Last spring, my 13-year-old sister Veronica was given permission to walk home from school by herself. She was getting ice cream with friends and then going home, and was supposed to update my parents every step of the way. Instead, she went alone to a barber shop across the street from her school and got a buzz cut, using her own $18 to pay for it.
For months, Veronica, who had her hair in a chic pixie that accentuated her sharp features, had asked my mother if she could shave her head. Just a buzz cut, she pleaded, but the answer was no. Then she asked again, and … still no. This went on for several months until my typically relaxed mother, in a rare act of sternness, gave a resounding, “Never.”
Her reasoning was that Veronica didn’t have a good reason to go uber-short. She already has a pixie cut, she says, so why did she need it any shorter? It could be expensive to get a buzz cut trimmed regularly. My mother also doesn’t think it’s an appropriate choice for a 13-year-old. Veronica thinks it’s because a buzz cut isn’t particularly feminine.
With the deed done, she went home with the sweatshirt’s hood snug to her head and snuck upstairs, hoping to escape notice until our parents inevitably saw it.
When they found out, they were mostly upset she went alone without telling them and complimented her new style. Her school wasn’t so benevolent. When we received an updated list of uniform rules at the conservative parochial school, it included “no shaved heads for girls” and Veronica is once again wearing a pixie.
Hair is so intrinsic to personal identity, but as self-expression, it’s often regulated by external forces, whether a middle school, workplace or religious institution. My own style-less hairstyle is far from bold — long, naturally wavy and dark blonde. I like it, but it’s not exactly revolutionary. So, to explore who and what determines how we wear our hair, I turned to the professionals.
Emily Parker, assistant professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies at Towson University, teaches a class on the philosophy of race, class and gender. Among many topics, the class discusses political identities.
“People read identities without realizing it,” Parker says. This “reading” structures our understanding of the people around us. “What you do as a body is indicative of what’s going on, of how you feel,” she says. “It’s a way of interacting with the world.”
Hair is naturally part of this. The way a person chooses to wear his or her hair may say something about them and their values. Parker says her classes always end up talking about hair, whether it’s part of the syllabus or not.
“I get a lot of stories like [your sister’s],” she says. “All the ways that people intentionally and unintentionally find themselves at odds with the rules.”
Emily Sisk, a cosmetologist at About Faces in Annapolis, occasionally has clients who want to try edgier trends but can’t because of their corporate jobs. While rules have loosened over the past few years, many of her clients are at workplaces where pastel pink highlights still wouldn’t be considered professional.
The fix? They get hidden streaks of color or other concealed unorthodox accents.
“If a woman wants to portray [a style] … they really start with their hair,” Sisk says. “Women really wear their hair to speak to their identity.”
Sisk, who has 20 years of experience as a stylist, has seen countless clients drastically change their hair. Women who get a major chop, for example, often “wear their hair with more confidence,” she says. “They wear themselves with more confidence.”
Zarah Charm has been helping black women with natural hair care since 2008, when she started a YouTube channel that now has 14,000 subscribers. She is also the owner of ZC Hair Loft in Mount Vernon.
“Hair plays a big part in how we feel about ourselves,” she says. “A bad hair day can change the look of an outfit.”
Historically, natural hair was seen as “unkempt” or “unprofessional” in the United States, but standards have changed over the years. Nonetheless, “going from wearing your hair relaxed to natural can be a big change,” Charm says. She says her clients transitioning for the first time frequently aren’t sure if they like it at first, but over time become more adventurous with the natural styles they try.
“It definitely helps women’s confidence,” Charm says. “I feel like I’m empowering women to be themselves.”
LaQuisha Hall, a ZC Hair Loft client, says Charm is the only person allowed to braid her hair. Hall currently wears her locks in a Havanna twist with large-strand braids that reach the middle of her back and that she often styles into buns.
“I wear styles that remind me of royalty,” says Hall. The controversy over hair, she says, “goes back to the Bible and the idea that our hair is our glory. That means different things to different people.”
Hall teaches high school English for Baltimore City public schools but started blogging five years ago at Corner Curl Girl to showcase her natural hair and also her fashion sense. To some, her style maybe “big” or “a lot,” but “it creates conversations,” she says. “My hair creates conversations, too.”
For people like her and for my sister, that’s the point.