The summer of my sophomore year of college, my mother and I walked into a nail salon across the street from the YMCA, where my little brother had swim team practice a few days a week. We’d been here numerous times before – getting our nails done was one of the ways my mother and I bonded. Except this day was different. This excursion occurred about two weeks after I had made the impulsive decision to walk into a barber shop near my college campus, and shave all my hair off. I didn’t really have a good reason for doing it; looking back I’d probably call it a cleanse of some sort, but it was a decision that, while surprising to most, was met with positive feedback.
But back to the nail salon. I walked through the door, into the fluorescently lighted shop, acutely aware, but also comforted by the familiar scent of acetate and the almost empty shop. But when the shop owner greeted us, she looked at my mother, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Is this your son?” My mom swooped in to correct her, “No, this is my daughter – you’ve never seen a girl with short hair?” but I was instantly embarrassed. All of the positive feedback about my haircut that I had internalized was instantly undercut by one statement by a woman who didn’t even know me. I was insecure, not because she said the haircut was weird, or made me look ugly, but because she said I looked like a boy. The fact that she didn’t see me as feminine was devastating to me.
This is wildly interesting – the relationship between hair and femininity in women, especially for black women. Black women represent a confusing dichotomy – they are hypersexualized in media, but de- feminized in day to day society. In the fashion industry, black feminine models are a dime a dozen, but the most feminine are the lightest, and the darker skin models tend to be held up as props, eroticized, and racially sexualized. We even see these same tropes with wildly successful black women like Serena Williams and Viola Davis. Because they do not fit into Eurocentric beauty standards, their femininity is constantly attacked, or more hurtfully, ignored.
But in the past few years, the natural hair movement in communities of black women has taken the world by storm, providing an outlet for us to embrace our kinky, curly, and “nappy” hair textures. But for many, the first step in embracing our natural hair texture lies in the Big Chop. The moment when we walk into a barber shop, or a salon, or even our own bathroom, and shave our hair down. For a community of women whose sexuality is so largely ignored, while living in a society that associates long, loose- textured hair with femininity, it seems counter-productive to embrace the literal opposite of this schema.
But Black women are, and have always been agents of change, and this proves true, even in our presentation of femininity. By upending gender norms, and the idea that long hair = womanhood, black women are able to change the problematic messaging that constrains individuals to certain types of gender expression. Western society is a very white space, and the black woman’s femininity has historically been undervalued in white spaces. But the more black women reclaim their agency and their femininity through subversive acts like cutting their hair, the less it will matter what society thinks.