By Cleo Bergman
Culturally Identifying Hair
Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons
Whether you spend hours on your hair, leave it alone for months, cover it, or have no hair at all, your hair is an attempt to identify yourself within the community you live. And whether you are conscious of it or not, your hair is a manifestation of influences that determine your place in society.
By Western standards, uniqueness is seen as an aspiration. However, that sense of originality is often compromised when one wants to be accepted by certain social groups. How we sport our hair is a small, yet extremely significant factor to this complex system of individuality shaped by society.
In America, hair indicates race almost as much as skin color, but it can also conjure up preconceived notions of class, gender, and even one’s personality associated with an individual’s racial background.
“It’s a worldwide phenomena that all cultural groups have some set of norms or rules about transforming the body or using the body as a canvas to signify membership and belonging to groups,” Professor Ginetta Candelario, author of Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity From Museums to Beauty Shops, tells BTR.
Family heavily influences children to conform with the social norms of their community, says Candelario, and among the strongest influences is one’s gender status.
“We signify our gender status—and subsequently our gender identity—through presentation of self, through embodiment practices which range from things as superficial as dress,” says Candelario. “There are so many practices that are used across cultures to transform the body to signal ‘I am of this group’ and ‘this is my status within my group.’”
As such, cultures implicate their statuses and values with specific bodily factors such as hair.
For example, in Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, he notes some cultural differences with regard to hair within American and Indian societies. In India, there is an annual ceremony in which over 10 million people attend the Venkateswara Temple to sacrifice their hair and rid themselves of vanity for the Hindu Gods. Afterwards, the hair is sold to exporters. Eventually, some of the hair sits on the heads of African American women who spend up to a thousand dollars for weaves and extensions. For Hindus, hair is a religious act, and for African American women, hair is a social necessity and a fulfillment of their gender identity.
On the psychological front, Professor Bill Peterson, a specialist in personality psychology, mentions Erik Erikson’s eight-stage model of psychosocial development, in which a person goes through a series of stages throughout their life that shapes them as individuals. One of the stages he discusses is the fifth stage: Identity vs. Role Confusion, when an adolescent’s psychology, biology, and society collide and produce an inner desire to build solidarity.
“Our way of thinking about the world changes, we begin to think in terms of propositions, we begin to question who we are in the universe,” says Peterson, “The way that one appears and looks becomes of great concern to adolescence…for a person of color in the United States, issues of racial identity certainly have to be a part of the equation.”
He continues, “Your appearance may take on an added meaning in adolescence that perhaps you didn’t think about earlier: I’m kind of different from mainstream America, how is that going to inform who I am as an individual?”
Taking on specific appearances is a political act as much as it is a social one, says Candelario. When certain appearances signify a type of status, specific material privileges or disadvantages come along with that status symbol.
“So when you think about race as a social construction that signals and implicates the body,” Candelario explains. “You cannot easily transform skin color, for example. But we can fairly easily manipulate and transform hair texture. And we do, and we have — universally and trans-historically.”
Within American history, for example, getting weaves or extensions that cover the natural hair texture of African American women is a political act, whether conscious or not, to gain access to materials as well as social status, says Candelario. The same goes for Mediterranean, curly-haired white women who straighten their hair. They are performing a type of whiteness that is idealized in the ability to access goods.
Such individuality has to be compromised with societal views in order to have a secure social standing, says Peterson as he quotes Hogan: it is a tricky balance of how to get ahead, and how to get along.
“While identity is supposed to be a unique, idiosyncratic thing, it’s not cut from whole cloth,” Peterson explains, “We need to build that identity so that it is interpretable by people that we’re close to [and] care about, they need to understand who you are and you want to be understood by them.”
Overall, hair is a representation of one’s identity as much as it is an act of political self-awareness in one’s position in society. However, there is another aspect of hair politics that is essential to the individual: self-care.
Looking into Dominican women’s beauty shops, says Candelario, women who invest their money and time on their hair every week are seen as committing a social act of self-preservation, regardless of the politics.
“Was there also other talk of good hair and bad hair? Of course,” says Candelario, “Was it laced through with patriarchal and negrophobic ideologies? Absolutely. But right alongside those were these counter narratives, these counter ideologies of self-care, self-investment, and impression management of presentation of self of control over how ‘I move through these systems of exclusion. And I’m going to use these strategies.’”