Black Lesbian Hair: The Personal and The Political

on

Getty Images

I believe in the importance of a professional look for public events. Being Black, female, and lesbian, I don’t exactly match society’s blueprint of someone worth listening to. Assumptions of rationality and knowledge aren’t always projected onto me the way they would a straight white man with the same level of expertise in his field. Dressing for success – looking the part – is kind of like putting a suit of armour that protects against internalising any of the misogynoir projected onto me. Purple lipstick, bold patterns, and a big pair of Docs that (ever since reading one of Kirsty Logan’s lesbian short stories) I think of affectionately as being “proper shitkickers” – it’s not exactly what my mother taught me was right for the world of work, but then she’s a bank manager and I’m a writer.

Being Black, female, and lesbian, I don’t exactly match society’s blueprint of someone worth listening to. Assumptions of rationality and knowledge aren’t always projected onto me the way they would a straight white man with the same level of expertise in his field.

The best and most crucial part of this process is having my undercut shaved in. I love the buzz of the clippers, the lick of cold metal against my skin. The thrill of seeing the alien planes of my scalp freshly unveiled never grows old. The day before my last event, I dropped into the salon for a quick shave.

Being somewhat antisocial, I usually try to go when the salon is quiet, but I got caught up in preparation work that lasted well into peak haircutting time. Fortunately, they squeezed me in – my undercut had reached that awkward fluffy stage, too long to be presentable and too short for a curl to start forming. The woman in the chair beside mine was getting meticulous honey-blonde highlights. We smiled at each other’s reflections in the mirror and continued to mind our own business – exactly how it should be.

Getty Images

I got the shave done, which gave my character stats an instant boost: an extra 10% XP gained from successful interactions with characters of the same sex. As the hairdresser brushed away the fuzzy remnants never destined to grow into curls, the woman in the next chair turned and said to her: “What have you done to your client?!”

Alarmed by the panic in her voice, I fumbled to put my glasses back on. As the hairdresser explained the concept of an undercut to my neighbour, I observed my do. Everything was fine. Better than fine, actually – it took a few tries to convince the hairdresser to give me sharp corners at first, as she worried it would look “too severe”, but she got the edges nice and sharp. And nothing had been shaved off by accident. Skimming the new stubble with my fingertips, I felt good – good enough to engage with my neighbour’s next question: “Is that the fashion with girls now?”

I smiled, unable to keep a trace of irony from my voice – even at my most visibly lesbian, I was still incognito in the salon. “Some girls.”

“Why do you want to do that to yourself? That style has a kind of ‘it’ factor, but – whatever ‘it’ is – I don’t want ‘it’.”

‘It’ is a lesbian aesthetic. For a brief moment I contemplated explaining the politics of that lesbian aesthetic. But then I remembered I don’t hate myself and decided to go home and watch cute cat videos instead. I told her “don’t worry, it’s not for everyone,” and went on my merry way.

But, even after I left the salon, my neighbour’s questions stayed with me. There’s an expectation that women prioritise attractiveness above all else in matters of appearance – specifically, the narrow version of attractiveness that the male gaze imposes upon women and judges us in relation to.

Getty Images

 

Because of how gender is socialised and enforced, women are encouraged to act as objects in the lives of men instead of claiming the agency required to behave as the subjects of our own lives. There’s a kind of freedom in rejecting men’s expectations of your body, and an even greater freedom in ignoring men’s expectations altogether.

There’s a kind of freedom in rejecting men’s expectations of your body, and an even greater freedom in ignoring men’s expectations altogether.

At the intersectionality workshop I was facilitating, complete with a fierce undercut, someone asked the best question I’ve ever had during any session yet. A girl who looked no older than twelve asked if I minded being described as a gay woman instead of a lesbian. The answer: ultimately yes, because words like gay and queer tend to treat male as the default and in so doing obscure lesbian reality. The conversation moved on to visibility – the privileges that come with passing as part of the dominant group balanced against the internal cost of erasure.

A girl who looked no older than twelve asked if I minded being described as a gay woman instead of a lesbian. The answer: ultimately yes, because words like gay and queer tend to treat male as the default and in so doing obscure lesbian reality.

It’s not always visible, whether you belong to the dominant or oppressed political class. Outwardly, it’s clear that I’m Black and female – there’s not much chance of me being read as white or male. As I said during the workshop, I could definitely have a more heterosexual looking haircut. There is some scope for me to pass as straight, which would result in better treatment throughout different areas in my life. But I don’t. Because, like Mystique said (back in the good old days when she was played by Rebecca Romijn and the X-Men franchise relied more on quality acting than special effects to tell a story), “we shouldn’t have to.” Lesbian women being treated with respect should not be conditional upon us conforming to the male gaze or allowing ourselves to be assumed heterosexual.

Getty Images

Having an obviously lesbian haircut changed my relationship with public space. I stopped hiding behind my considerable volume of hair or trying to make myself smaller, and instead started claiming space. Various relatives saw fit to offer their opinions, all unsolicited, and the general consensus was that in shaving off sections of hair I had made myself look harder; less approachable. For them this was unfortunate, perhaps because my appearance flew in the face of the gendered assumption that young women ought to be soft and biddable. By refusing to prioritise prettiness, I had violated the codes laid down by heteropatriarchy. For me, it was wonderful: I looked badass, and men stopped talking to me on public transport – a win-win situation.

I stopped hiding behind my considerable volume of hair or trying to make myself smaller, and instead started claiming space.

My first lesbian haircut was an asymmetrical undercut, to which I have since returned – long on one side, shaved to nothing on the other. Like a great many lesbians, I felt compelled to have it all chopped off and for about six months had a proper short back and sides. Imagine any of the Peaky Blinders as a short, thic Black dyke with glasses and you’ll get the picture. It was fun. It reduced my haircare routine by half an hour. What little curls I had dried in a fraction of the time my hair used to take. But it wasn’t for me.

At risk of having my L Card revoked, I don’t like having short hair. The strange thing is that I never loved my natural hair until having 90% of it cut off – absence really did make the heart grow fonder.

As a girl I ignored my hair, scraped it back into a ponytail, and tried to pretend it wasn’t there. Throughout high school I was acutely conscious that my hair marked me out as Other in an overwhelmingly white town. White boys routinely threatened to cut it off or stick gum in it, and would ask if my hair was so curly because I never washed it.

When I went to university I experimented with straighteners and chemical relaxers in an effort to be less distant from white, Eurocentric beauty standards so that I might fit in. Left to its own devices, my hair texture is 3C, which is certainly not the ultimate natural hair struggle.

Getty Images

Still, throughout my life it has been a lightning rod for micro aggressions and misogynoir. Having internalized all of that, I loathed my hair – which made chopping it off all the more tempting. In growing part of my hair back, I learned to like its versatility and body. The extra layer of insulation is particularly welcome as the Scottish winter draws in!

Trying to rid yourself of internalized racism in an environment that’s whiter than the Antarctic snow is no small task. Unpicking the threads of internalized anti-Blackness while trying to build a sense of lesbian pride is more complicated still – and while neither one is a process with a clear end-point, it feels like huge progress to be able to say that I take joy in my hair, Black and lesbian as it is.

Trying to rid yourself of internalised racism in an environment that’s whiter than the Antarctic snow is no small task.

Mine is not the definitive story of Black lesbian hair, and such a thing does not exist: just as there is no one way to be Black, there is no one way to be lesbian. But if you Google lesbian hair, the results are overwhelmingly white. Black Lesbian Love Lab has a beautiful piece on couples rocking natural hair, but search results don’t yield much else. The flat, sleek styles equated with lesbian aesthetic don’t necessarily work with a lot of Black women’s natural hair textures.

In conversations about lesbian presentation, too often Black women are side-lined or missing altogether. We all need to hear more about Black women’s experiences of lesbian existence – and when it is already so deeply politicized, that includes hair.

Getty Images

More you may like