Last week a work colleague, Ruth McPherson, very bravely decided to share her story about her condition: Autoimmune Alopecia. I had of course heard of Alopecia, but with it came only images of balding middle aged men. I had absolutely no idea that this affected women, let alone one as young as Ruth. After reading about her courageous journey on her blog and donating to the cause, I started thinking about my own relationship with my hair.
Ruth and I bonded over the one subject which segregates our two races more than a local bus route in Alabama, in 1955: Hair. The fact that she suffered from Alopecia she says, was what helped her appreciate the constant battle black women face with their own hair identities.This was the first candid conversation I have ever had with a white woman (including the ones in my family) and I was shocked that it took something as traumatic as losing all her hair, for the two of us to be able to relate!
My identifier ever since I was a child has always been my hair. Coming from a mixed Portuguese/ Guinea Bissau-an background I had long curly hair, which was my pride and joy- or so my female relatives constantly told me. The strange thing was the compliments also came with a weird sense of responsibility to the women around me to maintain and keep my hair’s length and strength. As if to them it was more of a measure of my character as a woman than my personality itself. It is the first thing, to this day, every member of my family always comments on when they see me.
As a woman, there are many beauty related expectations we are taught to adhere to, and hair is a huge part of our constant self-editing image. However as a black woman, this comes with a whole set of complex emotions and issues attached to it:
The black hair industry according to Reuters is worth an estimated £6 Billion (in comparison to the standard £1 Billion for non-Afro hair), with constant supply of products such as chemical straightening solutions, wigs, creams meeting the demand. Although the industry is experiencing a little renaissance, with the Natural Hair Movement changing the way black women look after their kinks, our hair still carries as many complexities as there are different textures.
The community is indefinite over different ways to wear Afro hair. Should you leave it natural or relax it? Should you wear a lace front wig or a weave? What types of cream/comb/spray bottle to use? Sometimes it has nothing to do with hating your natural hair but just not having the time or money to care for it. It can be endless, exhausting and expensive trying to find what works for you! Our hair is so divisive that it becomes a headline and a trending topic when Oscar winning Actress Viola Davis took her wig off to reveal her natural hair, on a prime time television show. Long gone are the days when we covered up the subject, like Donald Trump’s toupée, and proof is all over social media and YouTube.
About a year ago I went for the “big chop”, (as it is affectionately called in natural hair circles) after years of switching between relaxing, braids and wearing weaves. The shock of my decision reverberated through my family, like I had just revealed I was having a baby out of wedlock at the age of 16. Regardless of what my family said, the chop felt liberating but absolutely terrifying at the same time. It was as if I had walked away from the poker table with a winning hand.
The decision to cut my hair short, was not to say I would never relax, straighten or wear extensions again, regardless of what others said. It was more to do with experiencing myself without the added “beauty bargaining” chip that was my hair. Ruth shared that she too felt a similar sense of freedom when she takes her wig off: “I didn’t realise how much I missed feeling the sun or the wind on my head until I took my wig off.”
Ruth’s decision to go wig free for a week is “a way to see how people will react and how I will react to them.” and it came from the same place in her heart that my decision to cut my hair did- It is all to do with the freedom to be who you feel you truly are, without caring about the consequences.
One thing we both strongly agreed on was that our hair does not define who are. After all, shouldn’t we all be allowed to feel beautiful and at peace with who we are, whether that means wearing a wig or shaving it all off?
This piece was originally posted on Living With Alopecia where you can follow Ruth McPherson’s journey and more on how you can help the charity, please check out her illuminating blog. Wig Free Week begins 26th of October, Click here to sponsor Ruth on her challenge!