Let's Talk About Wigs And Race

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
<p>The stigma surrounding wig-wearing disproportionately affects women of colour.</p>

The stigma surrounding wig-wearing disproportionately affects women of colour.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Taken by Arnaud de Gramont

The first – and last – time anyone ever accused me of wearing a wig was during Freshers’ Week, when, sporting my Trinity College Freshers’ t-shirt and making desperate attempts to belong, I attended the first social event of my university career. I thought I had prepared for every eventuality. Generous helpings of alcohol were consumed to drown out any traces of social anxiety; my what’s-my-name-what’s-my-subject introduction speech could have won a Floor Prize at the Oxford Union. No amount of prior preparation could help me, however, when one introduction went pear-shaped. “Is your hair fake?” a fellow student asked, with a little too much Dutch courage.

I wasn’t wearing a wig or weave then, but the words have stuck with me since, and a year later that embarrassment has become concern. Wearers of wigs and weaves belong to every gender, age and ethnic group. Due to our natural hair being viewed as ‘messy’ and ‘unprofessional’, however, hairpieces are especially prevalent in the Afro-Caribbean community. Many people, from all races, have absorbed this without fully grasping the reasons behind this. It is such a widespread stereotype that some people, like the person at Freshers’ Week, will automatically assume every black woman they meet is wearing one.

These assumptions, true or otherwise, damage the perception of women of African descent in society. Popular culture often cites our penchant for fake hair, as well as our supposed loudness or rudeness, as justifications for our place at the bottom rung of a social hierarchy still recovering from the blight of colonialism. It is not difficult to see why accusations of impoliteness are damaging, but wearing a wig is not an obvious moral failure. Why then, is there so much shame surrounding them? After all, I had known that my peer’s drunken question was not a compliment even though they had not explicitly said so, and that meant I had absorbed some of this stigma myself. Was there some logical or moral argument for my unease on the subject?

The evolutionary theory of attractiveness provides some answers. We are sexually attracted to those who appear to be healthiest, and by extension, have the greatest reproductive potential. Healthy teeth, skin and hair are telling indicators of good health for both sexes. Hair is one of the most visible of these body parts, so those with thick, luscious locks have the advantage. Hinsz, Matz and Patience found in their study that “hair length and quality can act as a cue to...youth and health and, as such, signify reproductive potential.” (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, March 2001). Suitors who discover that their prospective partners wear wigs or toupees to hide bald patches or lacklustre hair may feel that they are being lied to about the quality of their partners’ genetics. Wig-wearers, therefore, carry more of a sexual stigma, because they seem insincere about their true sexual attractiveness.

But the stigma is not just about attractiveness, or good health and fertility. A wig wearer hiding Rapunzel-like locks under a wig could still make people uneasy. And even those who are not auditioning potential sexual partners – colleagues, bosses, children even – view wig-wearers slightly negatively, if they are revealed to be passing off the hair they have bought as hair that grows out of their heads. (Judges, with their obviously artificial white wigs and high social status, avoid condemnation.) Wigs, it must therefore be assumed, carry a social stigma; they are associated with deceit in ways not explicitly linked to sexuality. Conservative political blogger Matt Drudge’s efforts to “out” Hillary Clinton for allegedly wearing wigs was probably a covert attempt to reinforce the perception of Clinton as a dishonest stateswoman, and thus to influence the US election. And how many villains in Scooby-Doo have had wigs snatched from their heads as Mystery Incorporated reveal their true persona? It is no surprise that the term ‘wig-snatching’ has been appropriated as a general term for “unexpectedly and abruptly ‘airing out someone’s dirty laundry’ in front of many people” (Urban Dictionary).

I would be painting an excessively bleak picture of things if I did not mention that the wig stigma has decreased significantly during the past few years. Reality stars, most notably the Kardashian clan, have somewhat normalised the use of wigs, weaves and extensions. Wearing hairpieces is now accepted by many as a lifestyle choice, albeit an apparently superficial one. It is a damning indictment on society, however, to note that it has ostensibly taken persistent endorsement from white celebrities to make the wearing of artificial hair acceptable and even glamorous when women of colour have been pressured to do so for centuries. It is also unfortunate that this new acceptance surrounding fake hair has done little to rectify the Catch-22 situation many women of colour find themselves in: chemically straighten their hair or wear wigs and they are still seen as self-hating, vain liars; wear their hair naturally and they are scruffy, unkempt and at a disadvantage in the workplace.

While we may be wired to feel uncomfortable about hairpieces on a primal level, it seems unfair to especially disapprove of hairpieces as a form of deceit when aesthetic and behavioural deceit is practically mandatory in all interactions in society. Society often requires us to pretend to be cheerier, nicer and more attractive than we normally are; our deceit is not a consequence of insincerity but of obligation. If we are to pride ourselves as civilised beings, we must override our primal instincts and remember, before we sneer at a woman of colour for wearing a wig or laugh at a wig-snatching video, that our collective preference for ‘sanitised’ appearances rather than openness about health issues or race relations is the reason many people choose to - or feel obliged to - wear hairpieces. And while progress has been made, it will still be a while before the question “Is your hair fake?” becomes a neutral inquiry, rather than a form of criticism.