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Friday, February 21, 2014

The Big Chop: When a Haircut is More Than a Haircut

This past week, the world was rocked by news out of the British Royal Palace that the deliciously lovely brown locks of the Duchess of Cambridge were under assault by, of all people, her mother-in-law! And this coming shortly on the heels of another royal pig-pile, this one involving her grandmother-in-law, the Queen, and her decree regarding Kate's hemlines (below the knee, ducky). Judging by the outflow of social media angst and anger over the suggestion that the Duchess adopt a shorter, more mommy-friendly hair cut, you had to wonder about the larger issues at stake. Was this yet another instance of royal meddling, the likes of which had been endured by another beauty who dared marry into the Buckingham Palace set? Was this a punch to the throat to feminism or was it just another case of female competition? 

Hair, it appears, is a very touchy subject these days. There was the "Afro-magnifico" of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's son, as well as the natural hair looks of the daughter de Blasio and the mayor's wife. And the case of an African-American local TV news personality who was fired for wearing her hair in a natural, nonchemically-straightened style. Even the occupants of the White House get unnecessary attention over all things follicled - with the First Lady and her blow-out and the First Daughters and their natural hair styles.

I've gone through my own hair battles all of my life - from press and curls, to Jerri Curls, back to press and curls, to cornrows, to individuals, to relaxers, and now, most recently, a close-cropped natural 'fro. Women in the know call this "the big chop" - the super-short haircut to get all of the chemicals out of the hair and to return it to its virgin (and in my case tightly curled) state. This wasn't the first time I'd ever had my hair cut short, so this wasn't the deep trauma that you see on a daytime talk show ambush makeover where the victim with hair down to her waist has her hair cut to chin length. But, this was the first time that I'd had a short haircut minus the chemical hair straightener. 

The day of the big chop, I walked out the salon and straight into the cold winter air. For the first time, I truly felt the cold wind whipping through my now substantially shorter hair! Over the next few weeks after the big chop, I did a slow roll-out of the new haircut to family, friends, clients, and I did my own internal focus group testing. Reaction among other black women has been consistently and sometimes overwhelmingly positive, depending on age. Young professionals in the under-30 age group thought my haircut was saucy and they loved how healthy my hair looked. My middle-aged group were a mixed bag, with some admiring my courage and others giving no reaction at all. Finally were the 55-plus group of black women, most of whom had already done their own big chop many years ago and who greeted me with words to the effect of, "isn't it nice to be free?" 

And then there were the other reactions. These weren't negative reactions in the sense of what the hell did you do/this is awful/will it grow back? Instead, it was as if Harry Potter had thrown his invisibility cloak over me. I passed undetected through the offices of several clients - I mean they saw me, but they failed to recognize me.  A couple of weeks ago, I was at the airport, on my way home from a five-day conference, and in the waiting area I saw a participant from that same conference. She and I have attended this conference for several years and we even shared a flight home after this same conference the year before. So when I said, "hello", I thought there would be some hint of recognition. There wasn't. When our flight landed, and we were all waiting to pick up our luggage, we were only a couple of feet apart, but still nothing. By the time I rolled my bags out to wait for my ride, this same woman came over to get into her idling black town car, mere inches from me, but still nothing.  Even Facebook and it's facial recognition software were vexed, asking me if I wanted to tag a photo of me with the name of another friend who also happens to be a black woman with short hair and glasses (sorry Cynthia!). 

I feel like I've disappeared, or have been reborn - I can't decide which. When my non-black friends first saw my hair, they all, to a person, noticed that I'd cut my hair. But, what they didn't know, and, perhaps, couldn't know, about this haircut was that its changes run deeper than the shortness of my hair. They couldn't know that these tightly-packed curls were a signal to all whom I meet that I am different and I love how I am different.  They couldn't know that my life prior to the big chop meant avoiding any activities which could do harm to my chemically relaxed hair; half-day marathon appointments at the hairdresser; a constant search for and acquisition of umbrellas; and, in my case, not learning how to swim until I was an adult and sporting cornrows! I am learning to be beautiful in a world where people tell me that I'm not beautiful because my hair is too nappy, my skin too dark, and my body too large. And before you roll your eyes and wonder whether I'm going to dare to "go there" with that old chestnut, "beauty's on the inside", that's not where this is heading. Sure, your inside should be beautiful, but we need to expand our notions of outward, visible beauty, as well, just as I am doing.

When I think about it, the hardest adjustment I've had to make has been recognizing that my chemically straightened hair wasn't helping me to fit in, but was helping me to hide out, to disappear myself into the easily acceptable. I am trying, now, only to be myself and to love all of who I am, even if that makes some people uncomfortable. 

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