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Ainehi Edoro: Hair Is an Emblem of Beauty, But It Is Also Political

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Fela Kuti once considered opening up a beauty shop. Shocking. I know. I also know that you are finding it difficult imagining Fela shuffling around in a room full of women with a comb in hand and an apron hanging over his neck.

If Fela never got the chance to become a hairdresser, it had nothing to do with his abilities. I think Fela would’ve done just fine as a hairdresser.

It has everything to do with the fact that, like everything Fela, the concept for the salon is pretty off-the-wall strange. Fela had in mind a salon that would cater to women’s pubic hair only.

As absurd as this all sounds, one thing Fela and Chimamanda Adichie have in common has something to do with this crazy idea of a pubic hair care shop.

In a 1988 tune titled Big Bling Country, there is a section where Fela takes up the issue of hair. {You can listen HERE}
He begins with a simple observation:

You see the educated women
All those wey dem don go for school oh
Na oyinbo hair dem dey knack for head
Dem hair dey shine shine pass polish oh
Dem get one wey dem call permy
The other one dem dey call jerry-curly oh
Because dem dey for blind country
Dem dey spoil themselves with this style oh

But then he ends with a very racy question:

I asked dem say
As dem dey perm their hair, toto hair nko?
You go perm that one too?
Dem tell me no.
so, the hair of toto, is different from the hair of head?

And an even racier conclusion:

Ah, na wa oh, make dem no go start to dey perm the hair of toto
Because na dat time, me sef I go open shop
Oh oh, ye paripa

Fela, though? Who, but Fela, would says something like this: “#NoteToSelf: If African women ever take to straightening their pubic hair like they do the hair on their head, I’ll make sure to open a beauty shop.”

By the way, don’t get distracted by Fela’s reference to “educated women.” Fela has nothing against women being educated. His target here those women who mistake a blind imitation of the West for enlightenment. As Funmi Iyanda said on Twitter the the other day, “civilization is not westernization.”

But you get Fela’s point, right? He is pointing to the absurdity of a disorganized body where the hair up there is straight while the one down there is not. Don’t mind Fela. He clearly didn’t get the memo that shaving is always an option.

On a more serious note, though, Fela is obviously puzzled that African women would straighten their hair, which he can’t help but see through a racial lens. They wear white women’s hair, Fela observes. “Na oyinbo hair dem dey knack for head.”

Adichie, in a sense, clarifies for us the reason why Fela is puzzled. For Fela, as with Adichie, hair is political. “Hair,” Adichie tells us, “is not just hair, particularly for women. For white women, it’s color. For black women, it’s much bigger. It’s texture.” 

Hair is an emblem of beauty. And in today’s image-obsessed world, beauty is, more than ever, a political matter. It’s just that the politics of beauty as it pertains to hair is also a politics of race. Why? Because hair, historically, has always been a signature for racial difference.

Try not to take it personally. This whole talk about hair and race has nothing to do with your personal intentions. The point is not whether you consciously wanted to make a statement about race when you put on that straight-hair wig or decided to rock your Marley braids instead. Whether you are conscious of it or not, hair texture has always had racial meaning.

I know what you’re saying: “These academics have come again, over analyzing things, making a mess of things.”

Perhaps you’re right. To be frank, when it comes down to it, none of all this means that chemically processing ones hair or carrying a straight-hair weave is bad while natural hair is good. No one should dictate to a woman what should make her feel beautiful.

But, then, we also can’t deny that the aspiration towards straight hair is now so widespread that the dominant form of black feminine beauty—from Genevieve Nnaji to Beyonce—has now become synonymous with straight hair.

So what would I like to take away from Fela and Adichie’s conversation?

The fact that straight hair has become a universal emblem of feminine beauty for women of all races is, at least, something we need to talk about—without necessarily making prescriptions about what kind of hair is “good” or “bad” hair.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Sam74100 

I'm finishing up a phd at Duke University where I study African novels, which I believe are some of the loveliest things ever written. Brittle Paper is a blog where I live and write fun and ridiculous things about African literature and the African literary scene. Come say hi at {brittlepaper.com} Twitter handle: @brittlepaper Instagram: @brittlepaper

22 Comments

  1. VeryAngryNigerian

    November 7, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    BN, you are just bent on starting something this friday….huhn?? 😀

    • LotusFlower

      November 7, 2014 at 5:38 pm

      Your comment is very telling. It is sad that discussions about African women’s natural hair will lead to ‘something’ being started.

    • Tinuke

      November 7, 2014 at 8:49 pm

      Did anybody ever think to bring up manageability. Thats a great reason to perm your hair.
      Do people know that as africans, we are at a higher risk of developing fibroids fro applying relaxers to our scalp.
      There you have it. Pick one.
      PS. I am not a “natural girl” I do have natural hair tho. Please it is not a movement or a political statement. WTF is “teamnatural” Please skip me with that mess. I’d just rather not have chemicals applied to my body. In the same vein I try to eat natural and clean.

  2. ngozi

    November 7, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Please, no disrespect to the scholars and all but please ENOUGH of this hair thing bla bla, bla.. its becoming boring and the natural sistas are becoming very condescending… as someone with natural hair, but i am sooo tired of natural hair girls acting like they are better than girls with relaxed hair… for me its about my own personal style and also letting people do their own thing,,please its not that deep… there are more important to talk about than, hair bleaching…Abeg….am tired of al these act of superiority. for example, my natural hair is better than yours, my wedding and ring is bigger than yours… and the
    “hmm i cant do that natural hair thing, you seem to have more time on your hands, me i dont have time”…… please to each their own.. everyone just do you and stay in your lane…whether it’s Brazilian hair, peruvian hair, just enjoy it or better still experiment with different style and have fun with it… Abeg all this political things might be true but please lets not dramatize non trivial events, in my own opinion…please..

  3. laide

    November 7, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    all I see is the hair of the girl in the picture, really beautiful..biko when will my hair be like that?

    • chi-e-z

      November 7, 2014 at 11:00 pm

      Don’t worry it’ll get there 🙂 after about 2-3 years I can say it confidently 🙂

  4. C'est moi

    November 7, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    My hair is natural and apolitical.

    • Idomagirl

      November 7, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      +1

  5. Idomagirl

    November 7, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    I have natural hair, but i’m sooooo over this hair conversation. Relaxed o, natural o, gorimapa o…all na hair biko, enough already. Like one poster said above, my hair is apolitical, let’s discuss something else please…

    The hair of the woman in the picture looks absolutely lovely, can’t wait for mine to be that long.

  6. Tops braid

    November 7, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    is that Ronke Adeola in the pic?

  7. Chineze

    November 7, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    I know have more to offer to life than the texture of my hair. @ngozi you re very correct my natural hair colleagues at work actually feel superior. I refuse to defend myself everytime I have a new perm but somehow I find myself in that argument as 80% of those around me are natural and I envisage some more to join.. I think its a bandwagon everyone is jumping into. I personally think it’s not for everyone. The zeal and fanaticism I see in their eyes scares me sometimes.

  8. Thatgidigirl

    November 7, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    And we (women) want to be taken seriously when all we ever debate on are mundane topics such as hair, men, skin colour etc. Enough already, we don’t care if the hair on your head is republican, democrat, belongs to PDP or APC or bloody capitalist! Geez!

  9. ScarletXianne

    November 7, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    But the article barely said anything about natural. She stately clearly that the discussion shouldn’t be about which hair was good or bad. Why are you people getting all defensive?

    Fela sef. Relax pubic hair indeed.

  10. chi-e-z

    November 7, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    But seriously if you didn’t shave.Would you perm you toto hair? I ask cause I’m curious and I’ve seen extremes on both ends of black hair. from Natural African hair is unruly and ugly[which i think sometimes] to African hair is beautiful, lushfull,and exotic[ which i also think sometimes] but na so my mama take dash am to me. But would you perm,bleach, or lighting your hair down there.I know Vjazzle[glue jewels on v] was a thing for a while.

  11. lala

    November 7, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    gosh i wish y’all that have commented could just calm down and read the article intelligently.why have you become so defensive just for the mere sight of the article image.kai.she does not even make any accusations against relaxed hair,just tying our God-given textured hair to it being a political statement or not plus the mainstream idea of beauty as well as Fela’s foray into African women’s beauty.If u are too lazy to read to full article,oya just read the very last paragraph.Nawa.I pray for my fellow Nigerians that God will give us patience and a higher sense of perception.Amen!!!Ainehi,you just got a new fan for life tho!

  12. Azuka

    November 7, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Funny, I discussed exactly the same issues with a friend a few weeks ago. I agree with the writer that chemically altering the texture of the hair might actually mean a conscious or unconscious acceptance that one’s hair in its natural state is below the accepted standard of beauty. However life is all about the choices we make and the freedom to make that choice. If people want to relax their hair or install weaves and extensions because it makes them feel more accepted or beautiful, its not bad. But the train of thoughts that moved this writing is commmendable.

    • the mane captain

      November 8, 2014 at 5:51 am

      i know right, but that’s expected of a PhD candidate studying African novels and with a blog on African Novels.
      Ignorance is a disease which KILLS.. Any black person who refuses to accept that our hair is not political needs to read up on their history. What baffles me the most is the confusion between civilization and westernization in Africa. Why force people to wear suits because traditional attire is unprofessional? And can a lawyer explain to me why Nigerian lawyers still wear those white wigs. As Black women, our skin tone and hair texture is still a touchy but important discussions to be had. Sweeping something under the rug or attacking someone who is bold enough to discuss it won’t solve the problem.

    • tunmi

      November 12, 2014 at 3:26 pm

      I truly do not understand the white wigs.

  13. bluebell

    November 8, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    As for that Chimamanda ” hair is political” Adichie, a woman who prefers the natural hair look but cakes her face in layers of make up. Oh, I guess make up is not political.

    • Lana

      November 8, 2014 at 3:39 pm

      You guessed right, it’s not.

  14. Tosin

    November 8, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Back in the day I was playing a role and supposed to get my hair all waving like “Josephine Baker”. Went to the black salon to get that done, long story short, after they put all their Yankee talent and chemicals on my head, in the end I used a wig – which is what we should have just done in the first place. That’s what wigs are for. My hair doesn’t like all this political discussion, it just wants to be left alone 🙂

  15. nwanyi na aga aga

    November 10, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    All these stories about hair doesn’t concern me, The only reason I relax my hair is so that I can comb it easily shikena. i don’t have time to shuttle between lagos traffic, my job, studies, my political ,church meetings and combing hair for two hours, My hair is still on my head long and lush, any day I become tired i shave it off. I have better things to do. Chimamanda has license to tell stories about hair cos she has done something with her life. Maybe when i get to the level I dream of I will shaa talk about ‘giving people freedom to love and marry their family members” Loool!

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