals are applied onto the hair and when washed off, the Afro is gone. In its place is hair that follows the rules of gravity!

I’ve chemically straightened my hair on more than one occasion for two reasons: to easily maintain it and for the looks. I don’t think there is anything wrong with straightening one’s hair. But I’ve only realised recently that I did it so I wouldn’t run the risk of looking masculine. Or worse, so I wouldn’t run the risk of my hair being unloved by the people around me. I felt this need to look like the other girls around me.

My father didn’t understand when I straightened my hair. He didn’t think I should do it, perhaps because he thought I should accept who I was and what I looked like. I would always say, “But Dad, you don’t understand.” His response was to point out that he had hair like mine and grew it long when he was younger. But he was a man, and to me that made all the difference. Because despite thinking the Afro was unwanted altogether, I thought it belonged better with him because of his masculinity.

My thoughts about my hair became messy and convoluted, so I preferred to just avoid thinking and speaking on the topic. But it was always there, ticking about in my mind – this feeling that the Afro wasn’t quite right.

In the first year of my Justice undergraduate degree, I learnt about this thing called Social Darwinism. It could be said that Charles Darwin himself initiated the negative view some people now have of the Afro. Darwin’s pseudo-scientific racism claimed that the way people looked could impact how intelligent they were.[1] In other words, if someone didn’t look Caucasian (fair skin and straight hair) they may be less intelligent.

When I learnt about this, my mind immediately flicked to my hair. Maybe that was why Afros weren’t considered ‘civilised’.

Afro hair is not commonly seen in Australia, and when it is, it isn’t always recognised as ‘normal’. In my heart, I’ve always known that my Afro is beautiful and normal, but everything I was hearing and seeing led me to believe otherwise: not feminine, not masculine, not civilised, not ‘good’.

My main concern has always been the possible masculinity of my hair. But, I am not my Hair, so how can it make me masculine?

Thankfully, when I was about nineteen, I started looking for and soon found a large community of people online who do more than deal with their Afros: They embrace them. These men and women share their own best hair care, they encourage “natural” pictures, and they discuss the safest ways to change your hair – by straightening, braiding, using dreadlocks and more! Instagram groups are full of pictures and the hashtags like #healthynaturalhair, which showed me there were other people in the world experiencing the same thing I was, and I could physically see them through social media.

My process of learning to love my hair has been a long one – and it’s still a struggle. After finding reassurance in those online spaces, I let my hair grow out and promised myself I would not chemically straighten it until I felt comfortable with its natural state. I listened to songs such as ‘I Am Not My Hair’ by India Arie. And eventually, I began to approach a new outlook about my Afro.

My kuridh hair, as it is called in my Torres Strait culture, is not mainstream. It is not seen on Australian TV and it is only occasionally in magazines I flip through. This has meant I have had to work through my own ideas of what my hair means – of where it belongs. It has been an internal struggle, one I wouldn’t wish on anyone else. Despite this, I know it is a common battle among those of us with Afros. I believe this struggle to feel comfortable with one’s hair is individual. There is not one solution to fit everyone, nor should there be.

Perhaps Afro hair (and every other type of hair) doesn’t belong to masculinity or femininity. My main concern has always been the possible masculinity of my hair. But, I am not my Hair, so how can it make me masculine? I’ve started to believe that my hair doesn’t belong to either – it just belongs to me. What do you think your hair says about you? And more importantly, do you agree?

[1] Carpenter, B & Ball, M. 2012. Justice in Society. The Federation Press: Sydney.

Header photo by Thought Catalog

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3 Comments

  • Phillip Harris

    July 1, 2018

    Love it! Great article Jasmin.

    Reply
  • Bakoi

    July 2, 2018

    Loved your article Jasmin. I feel your pain and struggle with the issues to do with your hair, I been down that road as well. Beautifully written, I look forward to the next one

    Reply
  • Aisha Bowie

    July 3, 2018

    Inspiring! Everyone needs to read this!

    Reply

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