The Big Chop

Since I (Jessie) was young, my life has consisted of “suffering for beauty” in order to conform to eurocentric standards of hair. When I was four, my grandmother gave me my first relaxer, which made my scalp feel like it was on fire. The metal hot comb, used to straighten my hair afterwards, burned my ears. Two years ago, I decided to do the “big chop,” which meant cutting off the relaxed parts of my hair so I could wear my hair naturally, without any chemical straightening products. This decision was a long time Picture1.pngcoming.  When I was reading Minh- Ha T. Pham’s blog post, “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion,” I connected with many of the ideas that she discusses in the article, such as when she explains how women of color “consciously and unconsciously fashion themselves in ways that diminish their racial difference”1. I have been taught to fashion myself in a way that follows dominant societal expectations of beauty, such as using relaxers in my hair to make it appear straight, and more in line with the hair of my white peers. I was socialized to believe that any curl or kink was ugly, and that I should aspire to straight, Eurocentric norms for beauty2.

Being at Carleton, a typical PWI (predominately white institution) only increased my anxiety and insecurity about my hair because I wanted to fit in. I didn’t have the time or the resources in Northfield to keep up my hair routine that I had been doing for as long as I could remember— there was no one to relax my hair or fix my weaves throughout the term. My hair was unhealthy and damaged from years of relaxers. So, after years of fitting into the expectations from society, I said fuck it. I did the “big chop” the next day.

Relaxers and weaves are a way for many black women to feel as though we have agency over our image, to avoid the stares and insults that come when we wear our hair naturally, and feel “normal” in a culture that expects everyone to look relatively identical. However, the upkeep for relaxers or weaves is expensive, time consuming, and can damage your hair. The natural hair movement has become popular because of how it opposes the pressures of Eurocentric standards of beauty and gives women the chance to exercise agency in their lives and wear their hair the way they want to wear it.

Natural hair and the “big chop” are not just about changing physical appearance, but changing (desocializing) the mind and demonstrating to the world that natural hair is just as beautiful as relaxed hair or weaves, making the movement revolutionary and deeply political. Furthermore, this tradition of using fashion to express culture and make a statement on beauty standards and imbalances of power has a long history. Author Tanisha C. Ford conducted considerable research into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. “I discovered that SNCC women adopted their denim attire for both practical and political reasons,” she said in an interview with Threadbared Magazine. “And, their overalls and au naturel hairstyles caused quite a stir on their college campuses and among many elder activists.” I was following in a long tradition of black women utilizing beauty as a political statement3.

However, it must be noted that this does not mean that black women wearing weaves and straightening their hair are considered to have a lack of agency or false 34ty35yh4th.pngconsciousness. The key ideology that this movement is built upon is agency, or conscious and informed choice: black women can do whatever we want with our hair, free from the confines of eurocentric standards. This relates to scholar Kathy Davis, who focuses her feminist ideology on agency and the cultural dope phenomenon, which states that women in a culture cannot help but blindly adhere to the norms that the culture requires of them. Davis rejects this theory, and asserts instead that women have agency in their decisions to confirm or reject a cultural norm, whatever that decision may be.4 I conformed to Eurocentric beauty standards until I was an adult, but then employed a more revolutionary agency to completely reframe how I conceptualized of beauty. I had to actively desocialize myself.

The endurance of pain by women in the hope of being perceived differently is a constant battle she must face. As we live in a society where fashion shapes how we are read by others, according to Pham, a choice must be made on how to employ our agency. Fashion and beauty, though dictated by cultural norms, can be utilized for our own political purposes, as the women in the SNCC demonstrated so many years ago. When I wear my natural hair I demonstrate a conscious rejection of the socialization that had been performed on me by my culture since birth. When I did the big chop, I employed my agency to say that the suffering I experienced in a quest to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty had to end, and I actively changed the way I thought about beauty to achieve this. I am beautiful, and my natural hair is beautiful, and I am proud to follow in the footsteps of the many activists that came before me.

Jessie, Henry, Emily, Belle, and Mandy

Literature Cited

Davis, Kathy. “Remaking the She-Devil: A Critical Look at Feminist Approaches to Beauty.” Hypatia 6, no. 2 (1191): 21-43.

Jael, Morgan. “Black Girl Solidarity: Can Black Women Come Together in Solidarity ? (an Introduction).” Secrets that Sell, 2015.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. “Interview: Tanisha C. Ford, Haute Couture Intellectual.” WordPress, 2012.

Pham, Minh-ha T. “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion.” Ms Magazine, 2011.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Big Chop

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  1. This post had me wondering where there is room in the natural hair trend, when “counter-cultural” looks like sleek bangs and shaved sides or sculpted edges have served as markers of queerness that aren’t so easily signified by black women’s natural hair. Feminist LGBTQ discourse, too, has discussed a “big chop” as a liberatory act that, despite the criticisms it might receive, challenges expectations for mainstream womanhood and gender identity. While, the lesbian/genderqueer cut usually suggests individual person’s nonconformity, though, the rhetoric surrounding natural hair usually involves a reaffirmation of black women’s collective beauty. Clearly, both cuts have their different political purposes, presenting numerous possibilities: a queer black woman’s cut might signify her blackness but mean she is read as heterosexual; or perhaps the natural-hair movement offers all black women the opportunity to queer the spaces they occupy (regardless of the sexual orientations) through their communication of particular political assertions; on the other hand, the judgement of black women’s hair that is relaxed or adorned with wigs may undercut the potential for an undefined, but shape-shifting queer black aesthetic. Though this post comes from a personal place on your part, Jessie, I’d be happy to hear what the other contributors to this post have to say about the natural hair trend negotiations with queer politics.

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  2. This post was very relatable to me. As a half-black woman, I recognized a lot of the struggles my black family members have gone through in learning to love their hair. Three of my black female cousins in particular went to PWIs for college (two went to Harvard and one went to Vassar), and I remember having conversations with them where they shared that they only felt comfortable wearing their hair naturally until after they reached middle management or self-employed status in their careers. Even though they are clearly incredibly smart women and I’ve always known them to be confident, the pressures of conforming the white ideal of beauty—and potential economic consequences of not conforming—scared them enough to only begin their journey to love their natural hair at ages 35+. I grew up in a white town with hair that would be classified as white. I never faced any judgment from traditional structures of power regarding my hair, which was probably why I had the freedom and naiveté to hate my hair for looking white. All throughout my middle school years, I resented my hair for not being like that of my siblings and for (from my young perspective) keeping me from being fully accepted as a black person by my peers. Looking back, it seems so silly now that I have the knowledge of political, economic, and social structures of oppression black women like my cousins’ face. And because I am white-looking, my resentment towards my hair was never once matched by my teachers or other figures of authority. I am ashamed that I desired black hair as a gateway to relate to my black family and friends and was completely ignorant of their struggles learning to wear their hair regardless of PWIs and their pressures.

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    JT784

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