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More than just a mane: Exploring the cultural symbolism of hair in womanhood

The concept of womanhood is complex and multifaceted. For centuries, society has dictated how women should dress, what they should think, where they should go and how they should act. It has objectified, politicised and attached symbolism to the value of their body parts.

Learning to love ourselves involves re-learning the ideal Eurocentric beauty standards ingrained within us. Nowhere is this more prevalent than when discussing the topics of women’s hair.

Malcolm X famously posed the question, “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?” in his 1962 speech, ‘Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?’, wherein he examined the extent of self-loathing that existed – and continues to prevail – in communities of colour.

Image: Library of Congress

Women of colour have long struggled to accept their natural curls, kinks and coils. Instead, alteration methods such as the hot comb, chemical relaxers and straighteners are easily accessible and enticing, giving women hair that’s smoother, straighter – and more acceptable by society.

“The problem is that these methods may cause more damage than they conceal,” says Cheryl Thompson, author of Black Women and Identity: What’s hair got to do with it?. The damage she refers to isn’t only physical but concerns erasing culture and identity.

Women’s hair has always been more than just a signifier of beauty. It’s a physical representation of ethnic communities, historical backgrounds and activism. South African Zulu women were previously identified by Bantu knots, a style in which the hair is divided and twisted into sections and then wrapped in a spiral to form a knot. Women wore it as a symbol of femininity and status. Some adorned their knots with jewellery, evolving the style into intricate head dresses.

Image: Supplied

West Africans used cornrows as a powerful form of resistance against bondage and slavery during the slave trade. Africans who were transported across the Atlantic to America disobeyed orders by shaving their heads – an attempt to strip themselves of their identity – and adopted cornrows to reclaim their roots. They used the style as a clever communication tool amongst themselves and intricately wove it into maps to plan their escape from colonial estates.

The natural hair movement of the ’60s, in which women began embracing their natural, Afro-textured hair, echoed this movement. This revolution is still going strong today. Women feel empowered to express their tresses in every form, which the media and big corporations support.

But behind every style is a deeply personal journey of acceptance and discovery.

For Pulane Lyarin, a natural hair advocate and founder of the online community Textur, hair represents the immense mental work she’s endured to rewire her understanding of beauty. “It liberated me and allowed me to dig deeper and find a version of myself that feels free,” she says. “I had no point of reference and local knowledge was scarce. But the more I learnt, I became confident caring for my hair and wearing it proudly.”

Read the full article in GLAMOUR’s August 2022 Women’s Month issue. Click here to grab your digital copy or pick up a physical copy in stores nationwide.

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