Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

The hair debate must end

While watching Gillian Schutte’s documentary “It’s my hair … I bought it”, I thought the hair debate must come to an end. It’s banal and redundant. Talking about black women’s hair needs to stop being a question of national importance. Our hair is not all of who we are. Why have I never seen a documentary about white women and their hair? Because it’s not important and white women are not placed in a situation where they are disembodied and their hair becomes a symbol of who they are as individuals.

In Schutte’s documentary she uses a women’s conversation and a diary entry by Khanyi Magubane to tell the story about black women’s hair. There is the disturbing presence of a white woman (at least she appears white in the video, she could be black for all I know) who is silent throughout the documentary, but nods and smiles as though she were part of the conversation. She has a glorious mass of hair upon her head but she doesn’t comment about her existential crises when it comes to her hair. This scene sets up the documentary as an opportunity where black sisters are educating people of other races about the strange, ungovernable and inscrutable ways of our hair.

What is also worrying about the documentary is that black women participate in this discourse of hair politics. There’s something disturbing about listening to women who choose natural hair (or relaxed hair without the weave) take the moral high ground and judge women who buy weaves and straighten their hair. The conversation is also about the experience women have in the workplace where they are expected to dress a particular way. One of the woman in the documentary comments about why people do not choose to wear their traditional clothes in corporate environments. This is an issue about institutional culture and conformity rather than challenging it through diversity. This conversation can be held without reducing the issue to hair.

The hair debate is also held among black women who have embraced their “natural hair” and comment on “those women” who wear weaves and haven’t seen the light. This sets up a division among black women where there is a sense of judgment. Those who wear their hair natural are seen as more authentic yet those who buy their hair are seen as sell-outs who are unhappy, insecure and reaching for the illusive “Western” mould for beauty. Is this really fair? None of the women in the video have a weave (perhaps we’ll see that happen in Part 2 of the series). Why reduce a black woman’s sense of self to her appearance and even worse, to something as banal as hair?

My disdain towards the hair issue was heightened when I read an article by Melissa Harris-Perry, “My daughter, myself”. This is a reflection about Melissa’s relationship with her 11-year-old daughter, Parker. The aim of the article seems to be Melissa’s way of sussing out her daughter’s angst about what it means to be young in America. She asks her daughter about what she likes about herself, and Parker responds by saying “I love that I can wear [my hair] natural or in extensions or pressed. I have really great hair”. It takes an 11-year-old to put the pieces together. This is the crux of the hair debate: black women have great hair! This obviously smacks of “I’m black and I’m proud” discourse, but children often have a better sense of what is important when it comes to the simplest things, even hair.

I could have a different hairstyle for each season, just like any woman who can afford to change her hair colour at the salon. Making hair a political issue reduces black women to an exhibition as though being a black woman with or without hair makes one a problem in society. “Well no wonder she’s so poor, she spends all her money on her hair! … well no wonder she can’t find a man, she looks like a man, she has no hair!” These are the value judgments made about black women when we reduce them to their hairstyle. The hair issue speaks to the obsession there is about women’s bodies and how we should look in order to be seen as acceptable.

My hair is not a symbol of anything, it’s just hair and right now I’m too lazy to attend to it so it looks like a bad example of dreadlocks. I cut my hair at least once a year because I don’t think I have the temperament for hair salons (the fumes make me dizzy) nor do I have the money nor time to get someone to do my hair. Even when “soul sisters” have dreadlocks, many still opt for salons to style their hair periodically and this can cost up to R300 an appointment, which is equivalent to braids and perhaps the cheapest weave on the market. The point is, it’s just hair and it’s fun experimenting with it until someone tells me what I should and shouldn’t do to my hair. Even when it’s my own mother who believes, ubuhle bentombi zinwele zakhe.

This piece was originally published on

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    • Gillian Schutte

      Oh gee – this was done 3 years ago and is a series on women and their hair – the next in the series is about Kugels and their hair issues. It was done with trainee filmmakers who chose their topics and it was made the year before Chris Rock’s high end doccie – Good Hair. I hope this creates some perspective. Gx

    • Gillian Schutte

      … and this is part one. Part two goes into a range of other issues.

    • Damon

      Fascinating topic. I won’t go out of my way to watch that hair documentary, but I think the hair care and cosmetics industries are over-sized, unnecessary, morally reprehensible, and over-priced. The industry itself wants people to buy more stuff, not less, and therefore there is a certain aspect of emotional blackmail in their marketing and advertising. As such, I admire those who thumb their noses in the made-up faces of the hair and cosmetic industry. When it comes to hair and make-up, I definitely believe that ‘less is more’. Thank you for the thought-provoking article.

    • Reality

      Many years ago there was a stage musical called “Hair” which was also made into a movie. I have it in my DVD collection. It was as much a sixites hippies’ assertion of their cuture and a celebration of nudity, as it was about hair, which was a symbol of resistance and oppostion to the government of the day and an assertion of freedom. Men with long hair were particualry vilified as being somehow non conformist and lesser, and it is only very recently that in the white culture at least, that this has become more acceptable. So it is not true that whites are not as obsessed with hair. I think it has much to do with the space that we occupy politically and culturally at a given time. I have no problem at all with it being a cross and intra cultural discussion. My experience has been that once my black friends discover what I do to my hair and how much it costs, there is a sense of cameraderie and “sisterhood”. Like nails, hair is as much a fashion statement and accessory,as it is something that just grows out of our heads.

    • Lesego

      White women wear weave, straighten their hair, dye it as well braids and all of that, so I wonder what the problem is really. Its a woman thing, more especially urban since the technology of hairdressing has evolved through time in urban areas.

    • Nomboniso Gasa

      Athambile, thanks for being strident & thought provoking – as always. True – our hair and our butts is not all we are. Besides, why is it black women’s hair that always under scrutiny – how natural is Caucasian hair??? Go sister, go…

    • Portia Lujabe

      Yes. I think it is very silly that as women we still prize ourselves with the type or style of our hair rather than our many other strengths. Ofcourse, it is absolutely natural to want to feel beautiful and have long hair that blows gently in the breeze, but to the point where there are long documentaries and huge debates over it? The fact that this issue is so important and frequently discussed among black women is another problem. Many other women change their appearances and become ‘less natural’ to look more attractive (eg. make-up) all the time yet it is not as big of a deal. As a young black female, I think there are many other issues we could focus on – not completely discard our sense of self-confidence and beauty, but rather bring about that self-confidence in other ways. I usually leave my own hair natural, but now I realize that that shouldn’t make me feel better than any other women who donesn’t. We’re all beautiful in different and more interesting ways than our hair. Even though it’s been deeply engraved in us even by our own parents, ‘ubuhle bentombi’ is not in her hair, but rather in the way she carries herself.
      This article has given me much to think about. The person writing it is actually my teacher. Thank you, Ms Masola.

    • The Social Justice Lens

      In part two the ‘white woman’ joins the conversation about her hair issues.

      The protagonist goes to talk to a white hairdresser about white women’s hair and the use of extensions.

      There are many women who speak for chemically straightened hair and some who think that dreads are dirty/messy/.

      The film following this is very much about white women and their hair – the industry built around this and the continuous battle Kugels have with their curls as straight hair is the thing to have.

      Again let me say this was a mentoring project and the topic was of interest to those being mentored.

      The hair debate right across the board, is far from over in my opinion.

    • 5c

      I think there is this debate about Black women who emulate “caucasian” hairstyles because of the cost and health impacts. Not to mention that it doesn’t embrace natural black beauty i.e. the politics of beauty, So what if “caucasian” women also wear weaves, and process their hair – do black women need to emulate that at such cost? Will we eventually forget that black women in fact have hair with tight curls after all images of black women in popular media depict weaves/ straightened hair and photoshopped/ madeup to appear lighter in complexion? Bring on racial mixing I say, then we all will really look the same – ending this debate for once and all.

    • Dave Harris

      Athambile, why play the role of a victim being persecuted by people (Gillian, Chris Rock etc.) who have the courage to approach the elephant in the room? In this case, the “hair debate” that analyses the roots of the pervasive, costly, practice of using powerful chemicals to straighten natural hair. This dangerous practice fuels prejudice based on hair texture in society?

      For example, when a large portion of the Indian population want to whiten their skin, should we look the other way?
      The 1960s movement was embraced by Steve Biko!

      When the number of eye surgeries among Asians are dramatically rising, we should look the other way?

      And what gives you the authority to “end” the “hair debate”? Such self-righteous arrogance!
      Shouldn’t we be comfortable in our own skin, hair etc. and not be made to feel inadequate for the financial gain of pharmaceutical companies. Open discussions like these allow people to be more aware of why they act and feel the way they do towards their own bodies and each other! Would you prefer that they remain indoctrinated by corporate media and pay for expensive dangerous chemicals?

    • http://N/A tarupiwa

      Its because black women suffer from a seriously pathological inferiority complex about themselves and their natural hair. White woman rarely have to look for other people’s hair to tie on to their hair. Let a white woman sell her hair – there will be thousands of black women flocking to buy it. Let a black woman sell her hair, no white woman will buy. Our black sisters simply suffer from low self esteem about who they are naturally – they are a people running away from themselves, cursing God for not creating them white.

    • Karny

      Great article, and must just add that as a white middle aged woman I bemoaned my dead straight hair when young. I spent many a painful, eye watering hour in hair salons trying in vain to have waves like Farrah Fawcett Major. I now am totally comfortable with my straight locks and smile wryly when I see girls purchasing hair irons. The fact also is that white woman don’t really give a ‘toss’ what black women do with their hair, they’re far too obsessed and critical of their own.

    • Momma Cyndi

      One of my earliest memories is of the smell of perm lotion and the aunties around the kitchen table. Then there was the bad hair dying episode when my sister’s hair turned lime green.

      I also remember having an afro during the 70s (I looked like a ragged dandelion). Then there was that dreadful spiral perm I got during the 80s. We won’t even mention the mop result of the ‘shaggydog’ haircut or the horsey look from the ‘cleopatra’ cut or the horror of the ‘purdy’ cut and the Bo Derick corn rows nearly drove me crazy!

      Women and their hair has nothing to do with the colour of the woman or her self worth. Our hair is an accessory. We don’t paint our toenails because we hate our ethnicity, we paint them because they look pretty when they peep out from the bubbles in the bath. We don’t die, tie, yank and chemical our hair because we hate ourselves, we do so because a change is as good as a holiday and we like to look pretty.

    • Karney

      Great article, and as a middle aged white woman I can remember spending many painful and eye watering hours in hair salons, trying to transform my dead straight hair into Farrah Fawcett Major like waves. Fashion then dictated big curls. I’m totally comfortable with my now ‘fashionable’ straight hair and smile wryly at girls buying hair iron tongs. Also white women don’t give a ‘toss’ what black women do with their hair, they’re too obsessed and critical of their own.

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    • Mr. Direct

      Some men also colour their hair.

      If you consider this, then males and females of all backgrounds colour their hair, which means it is a pointless topic in relation to race and/or sex.

    • chincherin chee

      @ Athambile I like the picture of you. You are attractive with a lovely smile. .

      What bothers me is how and when do African women, who have their hair braided into tight patterns or have weaves ‘implanted’ and attached to their natural hair, go about washing their hair and scalp?

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    • 2c

      Im not wearing my hair in thick heavy unmanageable dreadlocks if it hurts when i turn my head in my sleep, if i cant wash it as i wish, if smell and itches all to try conform to a standard set by women with natural hair or dreadlocks!

      Life does not have to be that hard if there are many other options in the market! Why should we, as black women, be cutting our noses to spite our faces?

      Get the weave if that’s what u want!

    • DeeGee

      @Harris. Which came first – the skin whitening product, or the request for someone to make a skin whitening product? So what if people want to look lighter. So what if the Chinese want to modify their eyelids. Caucasians modify their noses, why don’t we have a problem with that? Also, do you support the practice of young men undergoing circumcision? Or is that cultural and therefore untouchable? What about tattoos? Frankly, I don’t see the difference between any of the aforementioned… Rather than looking to blame someone or something, have a little faith in people’s choice to make their own decisions. Some don’t, as you’ll correctly point out (for example babies undergoing circumcision), and that is where the real issue lies, non?

    • Charlotte

      What intrigues me about this debate regarding black women and fake hair is that I never see the same kind of debate regarding Caucasians and their excessive cosmetic surgery procedures. The biggest victims to plastic surgery are Caucasians and other races outside the black race. You see white women walking around with blown out boobs, lips injected and projecting a bubble fish, Blepharoplasty, forehead lifts, mentoplasty, Rhinoplasty ect. Realistically speaking is that a black woman can install a weave and in 2 weeks still have her natural hair and no part of her is lost through that process. Weaves are just a fashion statement, they allow us as black woman to play with different looks. But the problem becomes these cosmetic surgeries that are an obvious deep-rooted self esteem issue.