Whether you 'shave it off', 'get in on the lock' or 'rock it straight', the hairstyle you choose has everything to do with defining who you are. David Coplan, a professor in anthropology at Wits, reckons hairstyles are a way of expressing identity. "We judge people by appearances and, to an extent, hairstyles signify something about you, so it's natural for people to make assumptions about you based on the way you've styled your hair," he says. "Hair and identity are inseparable – whether you're consciously making a statement or not, your hairstyle does express something about you." So if you've been thinking your hair is making no declaration to the world, think again.
The language of liberty:
"We choose hairstyles as a way of distinguishing ourselves from, or grouping ourselves with a particular crowd," says Johannesburg clinical psychologist Jenni Avidon. And because hair is such an important tool in expressing our identity, Prof Coplan agrees that every society has created a hair vocabulary to convey various identities. In South Africa, for example, long straightened hair is loosely associated with being Eurocentric, dreadlocks with Rastas and natural hair with being proudly African. Where do these associations come from? Largely from the people seen wearing these styles most often. They determine the cultural connections we make between their hairstyles and the clothes, cars, jobs and music they seem to prefer. But black hair also has a struggle history and a political vocabulary. Jo Bodiba, a 22-year-old industrial psychology student, part-time bartender and Yvonne Chaka Chaka's personal assistant, is proud to have been part of the 'hair revolution at Roedean' in the 90s. Rules at this posh girls' high school included a ban on braids, plaits and dreadlocks. Only natural hair was allowed for black girls, until JoBo led a group of nervous schoolgirls to challenge this rule. But the principal's shocking assertion that 'braids breed lice' stunned them. "As you can imagine, our eyes grew wide, our mouths dropped open and we were all breathless," JoBo remembers. "Well Ma'am," I ventured, "actually they don't. It's easier and cleaner for us to keep our hair like that, otherwise we have to relax it," I explained. "Relax!" she said. "What do you mean relax?" "Ma'am, as black girls our hair naturally grows hard and curly," I persisted. "For our hair to be soft and presentable, we have to straighten it with a chemical that smells like sulphur at least every six weeks at the salon, and we can't wash it every day, or it goes back to its natural state." A month passed, during which the principal researched the intricacies of black hair maintenance, before braids finally became respectable at Roedean!
But policing the way black people wear their hair can be equally oppressive when hair becomes an instrument of liberation. So says a paper published by the University of Michigan, which quotes from the Hair stories of liberation told by writers Alice Walker and Gloria Wade-Gayles. Walker wrote about a connection between her 'spiritual liberation' and the delightful discovery (after an experiment with long braids made from Korean hair) that her own hair had a will of its own and a sense of humour – and she went as far as calling processed hair 'oppressed'. Wade-Gayles didn't stop there, saying 'an activist with straightened hair was... a lie. A joke.' So it's not enough that maintaining black hair is an expensive, time-consuming business, with good products hard to find here... Now our hair also has to do community service? The paper worries the root of the debate when it asks, "Does wearing your hair natural prove that you love yourself and black people more than someone with processed hair?" Babe examines some hair-raising stereotypes.