Photo courtesy of Sewanee Women’s Center Facebook
By Frances Marion Givhan
The Women’s Center’s “As Free As My Hair” event brought such a large turn-out on September 10 that it had to switch rooms in order to accommodate the incredible number of people who came. People filled every chair, couch, and space on the floor in the Wick’s living room. The cookies that Wick resident Bess Pearson (C’18) had made were all gone only a few minutes into the discussion. Everyone came with open ears and opinions about hair and its many benefits, issues, and connotations. The event was the first in a new consciousness raising, discussion based series at the Wick called #NoFilter. Kathryn Willgus (C’16), the co-director of the Wick, proposed the idea in her application for co-director and at the Wick’s pre-semester retreat. She hopes that the #NoFilter discussions will be a “great way to connect to the com-munity around us and pro-vide a platform for students to express their views and concerns” about taboo subjects.
This particular discussion revolved around hair care. Gender standards and norms permeate the topic of hair care and removal, so the discussion leaders began there. Women with darker hair expressed the need for tweezing eye-brows and waxing or shaving arm hair, and addressed how many more comments positive and negative perceptions of underarm, leg, they received about their body hair than girls with lighter hair. All women, though, had their share of experiences with society’s nipple, and pubic hair.
“When I decided to not shave any of my body hair last year, I was pleasantly surprised that in sexual or personal encounters with others, I was the only one who minded,” said Rachel Chu (C’17). However, she recalls being called out for having body hair in places that everyone has body hair, only mine is darker than others.” At one point, she bleached her arm hair, which she considers a negative experience. Bleach, waxing, shaving, tweezing, Keratin treatments – they are influenced by society’s conformity pressures, but ultimately come down to personal preference. And guys have insecurities about it all, too. Benjamin Sadler (C’17) could grow a beard early on and tweezed his eyebrows in order to keep them under control. On the other hand, Keenan Lo (C’19) noted how he cannot grow a beard and has less body hair than people think guys typically do. Hair can translate into manliness, but what if a guy has long hair? Does that make him feminine?
Then cultural differences arose in the conversation. Willgus mentioned the “Sewanee bubble” and how there are not any places for people with non-white hair to have their hair styled. For the black women, a few of them, including Joey Adams (C’18), had to learn how to do their own hair. The black students recognize the influence of the European standard on their hair, though, which limits their freedom of expression. Jonathan Brown (C’18) expressed that he “already had a target on his back” and therefore did not want to appear unprofessional or inappropriate because of his hair.
This led to the continuing issue of cultural appropriation in today’s modern society. The discussion participants condemned the actual act of cultural appropriation, and many of the black students spoke up about why it’s a problem. People of color are discriminated against for their hair-styles, yet inconsistency arises when another culture tries to make the styles cool or trendy. People agreed that one can appreciate another culture’s hair without wearing it, especially since – using the example of traditional black hair styles – other cultures do not have the history or experience to justify wearing it. Broaching subjects like gender and cultural double standards provokes productive conversation about how people can address those issues. However, in between these important points of the discussion, the group slipped into complaints. A few women complained about how people had commented and had opinions about the women’s new hairstyles such as bangs, bobs, and shorter length in general. While personal decisions should be respected, for a moment the conversation focused on non-issue. There is a large difference between people not liking one’s new hairstyle and be-ing bullied about it, as others have experienced. With these kinds of #NoFilter discussions, it’s important to remember to focus on the bigger issues. Let the student body continue to discuss bullying, gender norms, and cultural appropriation across campus.