When Barack Obama became president back in 2009 (God bless him, and how I miss him), first lady Michelle and their daughters sported chemically relaxed hair for as long as they were in the public eye—eight years of an unparalleled presence.
To mention the hair, you may think is trivial detail. Somewhere in the middle of their term, Chimamanda Adichie, one of my favourite writers, went as far as to say that if Michelle had kept her natural hair during the crucial presidential campaign, Obama wouldn’t have won.
Deep as I was in awe of her, I couldn’t stop mulling over that claim. Then, her book Americanah peeled open a woeful truth in the way that only fiction can. Black assimilation into powerful rungs of white society meant rejecting those parts of Black identity that suffered inimical racial association. Hair, as she manifests through her protagonist Ifemelu, was a bone that constantly drew the temptation of a bite.
As the novel unravelled the politics of hair, my own travails with hair played back in my mind.
My first awareness of my hair and its curliness is linked to a pragmatism that suited my working mother. To contain the frizz and the hassle of daily hair maintenance, she kept my locks awfully short through primary school. I didn’t care much for how I looked back then, revelling in the distinction of my looks, so thrillingly apart from the long, tame plaits of all the other girls, who, I am sure, took pride in the femininity of their long hair.
My boy-cut, with its masculine aura and no-nonsense vibe, meant that teachers picked me to be class monitor time after time. I think word passed around among the teachers that all the other students were afraid of me. It was the grim hair, of course.
My family didn’t help. They called me Indira Gandhi. To friends, I was Sai Baba of the Satya infamy. I, of course, had little say in who I wanted to be, my hair managed all my branding for me.
When adolescence came, and the resentment for these labels acquired fever pitch, I decided to grow my hair out. Because, what the hell, I needed to be attractive like that girl in the Sunsilk TV commercial. Alas I was under the illusion that as it grew out my hair would assume a bouncy, lustrous quality, like the Sunsilk girl, or at the very least the lady in the Clinic Plus ad.
Instead, I found deep resonance with a frayed broomstick that, like my hair, had been an inheritance from the maternal side of my family. Soon I was paying for my hair-y ambition. And each day reparation included brushing and merciless combing, plaiting and twisting until I fit the image of a decent school-going girl.
At this point self-realization had dawned on me. My hair was no crowning glory. I was no Miss India material.
Thankfully, there were still things in the world that wild hair could represent: dissent. College was instrumental in this dawning. By comparing how professors wore and didn’t wear their hair, and how they did or didn’t toe the institutional line, I began to see a certain pattern. A pattern that was empowering.
Fifteen years of schooling, throughout which the textbook was sacrosanct, became irrelevant in the three years of my undergraduate studies in college where, my mind, like my curls, flowed free and wild.
Someone told me as I was finishing college that I reminded them of Arundhati Roy. It was undeserved and premature, and I didn’t know much about her then. So I didn’t bother to ask: why do you say that?
But that remark weighs on me today. She’s an embodiment of the things that she stands for—her beliefs translate into her body language, her hair in its salt and pepper, short and frizzy triumph. Kangana Ranaut is another example of that embodiment in a mainstream, deeply sexist context.
At a time when most Bollywood actresses choose boring conformity for their hair, Ranaut has had the courage to not deny herself her curls. There’s a coherence I see there, between her hair and the audacity that questions the oppressive dyad of patriarchy and nepotism in Bollywood. Conditions apply, though: her antics do sometimes devolve into shrewd PR (public relations), but who wants to see an emblem, instead of a real woman who is chasing her success?
Cold and rainy England transformed me into a vagrant hearted spirit. My hair was no longer curly or frizzy. Devoid of its tonic, the tropical weather, it lost its spunk.
Incidentally, or because of my hair, I had no politics to bare here. I had landed in an institution where anti-establishment left politicking was a way of life. Nothing, except retreating into a conservative mould, would set me apart.
So I wrote a dissertation, supporting the pragmatics of a right wing women’s group—the Mahila Aghadi—in India. Full of shrewd and tact, these women used the supposedly limited role patriarchy had vested in them to their advantage.
They did so without abandoning family, community or nation. They took pride in their everyday negotiation with these structures that curtailed their growth, a talent they believed women on the left lacked with their outright snobbery and immodest rebellion.
By the end of that dissertation, I wasn’t sure where exactly on the political spectrum of belief I lay, but I also knew that this wasn’t a terrible thing.
Still, I looked for rootedness in the way other women had lived their lives, even if they were by then mortal beings. What I found astonished me. Black women were caught in multi-generational conflict with their hair, women whose situations were more vulnerable than mine could ever be. To be accepted into the folds of a predominantly white society, Black women spent their meagre salaries on straightening products.
As I dug in more, I found a 1910-ad that read: “Race men and women may easily have straight, soft, long hair by simply applying Plough’s Hair Dressing and in a short time, all your kinky, snarly, ugly, curly hair becomes soft, smooth, silky, straight, long and easily handled…”
Most of those damaging adjectives have often been assumed about black women themselves. The idea, that by taming their hair, they might appear more cultured and less “barbaric”, was so profoundly internalized that straightening was viewed as a weapon in the fight against a culture where Black women were seen as promiscuous, dirty, and unintelligent.
In university life, this phenomenon is termed hegemony, and in capitalist society, persuasive marketing. Audre Lorde, on the other hand, said it in beautiful metaphor—a style I seem to prefer these days: the master’s tools can hardly dismantle the master’s house; oppression can’t be overcome based on the same logic that justifies that oppression in the first place.
Women continue to relax their hair, perm it, wear it in braids, and each of these invites not just pain or judgement, but the baggage of cultural history that is invisible. How the Afro became a political weapon in the fight against racism, but was rejected in romance. How in Greek mythology, Medusa’s snakes were fantastical imagination of curly hair, and how in the fantasy fiction that defined our times, Bellatrix Lestrange’s black curls were a significant projection of her evil.
Most witches in the history of art and literature too were depicted with curly hair, and there are notions out there that curly hair predisposes one to misbehaviour.
If that is indeed that case, I am thrilled. The word behaviour, for women, has always had an implicit bias—it means to behave in a manner that patriarchy has deemed right. Maybe I will find belonging in the niche club of women who were triumphant outcastes of their times, uplifting the world by embracing one twisted strand at a time.
Niharika Mallimadugula is an ethnographer based in Mumbai. She writes on gender, books and sport.