What We Talk About When We Talk About Beyoncé’s Hair

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Unless you don’t have an Instagram account and/or live under a rock, you have probably already seen Queen B’s newly chopped blonde pixie. Last Friday night, the number one power women of booty popping and badass harmonies posted a photo of her pixie cut a la Tinkerbell and Twiggy on Instagram. The Internet promptly flipped. After getting her long blonde mane stuck in a fan during a performance, Beyoncé turned her accident into a chance to join Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Emma Watson, Anne Hathaway, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Keira Knightly, Natalie Portman, and her former Destiny’s Child bandmate Kelly Rowland, among many, in the “short-hair-I-really-don’t-care” club.

But really, why do we care?

The Beyoncé-less-tress media phenomenon says a lot about both what counts as “news” in the social media-driven world of digital publishing, and what aspects of women’s lives get retweeted and liked. While part of the reactionary media storm can be attributed to Beyoncé’s reign as Queen of all and our culture’s overall obsession with celebrity frivolity, the sheer power of a woman’s follicles to define her apparent levels of “power” and “authenticity” deserve some attention.

The first critiques are almost too obvious to merit mention—look at any cover of Cosmo and you will see that a woman’s appearance is the stuff of front-page headlines. To me, the most newsworthy aspect of media’s compulsive scrutiny of the female form is just how creative they are in their regurgitation. Every month I am shocked to see that, yes indeed, there are even ways to tone one’s thighs!

So women’s bodies are news, duh. Hair is in no way an exception, if not a necessary extension of this. What is trickier is the connection between hair and identity. For women (and arguably for men as well), not only is hair a physical distinction, but its “style,” or the apparent amount of time and money invested in re-doing a do, says a lot about how they want to be perceived. Let’s not forget that it was B herself who announced to the world that her follicle fearlessness had taken a shorter shape. Clearly she saw it as share-worthy event. And in our beloved world wide web of identity-building through social media over share, posting a photo of your new haircut is a transparent act of identity building. Do not be fooled. This is not just a casual “check out my new hair gurrll” ‘gram. This was most likely a deliberate, planned, and probably staged act of news-making—and for Beyoncé, myth-making.

Media remarks further attest this. In one of the many stories written on her cut, Beyoncé’s stylist is quoted distressfully lamenting the new do, noting that Beyoncé’s “hair has been so much of who she is over the years.” Supporters of the chop applaud Beyoncé for growing “bigger balls” and amassing the raw vigor necessary for her “shocking new look.” They make it sounds like she individually cut every strand with a samurai sword in some Kill Bill scene.

Implied here is that a) a woman’s strength comes from actions which she enacts on her own body, not on the exterior world, and that b) somehow going for shorter hair that resembles men’s haircuts, and thereby denounces traditional images of femininity, or inherent weakness, makes a woman stronger. Also note that when a male public figure decides to, on the other hand, grow out his hair, a parallel effect does not occur. Men who grow out their hair (or cut it, or do anything to it, for that matter) do not feel the need to share it on social media. Said media does not feel the incessant drive to write about it. And if men do decide to “break conventions” and go long, their identity as men aren’t exhaustively questioned. In fact, an untamed and grown out male mane is often associated with qualities like ruggedness and overall disregard for appearance. When a woman cuts her hair, it is the most marked regard of her appearance that she can make.

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Here we arrive to the image of Britney Spears shaving her head off. The ultimate pixie cut, if you will. Or take Amanda Bynes’s more recent decent into side-shaving and frankly atrocious blonde wigs. The reactions surrounding these acts of tousled transformation take a more perverse tone. Here a woman’s change of hairstyle is an apparent shrill scream for help. It is the one-all proof of mental instability. It is modern-day hysteria. What was seen for Beyoncé as an empowered act of agency, for Britney was a mental breakdown. Is this because Britney’s buzz was spread by invasive paparazzi while Beyoncé willingly shared her new hair snap? Or perhaps is it because shaving one’s head—an act seen in male soldiers, religious ascetics, or victims of concentration camps—offers such a radical erasure of self that, for a person who has made her living off celebrity, becomes the strongest act of identity erasure imaginable? It is as if without her signature long blond hair, Britney was no longer the Britney we knew. Just like Beyoncé—she had changed an essential aspect of who she was. More tragically, she had somehow lost her sanity with her identity. Perhaps her paradoxical identity as the sweet and virginal girl next door and the hyper sexualized American wet dream drove her insane. Either way, after she shaved her head, it was apparent that she needed help.

Hair is essentially braided within a woman’s perceived identity.

These observations extent to all types of body hairs. I have undergone my own endless sufferings with hair waxing and shaving and tweezing. It took me some time to realize that, no, there is nothing inherently wrong or ugly or dirty about body hair anywhere, and that, yes, my continual rejection of this small part of myself sustained a whole industry of hair removal products. Industries have a very real monetary stake in convincing me to strip off my body hair. And even when I let go of the routine “hygiene” of shaving my underarms, even then my choice of hair care somehow identified me. Indeed, hairy armpits are a marker for all those raging, bra-burning feminists. The connections between hair and perceived identity get especially knotty when you bring in feminists catch phrases of “choice” and “empowerment.” And here I have to inject the necessary, yet at this point almost trite, disclaimer that of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with women indulging and enjoying hair care, with having pride in their hair (as B clearly does), in shaving and coloring and teasing.

Regardless, in all of its media hype there was o essential aspect of B’s hair transformation that was for the most part overlooked—the connections of race with notions of empowerment and self-identification through hair.

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One of my favorite moments of Orange Is The New Black is when Taystee and Poussey discuss the possible outcomes of Taystee’s appeal to be released early from prison. They each don’t know the outcome of the hearing, but they both take particular pride in how Taystee wore her hair—controlled and sleeked back tightly in a bun, in contrast to her usual curly fray. Even when she was preparing for the hearing, how she wore her hair was shown as a crucial deliberation that could strongly influence whether the committee thought she was ready to be pardoned. This is yet another iteration of hair as form of self-expression, in this case showing remorse and correction. It also draws parallels between being changed and bettered with displaying a hairstyle that deviates from one’s “natural” hair.

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For African American women, and here I speak as a mere observer with no real stake or experience, it seems like their hair is the battleground of their identity. For one, it is an aspect of black beauty that drives whole industries. It is the part of African American women’s bodies that needs most controlling, most taming, in order to conform it to white mainstream beauty standards. Here I recall African American artists like Nicki Minaj, Mary J. Blige, Eve, Lil Kim, and of course Beyoncé—black women with blonde hair. Yet at the same time, hair is an aspect that African American women have the individual control over and take pride in. Here I am reminded of the women of the Black Panther party who grew out their fros in protest for the celebration and acceptance of black beauty. And undoubtedly Willow Smith’s “I Whip My Hair Back and Forth” chimes in, a long with the images of her long strands powerfully thrashing and later her defiant pixie cut. With African American women especially, questions of hair and race are often paired with notions of authenticity. Going natural versus using weaves becomes more than a choice of aesthetic preference; instead it is a necessary commentary of how “real” a woman represents herself, how “natural” she chooses to be.

At the end of the day, all of these observations of how we think and talk about hair and women and identity and race stand far above the dead cells piled on top of our heads. For me, I end up sticking to the “you do your do” philosophy when it comes to hair. Sitting here and analyzing this until we literally rip out our hair in frustration won’t do much. But perhaps, if and when we find ourselves sharing or tweeting or commenting on a story about a woman’s appearance, we can take a moment and reflect on where these impulses come from.

By: Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Managing Blog Editor 

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