Hair: the Fetish Idealized, the Fetish Denied

Photo by drothamel

Let’s talk about hair.

I (used to) have long, straight, blonde hair. Friends and acquaintances cooed over how soft it was, how it caught the light, how it moved in the breeze. They played with it in class and while we were hanging out.

They never asked permission.

Strangers also loved my hair. They petted it in hallways and on the train. While I was in highschool, one older student took to running his hand through my hair as we passed in the stairwell. I did not know him. At a concert, I tried to escape from a rough mosh only to have my head jerked back; another stranger had clenched his fists around my ponytail, and clutched my hair like the only lifeline in a sea of bodies.

And that’s how women’s hair is treated when it matches cultural ideals.

As Jamie Keiles put it, “Hair represents beauty. It represents power.” It is a battleground for our bodies. Society’s treatment of hair is part of the system of heteronormativity, misogyny, and racism. People are harassed for having hair that’s the wrong length, or is too styled, because their hair defies cisgender norms. Men whose hair is too styled are looked down on as effeminate, and women whose hair isn’t soft/shiny/thick/long/straight enough are declared unattractive slobs.

Hair that doesn’t meet racist cultural standards of straightness and malleability—Black hair—is degraded as “nappy” hair. Black hair—and Black women—are so hated that, if a Black woman wears her hair natural, or doesn’t do enough to make it match white ideals, her alleged laziness and unprofessionalism overshadows her accomplishments.

Hair—gendered, racialized hair—is treated as a public commodity. Strangers dictate how an individual’s hair should look, and grab women’s hair without permission.  If an individual refuses to participate in this system, they are met with censure (as with Gabby Douglas) or even violence (as with the student Mitt Romney assaulted). The ever-present eyes of society, the omniopticon, force individuals to police their own bodies and conform to societal ideals, at the cost of their health and a lot of money. Even then, women are rewarded with the grabby hands of physical harassment.

There is no escape.

Photo by caffeina


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