V: The Big Chop
Photograph of author | Image credit: Isak Vaillancourt (check out my very talented friend's website today at isakvail.ca)
Let me ask you a question, what does it mean to have good hair? Does it mean healthy, full, long, short, soft, coarse? For members of the Black community the notion of “good hair” is something forced upon us from a young age. Colonial society tells us that our natural curls are unprofessional, unsightly and undesirable. In tandem with that, as women we’re told in order to be feminine our hair needs to be long, luscious, voluptuous. With all these preconceived beauty notions in mind, enter me at age 11.
Young Ra’anaa had many dreams, aspirations and desires in life. She wanted the best grades in her class, a picture perfect romance, but more than anything she wanted to put her hair in a ponytail. While her white classmates with long flowing hair seemed to be able to shape their hair into anything conceivable, here I was unable to achieve the most seemingly minimal hair milestone, a fucking ponytail. At this age you’re on the cusp of puberty, people are starting to “date”, everyone’s bodies are changing, we all smell and we are uncomfortable in our own skin. While my classmates were getting all boo’d up with smiles, I stood idly by watching from the sidelines dreaming of a tomorrow in which my hair could touch the ground. My lower back even. Hell, I would've even taken my shoulders.
I distinctly remember days where I wouldn’t wear something inherently “feminine” and people at school would legitimately ask me if I was a boy, as if a girl couldn’t have cornrows or shorter hair. When I entered the 6th grade both my mother and older sister had dreadlocks, and so for me that was the ultimate goal. Hair that could coil down and give me the illusion of long straight hair to blend into the folds of the torments of middle school. And so, that year I took the long-term plunge to loc my hair and let me tell you it was a painful process. For years I had short twists that never allowed me to feel the freedom and beauty in hair that I craved so badly. By high school I began to attain my hair goals, only to be surrounded by Black female classmates with perms, weaves, wigs, processed hair who I could swear looked at me differently as if I didn’t understand the hair struggles all Black women face and I couldn’t understand theirs.
Before long my locs became my staple characteristic. During my undergraduate and master’s degrees there were few Black people, let alone women in my school. What began to make me discernible was my hair. When I would meet someone new or even go into the store for a brief interaction, what was once my dream and the thing I wanted most in life was diminished to an ice breaker, conversation opener and path of least resistance to conversing with me. While compliments are great, it quickly became exhausting to hear the same phrases over, and over, and over again.
“Your hair is so beautiful”
“I love your hair”
“Who does your hair”
“Wow, all by yourself”
“How long have you had it like that”
“I wish I could…”
If the often over the top comments weren’t bad enough, the inappropriate attention of people forcefully touching my hair was enough to make my skin curdle. There was seemingly nowhere I could go to escape the awful feeling of white hands in my hair. Classmates, coworkers, strangers on the bloody street! Somehow everyone felt they had a right to touch my locs, my once upon a hair dream. Have you ever been touched in a way you didn’t invite? While my hair isn’t skin, bone or tissue, it has life and feeling. Believe me when I say I could feel it all. The invasive fingers stroking the ends, patting the soft emerging curls at the crown of my head as if I was an animal in a petting zoo. It was truly awful, and the worst part is I never managed to find the strength in myself to tell them to stop, to go away, that no they could not touch my hair!
Call it irony, call it casualties of the do, but the longer I wore dreadlocks, the heavier (both physically and emotionally) they began to weigh on me. I started thinking to myself that maybe if I lived in a predominantly Black community that my experience would have been different. But, no matter where I went there was always something about my hair that seemed to invite unwanted attention. I remember walking down the streets of Toronto with my siblings and parents less than 5 feet behind me and a stranger grabbing my hair in passing as he said “nice hair.” One of the worst things about this kind of personal violation is that many people don’t even understand that it’s a violation of your body, your space.
Young author in grade 2, grade 3 and grade 4 | Image Credits: Picture Day Archives
Compliments are one thing, but how about the hate? I remember being in class minding my own business working away aimlessly on some studio project when I overheard a conversation between my classmates. To paraphrase this traumatic experience basically these 3 classmates were discussing how disgusting and unsightly dreadlocks were. They continued on about how they couldn’t believe people didn’t wash their hair, and that the notion of this styling was something to look down upon. Did I call them out? Did I stand up for myself? Tell them they were so horribly misinformed? No, I just sat there. Frozen, afraid, and internalizing their hatred for something they couldn’t possibly understand. The conversation was led by a white women, and even though 2 POC’s were the ones she was conversing with neither of them called out the bullshit she spoke.
First readers, let me clarify a few things. You do wash dreadlocks, just not everyday. Black hair has lots of natural oils and over-washing can cause your scalp to dry it. Also, as humans we’re not supposed to wash our hair everyday anyways. In terms of the locs’ appearance, they are an afrocentric hairstyle. Often they are attributed as being unappealing because folks with straighter hair textures will appropriate the styling, giving their pseudo locs that peeling grinch fingers aesthetic.This was not the first or last time I overheard people in my life talking down about the hair that I cherished so deeply. Before long, more than anything, I just wanted to blend in. Keep the compliments, save the looks and stay away from my hair. How could the thing I worked so hard towards have become the thing I wished people would notice the least?
Young author in grade 6, grade 8 and grade 11 | Image Credits: Picture Day Archives
Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic is upon us. In tandem with this I was completing my master’s thesis on Black based research. It was then that I first came across Angela Davis. Her beautiful natural hair stood out in every image and she embraced it, but it wasn’t who she was. She is an activist, educator and so much more, but most of all, her hair does not define her. That’s when I started to think about the big chop. I began to daydream of a bare neck, curly hair and afro updo’s. But, I was so afraid to take the plunge and so instead of diving head in, I sat and contemplated for nearly an entire year. 2021 has been unlike any other and as my involvement in activism continued to grow, I knew my aesthetic and look needed to change. But something clicked for me, all my friends, nearly all the people in my life only knew me as dreadlock Ra’anaa. No one, aside from my family, knew who I was beyond my hair. What if I cut it and something changed? What if I was no longer me?
Then an even scarier thought set in, I didn’t know who I was without my hair. Most of my youth and all my adulthood was marked by my long locs. I had worked so hard for this hair and in doing so I lost a part of myself. No one taught me how to appreciate my curls, my texture, my natural hair, I thought dreadlocks were the only option. And in that moment I knew this was a journey I had to embark on, on my own. Social media, while often problematic, gave me hope. On my feed I began to see so many beautiful Black women styling their natural hair, wearing twist outs, afros, bantu knots and more. I was like a kid at Christmas, so much potential at my hairs end, and this May I knew what I had to do.
The Chop (behind the scenes) | Video by Isak Vaillancourt
With the help of some of my most cherished friends I embarked on the big chop and believe me when I say the feeling is like no other. After over 4 hours of snipping and combing, I emerged like a phoenix from the ashes of her past self, born anew. It was a truly spiritual moment that I am so thankful to have shared with my favourite people. It was a vulnerability unlike anything I’ve felt before. 18 inches later and I am eons closer to the person I am supposed to be. While it’s taking some getting used to, somehow it feels so right, so overdue, like this is how I was meant to be for such a long time. For the first time in a long time there is this unspeakable weight lifted from my mind, my life. My hair is my history, my culture, my story, but long or short it doesn’t define where I’ve been or where I’m going. And so yes, dear reader, I cut my hair, for the first time in my life and as I write this I can openly and honestly say I have never felt such a deep freedom as I do now.