Rachael Young at Shayaa. Photo: Michael Forbes

Locking Hair Unpicking Vulnerability
Rachael Young 

During Hair Happenings my provocation was to open up the very private experience of my hairdressing process to an audience.

For years my hairstyling process has been mostly one that happens in the comfort of my own home. Having learnt at young age that my hair was an unwanted source of intrigue.  At Primary School those encounters were always short and sweet and the intrigue acted as a blessing meaning not having to endure the finely toothed metal comb wielded by the Nit Nurse. I knew my hair was different but to me it was normal.

At secondary school uninvited hands would descend into my Jerry Curl only to recoil in fear as they describe my hair as feeling like ‘chip pan grease’ a remark that does not consider that afro hair unlike European hair types requires moisture in order for it to grow healthy and strong. But we were children and what did we know? I knew that, that comment made me feel uncomfortable, not normal, so I soon got rid of the Jerry Curl, opting for a straighter look provided by a relaxer. Later my hair was called ‘candyfloss’ by a friend’s brother, this is probably the one experience of my hair being touched without asking that I didn’t mind, after all ‘candyfloss’ is sweet and pink and I felt girly.

In adulthood I’ve still had to fend off the unwanted hands reaching for my hair, with the ‘can I touch it?’ which always makes me feel awkward as though my hair is not ‘normal’. When wearing my hair in an afro my friends with European hair types ask me ‘when am I going to do my hair?’ Like it in its natural state is some how offensive.  Many black women still feel like they need to wear their hair in more European styles to be able to get the kind of jobs they want or to be seen as attractive. Certainly at school I wanted super straight hair to fit in with my friends.

Maybe the jibes are partly the reason for me choosing to do my hair at home and maybe it was also the fact that learning to do my own hair meant that I have creative control over my own identity, I decide when its done, I decide if it suites my face and ultimately I make a final call on what is beautiful.

When doing my hair there is almost certainly a point where I feel unattractive, half finished and this makes me feel very uncomfortable. During Hair Happenings I wanted to explore how it would feel to give control of my hair to a stylist (which is something that makes me feel uneasy).  Not only that, but to put myself in the very position where for so much of my life I have been uncomfortable/vulnerable. A position where I was bound to get asked the question ‘can I touch it?’

So that is what I did, for 12 hours until my hair transformation was complete. Throughout that time I had conversation with people who came to watch the process and talk to me about what made them feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. The salon seems to me to be the prefect place for this since I always feel like the salon chair has the same power as a confession box.  I had also chosen to have healthy hair food on offer, this was because the salon where I had chosen to get my hair done has a focus on nurturing healthy hair by working from the inside out, and therefore having an awareness of what foods we put into our bodies and how that might impact on hair growth. I feel like the food also served as comfort for me, a distraction from feeling exposed. However despite my comfort eating at times I did feel exposed, uneasy and on show. I also questioned how other clients might have felt having people entering a space that for them is quite private. It seemed that my concerns were unfounded as the audience’s attention was mostly focused on my process and so didn’t intrude on the experience of the other clients.

Shayaa was the right choice for this experiment as I feel it nurtures and supports the choice to have natural hair and cultivates black British identity. It is a place where you can feel comfortable as you are without judgment.

I don’t feel that this experience will change my attitude towards people wanting to touch my hair that question will always feel miss-placed and insensitive. As the sentiment behind it suggest that my kinky coiley hair is an anomaly. So the next time I am asked ‘when are you going to do your hair’? I will answer with conviction and simply say ‘it’s done!’

Below are some snippets from my conversation 

‘I felt vulnerable when I have to come into this salon,’

‘I live with a constantly with this feeling, but I don’t always feel like that is a negative thing’

‘I don’t think I ever feel venerable, or at least I wouldn’t use that word. Perhaps to feel vulnerable means that you have put yourself into a position where other can take advantage and I wouldn’t like that’

‘There something about wearing a skirt that makes me feel like that maybe its because of the way it makes me move’

‘I don’t feel vulnerable I feel happy’

‘I feel vulnerable when I’m having my hair washed’

Suggested further reading

http://www.upworthy.com/what-happens-when-3-black-women-ask-people-to-touch-their-hair-2

http://cargocollective.com/endiabeal/Can-I-touch-it

http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2013/10/15/endia_beal_can_i_touch_it_explores_gender_race_and_generational_gaps_in.html

For further documentation of Rachael’s performance, the Salon Audio Walk and other events that took place as part of Hair Happenings, visit: http://richardhouguez.eu/AudioWalk/index.html

This event was part of Rachael Young and Richard Houguez’s Intersections commission for Primary.

Share →

Become a Friend of Primary for £60 a year