Last week, I joined a club of black British girl bosses who have decided to go bald. From the founders of Black Girl Fest – the first arts festival to celebrate black women and girls – to gal-dem magazine’s Liv Little, shaving off our hair has become the busy black woman’s equivalent of Steve Jobs wearing the same polo neck and jeans combo every day, given how long our hair can take to prep. Black women’s hair is known for its versatility (the recent viral #DMXChallenge, which saw countless video montages of black women flawlessly rocking various different styles, can attest to this) – so a shaved head is easy and eliminates an overwhelming range of choice.
Since my afro was large and healthy when I shaved it off, the assumption was that something must have gone wrong: traction alopecia from the tight hairstyles black women endure is a common reason for a drastic cut. Many women do a “big chop” to be rid of hair damaged by heat and chemicals. A bad breakup is often assumed, or a quarter-life crisis (as my dad still suspects). These are all valid reasons, but mine was far less interesting – I simply decided to cut it because I thought it would suit me.
This proved difficult to digest for the men at the barbershop I visited with my boyfriend, at whom most of the questions about my decision were directed. Was he “OK with it”, the barber asked. I explained that my boyfriend had picked the shop and was paying for the cut (as well as the manicures we’d be getting after, like a caricature millennial couple). No barber had ever asked my boyfriend what his girlfriend thought of his haircut – whether he was rocking a skin fade or high top. My barber, it turned out, had actually shaved his own wife’s hair after she began to experience hair loss, but another female client had had a far less tolerant husband, who “hadn’t touched her since”, he said.
Even when it is absent, black women’s hair is an incessant talking point (so much so that poet Ruth Sutoyé curated an entire exhibition on the experiences of black women who shave their heads). Our hair, or lack of it, is public property, to be touched and commented on by just about anyone. It is perceived to be making a statement beyond appearance: weaves emulating straight hair are seen as an exercise in white supremacist self-hate, afros seen as radical political statements, as opposed to the result of letting hair grow naturally. “How about, at your next TV opp’ you show us your natural hair?” one hair-care brand tweeted me and Elizabeth Uviebinené, the co-author of our book Slay in Your Lane last year. The request was even more peculiar, given the fact that I had regularly worn my natural hair. But when you are a black woman in the public eye even the regularity with which you wear a hairstyle must be dictated.
Here is a tip of my own: if unsolicited commentary about a black woman’s hair doesn’t include an offer to help with the several hours of deep conditioning and detangling that comes with “wash day”, then save it.