“There will always be a sense of belonging and acceptance because you are white. Because I am black, there will always be conflict.” – Mamello Makhetha
Obnoxiously coloured hair, harem pants, septum piercings, platform shoes – it’s relatively easy to keep up with UCT’s ever-changing fad train. Living in South Africa’s hipster capital, it’s become easy to simply ignore the glaringly uncomfortable-looking gladiator boots and loosely-clad folk who vaguely resemble Jesus. Yet, 2016 saw the rise of a trend that managed to strike my intrigue. The emergence of the buzz cut. Over the course of a few months, I witnessed more and more girls ridding themselves of their locks entirely and stepping out with a fresh-faced beauty that I could only admire. However, I came to understand that this seemed to be more than just a fun experiment, with many girls across various racial demographics citing toxic hegemonic beauty standards and even the Pretoria Girl High protest as among their reasoning for deciding to go bare. Others insisted that it was merely a new form of self-expression with the aim of uncovering their own beauty. Here, I felt, there was room for some exploring.
The Pretoria Girl High protest struck a nerve in women worldwide after 13-year-old Zulaika Patel faced suspension when her afro was deemed a “disruption” to classroom activities. More stories began to surface, detailing the manner in which young black girls were being forced to give up their identity and culture in order to navigate a white space – 17-year-old Malaika Maoh Eyoh faced similar punishment after cutting off her relaxed her and beginning to grow out a small afro. What began as a localized protest garnered international momemetum; in fact, a mural of Zulaika has now been erected as far as Brooklyn, New York. This policing of black bodies and restriction of self-expression has offered an unsettling contextualization when it comes to the notion of shaving hair. I was able to interview two young women who shaved their hair in the aftermath of the protest and contrast their opinions over what it symbolized for them.
Mamello Makhetha, a 21-year-old student completing her Honours degree in Theatre & Performance at UCT, aired her disdain over the uneven politicization of hair. She believes that the expression of one’s hair holds fundamentally distinctive incentives and reactions depending on your race, regardless of whether it’s being grown out or shaved off.
“As a white woman, the intention behind you shaving your hair will always be different [to a black woman] because of our different positionalities and the way our bodies exist in relation to this white space. There will always be a sense of belonging and acceptance because you are white. Because I am black, there will always be a conflict.”, she begins, Marlboro Gold balanced precariously between her fingers. A wine-red beanie shields her shaved head as an icy mid-June breeze strikes us. She goes on to explain the difficulties of simply expressing your individuality within a black body.
“Black hair will always be politicized as it comes into conflict with white spaces. Why did [Zulaika] need to go makes these highly-dramatized political statements just to exist as a young black girl? Why is black hair always seen as political statement as opposed to just… expressing yourself?”, her exasperated tone indicates a sense of personal frustration.
Finally, I ask her what it felt like to shave her hair as part of her singular journey; her answer surprises me, “It just felt like something that was always supposed to happen. It wasn’t meant to be this whole thing of an embodiment of my blackness. And that’s the thing! Blackness is seen as hegemonic, and if I shave my hair then I must be making a political statement about my blackness.”. Her words hold the poignance of an individual aiming to combat the politicization and fetishization of black bodies in modern media.
19-year-old BA undergrad student, Beth Ribeiro, validates this position by sharing her own experience surrounding her decision to shave her hair.
“My hair was something people assigned to my beauty.”, Beth expresses. She notes the curious link between her natural mane of curls being celebrated as beautiful when Zulaika’s natural curls were considered disorderly. This prejudiced stream of thought carried over into her eventual defiance of those Eurocentric beauty standards: Beth was, once again, commended for her boldness after shaving her hair whereas young black girls like Malaika were reprimanded for doing precisely the same thing.
“For me, this was just an experience, it was just a brave thing I was doing to get to the root of my natural beauty. That’s just how I wanted to express myself. But some people, particularly black girls in schools… aren’t able to express themselves in the same way because it’s, you know, a ‘violation’ of certain norms.”. Studying her delicate features framed by a butter-blonde pixie cut, it is easy to observe why she’d be considered more palatable to the Eurocentric beauty standard which depicts young black girls sporting small afros are the ultimate outsiders. The opportunity to express yourself, Beth reveals, does not come without consequence when you exist within a black body.
“My hair isn’t related to my acceptance within society.” – Beth Ribeiro
“I have the right to make this expressive choice. But [Zulaika] was doing exactly that, she was just expressing herself. So why was I praised for it when she wasn’t?”, the bitter laugh that escapes her suggests that she knows exactly why.
Having absorbed this plethora of knowledge by the time lunch hour arrived, I was left astounded at the constricted space within which black bodies must operate; not only with regards to hair, but every aspect of their physical manifestation. Every action is scrutinized, politicized and fetishized; natural hair is a disruption and no hair is a dubious political statement. Even in today’s so-called progressive socio-political landscape, the struggle to exist and express inconsequential freedom over your own body is a right that young black girls have yet to attain.
Full-video link to sampled CNN World footage: