Gender Neutrality and the Afro
Since late 2011 I’ve been natural, a term we in the Black community use to denote our riddance of chemicals to “relax” and straighten our hair; instead we choose to wear our hair in the manner in which it grows out of our head. Revolutionary? I guess. No, I suppose it has to be. With pressure from such a young age to make sure our hair is “done” (relaxed, or closer to white, as some view it) there is little to no beauty placed on the afro. Now that I’ve discovered it I can’t go back, not even looking at it politically: it’s the miracle hairstyle of laziness. The hour or so of straightening my hair every morning and the two to three hours spent in the hair salon having it chemically altered (and paying up to $65 by the way) is over. I give a sigh of relief when I wake up and know all I really need to do is rub some moisturizer through it, wash it once a week in the shower, and pick it out slightly with my Black Power Fist pick.
But as I entered the natural hair community I’ve noticed something. As a person who identifies as genderqueer and queer I have both a masculine and feminine relationship with my hair. Historically the Afro has be seen on women as an inherently masculine style. This can be seen at the peak of the Black Power and civil rights movements. In Ingrid Banks’ book Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness, she explains,
“For black women, more so than black men, going ‘natural’ was not just a valorization of blackness or Africanness, but a direct rejection of a conception of female beauty that many black men themselves had upheld.”
Intelligent women sporting the fro were in essence seen as overbearing, too aggressive, and overall trying to be men. In response to this reign of sexist doctrine the contemporary natural hair movement (seen on websites, youtube videos, blogs, etc.) seems to privilege not the natural hair itself many times, but how feminine you can make it. With a touch of make-up, earrings and a twist out now the look is perfect, womanly. But what about the afro on its own? Can’t we get to the point of seeing it as gender fluid, gender neutral even?
At times it feels like if you aren’t trying out different new products or searching for that next new style, that you’re doing it wrong. I’m perfectly fine wearing a small fro on its own (I recently cut it, but still not in a particularly “feminine” style). My current cut is actually a reflection of both my queerness and a nostalgic look at the Black afro of the past.
Queerness complicates this simple narrative of the natural Black woman. Combating sexist, heterosexist, as well as cissexist ideas, queer FAAB (female assigned at birth) Black people who sport fros may do so while putting together a style that fits both their Blackness and queerness; this isn’t always safe. Although the natural movement has made waves, the importance placed on Eurocentric beauty is still alive and well. I still worry about whether a job will judge me for not having straight hair. Combined with my masculine of center appearance, that worry can jump to fear.
When I think of my fro, I do so with my gender fluidity in mind. I do not shame those who choose to try out different styles, such as twist outs, updos, different drying techniques, or the newest natural products. However, I view my hair as an extension of my queerness: it can sometimes give me visibility, but it doesn’t take away anything from my days of feeling more feminine.
The national conversation on Black hair needs to make sure to remain inclusive, otherwise it does the same thing the national conversation on gay rights does: render Black queers invisible.