So many of us – perhaps too many of us – have set off like Christopher Columbus in search of “good hair,” and like that confused pioneer, we’ve ended up lost on foreign shores claiming something as ours that really doesn’t belong to us. Plus we’ve got to resist seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who didn’t love us to begin with, who sought to subdue us by making us believe we were inferior in every sense.
Some brave black women have fought such colonizing ideas about hair. Think of Grace Jones with her legendary gleaming skull, Susan Taylor with her elegant and flowing braids, and Whoopi Goldberg with her lovely locks featured daily on national television.
And it’s not just a black thing. Some Asian women are warned against wearing pigtails because they’ll look like peasants. Scarf squads trail some Middle-Eastern sisters lest a lock of hair slip into view. Some married orthodox Jewish women shave their heads only to buy wigs (sheitel) sanctioned by the Talmud. And Christian women have been set up by the Bible (1 Corinthians 11:15) for hairanonia –the fear of not having a “crowning glory.”
Gabby’s critics forced me to reflect on my “hairstory,” and to recall my critics. When I was one of a few blacks girls in grade school, a white girl named Blondie teased me about my kinky hair as her braids slapped my face when she spun around to play with other classmates. In the late sixties, I cut my ties with “colonizing” styles by clipping away my perm to wear an Afro. I was shocked and saddened when some of my Afrocentric sisters told me that my natural was too nappy!
So, after blow-outs and hot picks didn’t spare my Angela Davis-lke ‘fro, I lightly permed my natural hair to be at one with my Kente cloth sisterhood. I grew so tired of their relentless gaze that I took to wearing African hair-wraps called Geles.
Over the years, I’ve changed my hairstyle to reflect my evolving belief that my hair should please me regardless of what others think. When I turned 50 I had my hair twisted; by 55 I was back to perms and sometimes weaves. I suffer from a mild case of Alopecia and wear blended and occasionally full wigs. At 60, I claim full follicular freedom: I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of my hair.
I pray the same for Gabby. I hope the uplifting words of Serena, Beyoncé, Gabrielle Union, Michael Eric Dyson and Oprah echo in her ears as she goes for more gold at the Olympics. And as the torch of the 2012 games is eventually extinguished, I hope the flames of our self-hatred and our hairanoia will likewise die out.
Marcia Dyson is an author, social activist and cultural critic. Follow her on Twitter at @MarciaLDyson