I was 17 when I cut my hair into a pixie cut. It was my junior year of high school, and it had been an ongoing internal battle as I tried to decide if I was ready to make the chop. With the exception of a brief stint my freshman year of college, my hair has remained short. In fact, it’s gotten progressively shorter, culminating in a buzz cut when I lived in the woods for six weeks one summer. Now, at 22, I keep my hair clipped pretty close to my head. I don’t put product in it; I describe it, affectionately, as “fuzzy,” and I (involuntarily) give my numerous cowlicks free reign.

Something I’ve noticed is the way women compliment my hair. They lament about not being able to “pull off” the short hair look. They tell me they wish they were brave enough to cut their hair like I did. Some women feel it’s really important that I know I shouldn’t let people tell me my hair doesn’t look good. When I cut my hair, it wasn’t to make a statement. It was because my hair was big and I wanted to sleep more. In my mind, there were two options: sleep less and spend the time styling my hair or chop my hair and reap the benefits of an alarm set 45 minutes later. I didn’t know then that there was a third option: just leave it alone. Sleep in, forget about my hair and let it frizz.

I know why I didn’t see that as an option. It’s the same reason the women who like my hair use words like “brave” and tell me they wish they could cut their hair while never considering that they could any time. Hair symbolizes femininity. There’s nothing more conventionally beautiful than long, straight and silky hair. Feeling like others might see you as attractive is wound up in having pretty hair. The women on the street who are insistent I shouldn’t let people make me believe anything negative about my hair are doing so because they’ve internalized this standard; even while they’re defying the notion that it takes long hair to look good, they’re assuming that it is just accepted, that I might need to be reassured the choice I made is acceptable.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is kind of them. I’ve internalized the standard too, and it often takes effort to look at myself and others outside the lens of what is portrayed as beautiful. I’ve been pretty lucky, too; by being white, I’m already ahead of the game in terms of what is considered acceptable by society. Ankita Rao writes there are “societal pressures to adhere to beauty standards that typically embody a white, European aesthetic” that are especially harmful to women of color.

The thing about expecting hair to look a certain way is that it doesn’t take into account differences of hair texture, cultural styles, etc. It doesn’t care what is possible for your hair; society wants straight and shiny. This, besides being arbitrary and ridiculous, is actively toxic, especially for women of color. And while the standards of beauty are toxic in many ways that go beyond haircare, looking strictly at hair is enough to show how problematic the expectations — and the lengths to which they drive women — are.

A study by Perception Institute, titled “The ‘Good Hair’ Survey,” found Black women feel more anxiety than white women regarding their hair. It states, “One in five black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work — twice as many as white women,” and that this pressure came from biases; white women ranked Black women’s textured hair as “less beautiful, less sexy/attractive, and less professional than smooth hair.” In spring 2017, a Massachusetts public charter school punished two girls for their braided hair, claiming the style was an infraction against their uniform policy, which prohibited “hair extensions.”

This is just a small sampling of attitudes, and the issue is prevalent. Women of color are fired from jobs and discriminated against based on the hair styles they choose; hair styles that, because they are culturally significant and particular to textured hair not conventional in Western beauty standards, are seen as unprofessional and unattractive. Natural hair is often erased from the public eye; the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has gone on for 22 years, and only in the last three years has it include models with natural hair. In November 2017, Lupita Nyong’o used Instagram to call out the magazine Grazia UK for editing and smoothing her hair without her consent when it featured her on the front page.

In response to all of these factors, women of color often feel pressure to use heat or chemicals to straighten their hair, meaning “compared with white women, women of color have higher levels of beauty product–related environmental chemicals in their bodies,” according to a Vice magazine article. Not only are the attitudes surrounding hair and beauty expectations toxic, but these expectations are literally, physically toxic.

There are women, too, who may lose their hair because of treatment for an illness, or because of a condition like alopecia. These women then have to grapple with their notion of femininity and their own self-image because of the pervasive standards of beauty. The pressures to conform to a certain standard are both internal and external, and all they do is cause trouble.

People took to the internet to praise the movie “Black Panther” for (among many other things) the female characters and their natural hairstyles. Patrice Williams, in an article or Hello Giggles, questions whether her own journey to accepting natural hair might have been made easier if there were more representation like that in “Black Panther.” From braids, to curls, to bald heads, the women in the movie are strong, powerful and rocking natural hairstyles. Representation like this allows women (and men!) to see that there is beauty outside enforced societal standards. Beauty standards are largely arbitrary, and highlighting women who don’t fit these molds is important for young girls growing up and figuring out how they feel about themselves.

I support whatever a woman wants to do with her hair. Cut it off, wear it long, straighten it, let it curl; whatever makes someone comfortable is what she should go for. What I don’t like is the pressures that make us feel like there’s a right option for us, and that the option should be pursued, even if it’s not in our best interest.

Every time a woman tells me she wishes she could cut her hair, I want to tell her, “But you can!” I want to tell her it’s worth it to take the leap, even if she isn’t doing it to make a statement or liberate herself, she might find these things happen anyway. But I know it’s hard; it’s scary to know people might stare, to know you’re deliberately going against what the world tells you to do to be beautiful. But when I can, I try to gently encourage them to think about what they’re afraid of, why they couldn’t go ahead and chop it all off. Pulling it off isn’t real; what is real is following your heart and rejoicing in the first shampoo with inches of hair gone.


Danielle Colburn can be reached at decol@umich.edu.

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