Two weeks ago I decided that I wanted to have my short afro back. I cut it, and straight away I felt so free. It also brought a lot of expected (and unexpected) reactions from the people around me. I had expected that my mom would be very irritated, as she was 4 years ago, the first time I cut my hair. Back then she didn’t talk to me all day. But she surprised me this time, as she actually loved it! While at a birthday party, on the other hand, another black woman asked me if my hair was real. And when I responded with “yes it is”, she looked at me with disbelieve and said, “how is that possible?”. As I was struggling with a response, she went on saying “This is also fake hair’, lifting her extensions. Suddenly I realized that she thought my hair was fake, but that I felt uncomfortable to talk about it. By contrast, a male colleague asked me if my hair was a wig, as soon as he saw me walk in. I guess cutting your hair that short doesn’t make sense to many people. A lot of people asked me why I had cut it. Even my hairdresser needed some convincing before she finally cut it.
This whole experience around my new short afro left me with so many questions. Questions about how people expect me to wear my hair. But also about when long hair became the beauty ideal for women? Not only does society tell us that our value depends deeply on our attractiveness, it apparently also tells us what attractive women look like. I have always known and felt my hair structure wasn’t part of the (white) mainstream beauty ideal. But I was always complimented of the fact that it was so long. And now, since the length is gone and it is no longer straight, most people get nervous. Now that I am myself at peace with my hair, the rebel in me enjoys the confusion. The caring part of me, however, gets saddened by the implication of all this confusion. Especially how we subtlety tell children they are not beautiful enough by complementing only the beauty standards that mainstream society acknowledges. But also on a personal level, as for a long time, I have allowed these ideas to define my identity as a woman. I remember, when I cut my hair for the first time, 4 years ago, I was so relieved. I felt free of the mask I had been wearing all these years. But when I looked in the mirror my first thought was “Oh My God, I look like a guy”. It was a weird contradicting experience. It takes hard work to change your own perspective on “good hair”. It took me years. First, by keeping the natural structure of my hair, the way it is. Then learning to be comfortable with it, and much later by wearing it as short as I want it.
Changing my hairstyle gave me insight on how much I had internalized feminine, beauty ideals that have nothing to do with my own my vision on beauty. Changing your hair can be a powerful move. Last year around this time, I decided to wear the Albaso hairdo , – a hairdo mostly worn at Tigrinia weddings or special occasions in Eritrea- because I saw my mom wear it for so many weddings. The last wedding she looked so beautiful again – it made me want to wear it. I thought why should I wait for a wedding to wear this hairstyle of my ancestors that I adore. I had asked my mother’s friend to braid an ‘Albaso’ hairdo, which takes a long time to braid and you need a pro hairdresser specialized in these traditional styles.
After wearing it for two weeks, I realize this wasn’t just a hairstyle. Walking around Amsterdam South-east with this hairdo was very interesting. People stared at me and could almost see them thinking ”How did she do that?”. A lot of women came up to me to tell me how beautiful my hair looked. Three different women asked me if I was from the Fulani tribe. The Albaso hairstyle is really similar to a hairstyle that the Fulani people wear, it reminded them of their people. A Nigerian-Dutch woman even asked me the number of my hairdresser.
Wearing my Albaso hairdo even connected me with my fellow Dutch sisters with Nigerian and Ghanaian roots. But it also made me connect with my grandmothers, their mothers and all that came before me. I wear it with pride, carrying their lives and stories with me every step of the way. Honouring them and loving their presence. After dishonouring them by straightening my hair for ten years, trying to be beautiful even when their beauty was there already, growing in me, dying to connect – I am connected with my identity and feel at peace with all of my hair now. I don’t feel the need to conform my hairstyle to westernised ideals anymore.
Right now my short afro reminds Eritreans of the war because soldiers used to wear their hair like this. It became a symbol of the fight for independence.They call me a Tegadalit (soldier) and smile when they meet me on the streets. Hairstyles have different meanings for different people and cultures. I am very curious about your hair story. What hairstyle, hairstory could you share with us?
Beylula yosef is a campaigner for Afrispectives, as well as a poet,teacher, applied psychologist, big sister, traveler, food & photography lover. She believes that sharing your story has the ability to heal us and create space for others to share another part of themselves.