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Locks: Hair Raising

There's a reason you cry into your pillow after a bad haircut

 by Mani O'Brien
 published on Thursday, December 1, 2005

In the class
Tiffany Tcheng / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
In the class "Race and Gender Politics of Hair," taught by Neal Lester, students learn about the social implications of hairstyles. Lester says his research reaches across ethnic, gender and racial boundries.
 

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Rebecca Stanton, a math sophomore, has styled her hair in dreadlocks for four years, she says. With thick blonde locks falling to her mid-back, she says people often make assumptions about who she is based on her hairstyle.

"People think I'm a pothead all the time," she says. "Or they think I'm a hippie."

For job interviews, Stanton says she tries to dress nicely to offset her hair. At parties, she says her dreads are a good icebreaker.

"People assume that I'm more of a rebel than I am, or they come tell me about their own desire to get dreadlocks," she says. "But I don't think I'm taken as seriously."

Even if your hair isn't a party icebreaker, the way you style your hair is about more than appearance alone, according to Neal Lester, English professor and expert in African-American literature.

"Hair is more significant than we think initially," says Lester.

He says that hairstyles reflect more than just personal style -- they also have social and political implications.

Lester has conducted research on the race and gender politics of hair for more than 15 years, focusing upon the significance of hair to the black community, especially young girls.

He analyzes references to hair African-American literature, like in traditional folklore, as well as the rhetoric of children's stories and modern-day advertising for products like hair relaxers. In doing so, Lester says he has discovered the ways in which social and cultural standards are reflected in the way that not only black women, but all people, style their hair.

"It's quite odd that people can't accept hair in the state they're born in," Lester says.

This semester, Lester took his findings to students through his course Race and Gender Politics of Hair. In conducting his research on hair identity politics, Lester says he has found that hair as an element of identity construction touches people across ethnic, gender and racial boundaries.

"Everyone has different hair stories," he says. "It's fascinating the extent to which hair stories intersect."

In his class, students discuss the ways their own hair reflects their identities. Emily Jackson, a journalism freshman, says the class is rewarding.

"It's made me more aware; I never realized how much my hair meant to me," says Jackson, who has short brown hair that is bleached underneath. Since June, Jackson says she has cut her hair more than 18 inches and is the only one in the class of seven students who has frequently changed her hair throughout the semester.

"I realize how much hair is a way that I portray myself and what I try to be to other people," she says. "It's interesting because you don't realize how much hair is part of yourself or your culture, which is ingrained in the way we think and do everything."

Erika Rendon, an interdisciplinary studies junior, says she has seen for herself the way that society can jump to conclusions about her hair. Born with a natural gray streak in her jet black hair, Rendon says she has gotten a lot of attention for it throughout her life.

"It's supposed to be a sign of the devil," she says.

She says she once had a teacher use her hair to demonstrate how women were chosen to burn at the stake for practicing witchcraft during the Salem witch trials.

"He said we all would have been accused of practicing witchcraft, but I, in particular, would have been made an example of because of my streak," she says.

Rendon says she gets especially annoyed during October when people will often ask if her gray streak is part of her costume. But Rendon says she doesn't try to hide it.

"I love it; I've always loved it," she says.

Carlos Velasquez, a marketing freshman, wears his curly black hair to his shoulders. The tight black ringlets practically bounce as he walks. Velasquez says he started growing out his hair when a friend bet him $50 that he couldn't avoid getting a haircut for a whole school year.

Velasquez says that often older people tell him to cut his hair, but he keeps it long because he is a wannabe hippie and because women like it.

"I get hair molested all the time," he says.

Velasquez says that women he doesn't know have actually come up and started touching his hair before they even introduce themselves.

"Guys try to stick shit in it, but girls like to touch it," he says, smiling.

Reach the reporter at mani.obrien@asu.edu.



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