Why touching Afro hair is really not the thing to do, even for curious and well meaning fingers. A written piece by Hey Chanté, creator of the Please Don’t Touch My Hair zine.
By Hey Chanté
If you have afro hair, more likely than not, you have experienced the invasion of personal space, that comes with people’s curiosity. Strangers you’ve known for less than a minute, will grip their fingers into your hair and claim it’s a compliment. A good few experiences I had or witnessed lead to me creating the ‘Please Don’t Touch Your Hair’ zine. I did it firstly to unpack the curiosity that compels many ‘well meaning’ people, but also to celebrate afro hair. Afro hair hasn’t always been a cool or desirable hair type, but it is beautiful, it is cool and it is natural. For someone like me, who has always had natural hair it is important to remind other girls with afro hair that it rocks!
Why did I create the Zine?
Unbeknownst to some the problem of having people touch afro hair is unfortunately common, I’ve had people just come up to me in places like work, clubs, festivals, school, just touch my hair or extensions or what every was on my head… out of curiosity? I’ve witnessed it happening to my friends too – usually no one asks and if we say no they get offended.
I can tell you about the time a friend and myself were outside a rave and a random girl came up to us, one of the first things she started talking about was our hair – “Oh my God I love your hair is that actually real?” and “How long did it take to grow it?” At some point she decided we were friendly enough for her to touch my friend’s loose hair. I’m not going to lie, I gave the girl the side eye, but my friend the diplomatic route and put it down to her drunkenness.
Or I can tell you about another time at a friend’s birthday. One of her friends from university must have been on her natural hair journey, her hair was looking beautiful and shiny. A middle aged man (who now I think about it probably really fancied this girl) decided to compliment her hair and spoke about how he doesn’t really know any mixed raced people (red flag number one – why mention ) AND THEN proceeded to touch her hair, “I mean your hair is just beautiful and oooh it’s so soft.” I couldn’t hold my tongue for this one, I told him off . In the end he got really offended told one of the other girls around us that he was only making a compliment. She defended him saying “I don’t really see what’s wrong with that.”
But the experience that really hits the nail on the coffin was a time in the winter I wore a wig. During winter months my hair can’t take being out in the cold air for too long. Something about really cold weather makes my hair super sensitive and it breaks a lot easier, so I wear wigs as a protective style. I was out with friends waiting for others to arrive so that we could all hang out. While we waited a drunk guy, about our age, comes up to us offering a bottle he’s stolen from work. I decline, my male friends drinks some. I’m clearly being “stush” so he narrows his attention to me then asks “ is that a wig ooh can I touch it.” I politely say no and he takes this as a challenge and starts reaching for me while I back away fast. Somehow, I end up in a headlock with my head being rubbed by this guy, so as natural reaction, I give him the biggest slap of his life. Fair to say that taught him a lesson.
These are just the most recent examples in my life and for some reason this year it really started to bubble up inside and I had to release it in some way, that’s why I made the zine.
These are some of the questions I’ve been asked when I’ve spoken up about my hair:
“Why am I not allowed to touch it?”
Firstly because it’s weird, touching and getting into someone’s personal space without consent can make anyone uncomfortable. All hair – be it straight, wavy or frizzy – is essentially made up of the same thing. A protein called keratin, compacted and cemented together in the shaft of your hair strand. It’s also the most delicate hair type of them all, shoving your hand into it then yanking back out could cause breakages. You could also be messing up the style that could of taken days not hours to prepare for.
Curly hair is the most vulnerable to damage of all hair textures, due to its unique structure and specific processing, styling and grooming needs, curly hair requires special care and use of specifically-formulated products in order to look, feel and be at its’ best. Where the twists and curls of the hair occur, there is a change in the width of the hair (think what happens when you bend or twist a straw). These twists and curls are weak points along the hair, and this is one of the reasons why the hair breaks so easily and can seem to not grow if not taken care of correctly. Even I am not allowed to touch my hair too often. It loves to be left alone, the less manipulation the better.
“But I’m Curious”
Understandable that you’d be curious, Afro textured hair up until recently hasn’t often been visible in mainstream media. Visible black women tend to have their hair chemically straightened or covered in straight hair extensions or wigs.
Afro are usually used as a joke prop in costumes or in movies. They are portrayed as magical objects that can pop into existence. For example there was Foxxy Cleopatra played by Beyoncé in Austin Powers (2002) who’s hair magically and rapidly expands after she shakes her head free of water (If only it was that simple). To add to all of that, products for Afrocentric hair aren’t usually found in big name branded supermarkets or stores. This is because European beauty is considered the norm still to this day, black features for years have been considered as undesirable and “good hair” is long flowing straight hair.
If you really were curious you’d take to the internet, one of our best tools for knowledge to date!
Or if that feels like too much work and you know a black person well enough to respectfully ask her some questions, go for it. Some don’t mind answering questions, education is power, but do keep in mind for most of us there is a constant expectation to educate the masses on why our hair is so different – it can get tiring.
“I was just trying to give you a compliment…”
Who doesn’t love a compliment?! More than often we know that it comes from a well-meaning place. By all means don’t think this means you can never compliment a beautiful hairstyle again, being petted like an animal can really rain on your good intentions.
There is a history behind black bodies being under ownership, yes that includes hair. One woman, Saartjie Baartman, was displayed in a cage around the mid-1850 where she was mocked and gawked at for all to see. Even after her death, scientists of the time dissected her body to investigate the difference between the “savage” woman and the “civilized” woman.
“I wouldn’t mind anyone touching my hair”
And some people don’t mind at all, it all comes under the bracket of consent. Everyone is entitled to have their personal boundaries respected and it shouldn’t offend you if someone would prefer you didn’t touch them.
There might have been a time where someone else let you stroke their hair and there might also have been a situation where that person just wanted to avoid any issues or arguments.
There are plenty of situations where someone could feel pressured into being nice enough to let others touch their hair.
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