Friday, July 6, 2012

Sexuality and Hair: The Day I became unwomanly and a butch

The first time I cut my hair, particularly short; I was about 16 years old. This was before the new “natural hair” trend that we are currently experiencing. Back then to be that young and bold (in the eyes of some) was truly a radical act. I went against what most thought as the proper performance of a girl/young woman. For me, it was one of the most liberating things, to date, that I’d ever done. I didn’t do it as an act of defiance to the scripts of womanhood. I did it because it felt right. It felt like me. It was freeing. 

Between the ages of 16 and 25 I experimented with many hair styles. You name it I tried it—braids, weaves, and naturals. My hair changed color depending on my mood. I had fun with my hair—for the most part. However, there was one thing that stayed constant during that time. I was never really in love with hair. I’m not a particularly fussy person and neither am I one to be moved by trends. However, I do know what I like and what I don’t. Hair is not high on my like list. 

Chrisette Michele

Around my 20th birthday (sometime in the early 1990s) I went to the barbershop on Rutland Road in Brooklyn, NY. There was a barber in this shop who had the reputation of being excellent. I sat in his chair, after waiting for what felt like hours, and told him that I wanted a tight fade. He gave me one of the best fades I’ve ever had. Like clockwork, I would show up for my edge up and trim. One morning as I positioned myself in his chair an older man mumbled, just loudly enough for me to hear, “a woman should never do that to herself.” The barber and I both ignored him. Not being satisfied at the lack of response, he said louder “that’s just not right and it ain’t natural.” My barber stopped, looked at him and replied, “I saw her with long her and I’ve cut her hair this short. To me she’s even more beautiful now.” Interestingly when I wore a head full of weave and braids no one was ever so bold to say to my face that it was “unnatural”.  

Little did I know that cutting my hair and wearing a fade would illicit such responses. Some men were so bold as to ask me if I was a “butch”. My cousins were questioned about my sexuality. The only thing that changed was the length of my hair. Unbeknownst to me was that my hair sent messages about my sexuality. I did not know that long hair = heterosexuality. 

Walking the streets in NY became increasingly more challenging. Prior to my fade my non-response to cat calls resulted in me being cussed and accused of thinking that I’m better than others. In my post long, permed hair era, my refusal to respond to such calls resulted in more than who the “fuck do you think you are!” to “ain’t nobody want you, you fucking butch!” I was told how I needed some “good stiff dick” to rescue me from my perceived homosexuality.

What I did not understand was how in the time it took to cut my hair my sexuality had changed. Beyond exposing how hair is valued in society, my experience taught me about the functioning of society and what academia eventually taught me was marginalization. The questioning of my sexuality, vis-à-vis the length of my hair, reflects how we define the boundaries of our community. It speaks to how we determine who is allowed in and what allows them in. So I could pass and be accepted into the community simply by wearing a wig. That simple act would deflect some of the street harassment I faced.

But it wasn’t just gendered-sexed street harassment that I encountered. I also encountered censorship from some older Black women in the community. In a short period of time, I became the damaged Black woman. Some would ask I if was sick. It never entered their imagination that someone would willingly cut their hair as short as I wore mine at times. When I would respond that I’m not sick, eyebrows would raise ever so slightly. Some women were polite enough to let that be the extent of the reproach and questioning. Others would be bold enough to ask, “why would you choose to wear your hair that way?” Some quoted the Bible to me about how my hair was my crowning glory and how it was against the teachings of God for a woman to deface herself by cutting her hair. In my mind I would think, I didn’t break any of the Commandments so there is still hope for me to make it into the Kingdom. In the meantime, I just couldn’t be accepted among my people. 

How has your hair been used as acceptance or denial into particular communities?


  1. Interestingly while long hair is considered 'feminine' and for this reason a shaved hair on a woman is 'butch'. Men who grow their hair to long lengths are seeming exempt from the arguement of being considered effeminate!

    I mean, Snoop Dogg relaxes and curls his hair but that only helps to personify his 'gangster' image!

    Personally I find short hair on a woman to be beautiful and bold (as is strong and confident). I also envy the style minimum upkeep, if only I had the right shape face/head to pull it off!

    1. Donalea, yes you are correct. Some men are able to cross some boundaries with minimum censorship. If I'm not mistaken Malcolm X and many men of that era also altered their hair; but were able to maintain their hetro/hyper masculinity. However, I'm not convinced that this is available to all males. I've heard some men be harassed because of a certain hairstyle and perceived effeminate ways.

      Like you, I adore short hair. You might be surprise that what you think you see--in terms of the shape of your head, etc--might not be how the rest of use see you. You might have the perfect shape head to rock a short style. Whatever you wear, wear it with grace and dignity.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. It took me a while figure out how to post here.. I shame.
    Anyways, I lost my original text so this is trial two....
    Some of us place such importance on hair as a measure of defining a person and to some extent my experiences sicken me.
    I never had these problems when I had chemically straightened hair, go figure.
    Our first issues stem from our thinking,which is definitely heavily grounded in European / Colonist views of how we should look.
    I remember having to be very concious of how I wore my locs when they were past shoulder length, because a certain, imperfect look was considered "the way how lesbians wear their locs".
    Then there still is the issue many peers here have with my natural hair, from it not looking professional to "it need styling up". I guess they are trying to make me think that something is wrong with my appearance. I wish them luck.
    I am too proud to represent my heritage and culture through my healthy, clean hair, no matter the style or cut, it should not define me.

  3. Dear Nicole:
    I wore my hair in locs for 10 yrs and was clueless that certain styles conveyed sexual preferences. I wonder how many times I crossed these imagined boundaries. But alas...who cares!! I think that regardless of how we wear our hair we have to resist others' understandings of who and what we are. So do you because like you say, it does not define who you are!
    Thanks for taking the time to comment.