The politics of beauty and race
Exotic objectification, femininity and desire.
For women, hair has always been a battleground for the politics and racial nuances of desire. Hair is a statement, a modern commodity, and an objectification of romanticised fertility. In the age of social media, it has become even more of a statement piece, as Ariana Grande so perfectly captured our generation’s beauty politics:
Through the lens of capitalist patriarchy, femininity is an object to fulfil the millennial thirst for instant gratification.
As a mixed woman, my hair was politicised for me before I even hit puberty. Surrounded by the aesthetic ideals of whiteness, I subconsciously understood what was expected of me. If I was to perform femininity under the cultural and social codes of the heterosexual male gaze, my hair should be long, as flat as possible, shiny, soft, gently perfumed, never greasy and should flow gently in the wind (think princess Ariel, or Rapunzel.) In order to achieve this image— in order to be seen as desirable by my peers— I would have to accomplish the feat of an adept chemist. My afro-like curls of cosmic volume were something I would stubbornly attempt to tame for over 14 years of my life.
I relaxed my hair with chemicals so strong they have been likened to pipe cleaning solutions, and possibly linked to increased rates of fibroids in African American women. Dyeing, flat ironing, hundreds if not thousands of hours of thankless, unseen and torturous labour to tame the “primitivity” of my hair. An artificial look I embraced for many years, even when it eternally pained me inside. My straight hair morphed me into a racially ambiguous sex-kitten.
While attending college at Duke, men at frat parties and bars would inevitably ask, “what are you?” My exoticism had objectified me, I had become void of humanity in their eyes. I was now the Other, the item of desire to be possessed. A mysterious and magnetising pull fuelled by confusion that I milked in the name of sexual exploration for years, even while it annihilated me on the inside. These men, by the way, seemed so much less interested in my name than in my identity. My desirability only existed within the context of a vague attraction to conquer a landscape other than whiteness.
This mutual exploitation of superficial femininity continued for years with my lovers – mutual, because I submissively consented to this drama of American hookup culture, and numbed myself enough to sacrifice my true self, so long as I remained desirable.
Within the norms of patriarchal society, desirability is a woman’s personal trophy. We are trained from a young age and groomed into adulthood to become walking pin-ups and sex dolls for men. Nothing matters more than the opinion of a man, not even the way he makes you feel in bed or if he indeed gives you orgasms. His opinion is your reputation. These were all the thoughts that I normalised in my mind and body up until I graduated from college.
At my graduation, I boldly ditched the straight hair and decided to wear box braids. I moved to New York with the same braids and applied for my first job as a waitress in the city. My dream was to be a writer and wait tables. My father once commented on the braids, as I prepared for my interview. He told me they looked unprofessional. I got the job. My father is white.
This is the part in the narrative where I’d like to fast forward to the present, skipping past many dating unpleasantries and wounds regarding my hair, and for my pride to say, “Don’t worry, I’m better now!” But healing is messy and non-linear. I’ve come a long way, but sometimes I still measure myself against the aesthetic projections of Western society around me. I often find myself having to console my inner child. The rest of the time, I allow for my spiritual practice to transcend the limitations of my body into divinity.
The narrative, much like myself, unfurls at the edges of memories tender and tragic. I am reminded of my first female lover who undid my braids as we bathed together under the candlelight, and listened to Frank Ocean’s entire ‘Blonde’ album. Tender. I recall a man I briefly fell for in Morocco, making out in the back alleys of the old Medina, whom I innocently asked if he preferred my curly or straightened hair. He said the latter. I quickly fell out of infatuation with him. Tragic.
Our relationships with others are mirrors of our internalised, secret selves. I am gazing into the possibility of escaping the politics of beauty and race, to exchange it for an intimacy that goes beyond the skin, beyond the hair, beyond the body. Every remark a person has made about my hair was, in the end, a thought I had about myself at some point in time.
My curls are now all-natural. I chopped all of it off at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, and my relationship to my hair is now playful, sometimes frustrating, but then again a mystery I am committed to unravelling. Hair is electric – it carries and sheds our memories.
What I am proud of is the sheer radical simplicity of a woman of colour enjoying the honesty of what grows out of her own scalp. Wearing my hair as it is, out of the context of white supremacist patriarchy, is my chance to embody myself exactly as I am.