Listening to My Hair


Cindy Brandt -Listening to My Hair3

I don’t have a lot of hair. My natural hair is thin and very straight. It falls around my small face, letting gravity do all of the work, each strand aiming directly towards the ground. It’s dark brown, defying the stereotype of jet black Asian hair, which is why I am often mistaken as mixed race although I am of full Asian descent.

I often feel like my hair lacks personality because it’s so formless and flat. For most of my adult life, I keep it permed, which is to inject chemicals into my hair to keep it “permanently” curly.

Hair is such a bizarre part of our biology. It’s literally dead skin cells so it barely counts as part of our being because it isn’t alive. We don’t have nerve endings in our hair. There’s no other part of our body where we brutally hack with blades. And yet, a woman’s hair holds tremendous power in the world.

For instance, the way a black woman wears her hair in America is intensely political. Author Chimamanda Adichie provocatively stated that if Michelle Obama had natural hair when Barack Obama was running for president, he would not have won. I didn’t learn this until I read more of her views, but mainstream white America designates straight hair as a beauty standard. Women take great pains to straighten their hair in order to appear beautiful, and apparently, powerful. Straight hair is a sign of professionalism and prestige—somehow I missed that memo while intentionally curling my hair all my life.

My hair has always been an expression of fashion. Like the style of clothing I wear, the way I wear my hair depends on the way I feel. There will be seasons when I feel like having short hair and I’ll chop it. Other periods I enjoy longer hair and will painstakingly grow it out. When I got pregnant for the first time, I got the “mom bob” because the magazines told me I won’t have time to care for hair after baby. Unfortunately, I also gained weight with my pregnancy, and my bob only accentuated my ballooning face. I would not make that mistake with my second child, so by the time my son was 2, I had hair down to my waist. Around that time, I watched the movie “Yes Man” starring Zooey Deschanel and decided I absolutely must have her adorable bangs. Once again, it was not the most prudent of choices for me, as 1) I don’t have Hollywood A-list hair stylists fixing my hair and 2) I don’t have as MUCH hair as Zooey Deschanel, so the effect missed the mark by quite a large margin. Nevertheless, I enjoy switching my hairstyles as much as I enjoy a new outfit for vanity, beauty, and fashion purposes.

But now I am thinking more deeply about why it is hair holds such sway over not just my sense of fashion, but my identity. I am beginning to think that it is not merely an expression of my fashion sensibilities, but an integrated part of living my life whole. When we talk about embodied spirituality, we are saying our identities as human beings, image bearers of God, is staked not only on our unseen spirituality, but also through the way we live, breathe, and move about in the world. In this way, my hair isn’t just an external expression of my internal moods and desires, but the way my hair takes up space in the world also impacts me. It’s a two-way relationship: I serve my hair and my hair serves me.

In this interview for Bustle, popular author and feminist Glennon Doyle Melton says, “We don’t know how to listen to ourselves at all. We don’t know how to trust ourselves. We don’t know how to pay attention to what’s going on in our bodies. We don’t know how to use our bodies as guides. We’ve been told to be selfless for so long that when asked what we want, we don’t know. We just override the body because we don’t trust it.”

I wonder if that’s what I’ve been doing to my hair. I’ve been trying to override it. I want to control it, tame it according to my own desires. If I want to have short hair, well then at my command, the hair falls off. If I think I need to look like Zooey Deschanel to find my worth, then my hair needs to bend to my will.

Maybe it’s time I listen a bit more to my hair. I know this all sounds very woo-woo, hair does not speak; once again, they are dead skin cells. But all I can tell you is that after all these years of coexisting with my hair, it feels like I should start trusting it.

I have never been able to grow out my hair past a certain length, mostly because I am lazy about taking care of it. Longer hair means longer wash/dry time. It clogs up the shower drain and leaves unsightly strands around the house. I am at that threshold again, but this time, there is a strong voice telling me to resist the impulse and let it grow. And I think I need to listen.

I think my hair is pleading with me to let it take up space, and not think of my own body as a nuisance to take care of. It’s saying to me, Look at the way the strands cascade around your shoulders, wild and unruly and powerful. Look at the way it responds when I throw back my head in laughter at my children’s corny jokes, or vigorously flip back and forth when I exert strong opinions. Feel the way it mattes against my head with sweat when I hike, bike, and move, or how it refuses to be tamed even when I try to braid it.

My hair is more than a mere extension of my body. It is part of my activity in the world, and I’m going to let it grow.