My family moved to Paris for the first time when I was four years old. This was an entirely new experience for me because up until that point, I had lived mostly in Zimbabwe with a short stint in Malawi. Europe, unsurprisingly, was really different, and living in central Paris at the time, meant I saw few black faces. One of my mother’s favourite stories is how not too long after arriving in Paris, I asked her with a serious look on my face, “Where are all the other brown people?” In the same way that I wasn’t used to not seeing black people, many non-black people were not used to seeing me, at least not in their spaces.
As a kid I used to love my pom poms. I liked having one big pom pom in the middle of my head, although I was open to having two coming out of each side of my head. In the autumn of 1996, the double pom pom was my favourite hairstyle. To me, initially, my hair was beautiful. It was luxurious and soft. It was mine. To other kids, I looked like Minnie Mouse. They taunted me for my hair, touched it without asking, pulled it, and my hair fed into the bullying that I experienced as a little girl in Paris.
The school bus was a harrowing site of anti-blackness that started from the top of my head and made its way down to the shape of my nose, the thickness of my lips, the weirdness of my accent, and the apparent shame that was supposed to be my lot for being black and African.
It was the first time I really understood that there was a value judgement attached to the colour of my skin and that it would hamper my ability to live in peace. I would later learn that my blackness would affect more than just my peace. I often cried and hated a lot of people at school. I was particularly hurt by those who looked like me but helped others taunt and bully me on the playground.
My parents did their best to counter the anti-black narrative that surrounded me. My mom would spread out her hand and say, “Look at all these fingers. They are all different sizes – some are long, some are short, some are stout, and some are knobbly. But they are all fingers and they’re all beautiful.” They also put an effort into sharing black stories and histories – an effort that would escalate in my teen years. I would be viewed as a firebrand, or that angry African many ill-informed Western teachers did not want to have in their class because I would call out racism and argue relentlessly. But at age four, this defiance had not yet been etched into the very core of my being. I was being bullied, and I was sad and I just wanted some respite. Finally, after some pestering, my mother relaxed my hair, because it was the only part of my offensive blackness that could be changed. All I wanted was hair that lay flat against my scalp like everyone else. In my mind, my pom poms were a beacon of difference that I wasn’t supposed to like, so I sacrificed them as a means of fitting in. Chemically relaxing my hair was an act of survival. It bought me a little bit of peace.
Getting my hair relaxed was not a pleasant experience. Neither my hair nor my scalp liked it. My scalp burned but I was supposed to hold on a little longer or the relaxer wouldn’t work its magic. Despite trying my hardest to follow the rules of good relaxed hair care, my hair started falling out in clumps. As a lover of swimming, that whole “stay away from water” thing didn’t stick very well. After yet another clump of hair had fallen out, I simply neglected to get a retouch. My hair was largely in protective styles anyway at the time, so opting out was fairly easy. There was no massive epiphany. No big chop (which retrospectively might have been a good idea). Just a decision to not retouch and to never ever consent to being shamed for the way my hair looked ever again. I wanted to be me, in peace. So I sought refuge in long term protective styles that would save me from having to deal with my hair on a daily basis. I chose to stow my hair away.
Today, my hair is still a touchy subject, even while living in Harare. Now, I cannot and do not claim to speak on behalf of anyone, but for me, the personal is (very) political. Living both in and outside of Zimbabwe, taught me a lot about the regulation of bodies and behaviour. Especially black bodies. If you happen to live at the intersection of multiple marginalised identities, the regulation is worse.
Hair isn’t just hair to me. It’s about the politics of beauty and of respectability.
It’s about who gets to be beautiful, who gets to choose their adornment and perform their identity. Whose default state is automatically considered professional and “upstanding” and whose isn’t. It’s about bodily autonomy. Mostly, it’s about feeling like me all the time and refusing to be apologetic about it.
Four-year-old me loved her pom poms right until taunting stopped me in my tracks, until I felt less than magical. Eleven-year-old me threw herself into protective hairstyles as a means of not having to deal with whatever was coming out of my scalp. Now, twenty-four-year old me loves her pompadour and braiding her hair, and is particularly fond of rocking brightly coloured yarn braids because colour makes me oh-so happy. I like being able to adorn myself as an extension of my personality, even as my mother suppresses her shock at my green hair.
This post originally appeared The Black Expat on May 16th 2016