When I cut off my relaxed hair back in 2015 to start growing out the natural hair I had dreamed of for four years before that, my friends and family were ‘mad’ that I was cutting my chemically straightened long hair.
All my life, until now, I have always had this long straight hair that was always considered beautiful.
At first I thought the negative reaction from my loved ones was a result of me having kinky hair as opposed to straight hair, but when I grew out my now afro hair I was once again celebrated for having beautiful hair.
A friend of mine once told me this was because of my “hair privilege”. This brought me to the realisation that perhaps hair privilege in not only in hair texture but maybe also in hair length.
I spoke to Sol Maria Fernandez Knight about whether this could be the case.
She is a master’s research psychology intern at the UNISA’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences and the South African Medical Research Council-UNISA’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit.
“My research on hair has shown that women are socialised from an early age to use their hair as a primary way to communicate their identity to those around them. Different hairstyles convey a message on a woman’s beliefs, sexual orientation and social status. We live in a world where people make assumptions or judgements based on how a woman looks, and hair is no exception to this rule,” says Maria.
Her research interests include gender, social justice, identity and racial inequality, with an interest in the related processes of transformation and inclusivity at higher education institutions.
“Some research has also shown that women who are rated as more physically attractive are considered more privileged in terms of being offered more job opportunities and promotions. Therefore, it could be argued that long hair affords women more privilege,” said Maria.
She maintains that hair privilege is in no way a new phenomenon. “Hair privilege in society can be traced back to the history of colonialism and slavery which laid the foundation for a system of discrimination that is still evident in our society. This system is not explicit but ‘invisible’ and your worth as a human being and as a woman continues to be based on your physical characteristics.”
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Maria said there may be hair bias towards men as well but said it not as common or made evident as the issues that women face around hair. “Men do not face the same pressures as women when it comes to presenting themselves, whether it be in the work environment or in society. It is fair to say that men also face stereotypes and are given labels i.e. men with longer hair are more feminine, but more research should be conducted to expose the issues that men face, which cannot be undermined.”
“The politics of hair are no longer hidden, so the idea of granting more privileges to women who don a particular hairstyle has become far less acceptable. It is important women who are entering the workplace to know that no company or organisation has the right to reject them or deny access to work opportunities because of their natural hair or other physical characteristics,” she said.
Maria’s words are something to keep in mind as I contemplate a short do for this summer while I place my preferences first.
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