Hair

“I don’t care what anyone else thinks. You’re my wife!” My husband really was worked up now and his voice rose to a stratospheric irrationality.

I couldn’t believe we were fighting about hair. That our relationship was being tested because of my haircut. It seemed to me to be such an unimportant skirmish in the battle over meaningful cultural and gender differences-nothing like religion, in-laws, or even children. Incredibly, my hair was to become the straw that would break the camel’s back. And I decided to allow the camel to gasp its last breath with its legs giving way, crumbling under the weight of it all. I was tired. I no longer wanted to struggle to be me instead of the person my husband had in his head.

I realized then that perhaps my husband’s reaction was a reflection of his desire to control what I did with my appearance and his image of me. It is his personality to be less comfortable with change than I am. But it was also cultural. Not because all Pakistanis have long, silky, straight hair. Many cut their hair short. And some have wavy, curly or downright nappy hair. But it was cultural because he came undone when I failed to perform the “wife” role as written in his life’s play script: I had not deferred to him and what was pleasing or important to him in changing my appearance, and seemingly, I had not cared about or loved him enough to keep what he preferred. Long hair helped to define my essence as a woman, wife, and lover. Long hair meant pretty and acceptable to him.

My husband’s reaction was also an ugly reflection of what society had taught us both was attractive. As ashamed as I was to admit it, on some level, long hair had meant pretty, sexy, and acceptable to me, too. Old-fashioned ways of thinking – reinforced by our fairy tales and storybooks, advertising and corporate culture-continually surface and influence our perspective and opinions. Unknowingly, my husband had charged blindly into a minefield of historic tension amongst people of color worldwide – those with fair skin and “good” hair and those without.

Sometimes I worried he might be right. Secretly, I checked and re-checked myself in the master bath, hallway, and powder-room mirrors. What if I really had messed up how I looked, as my husband claimed? Was I really less attractive now? Privately, I cried hopelessly when he was most unsupportive and applied salve to my wounds by reminding myself that while distinguished, my husband was no Bollywood movie star. I dredged down deep to tap reservoirs of confidence and stamina to keep from falling into a dark hole of self-doubt. And every time I lost my footing, I clawed my way back up to stand my ground.

But the fact was my hair had never looked better. It had never been healthier: fuller, shinier, more resilient. And I had never felt better about the way I looked. I realized my haircut had nothing to do with my husband, his preferences, or most important, my love for him or my concern for his feelings. It was all about me. It was my right to style my hair as I pleased. It was mine.

Some time later I realized that, except for the color of my skin, my long hair allowed me to be anyone my husband wanted me to be. In his mind, I was no different from a Pakistani girl. I did, in fact, share his family’s moral values on relationships, respect, religion, and education. But the cutting of my hair made it difficult for him to look at me and see the woman, not the girl, in me. I am poised, attractive, smart and articulate. But many others did not expect these attributes from an African-American. Like these other attributes, long hair helped me to appear racially more neutral and acceptable. My new, short hair, however, made it difficult for my husband to look at me and not see and share my blackness, especially when I left my hair to curl naturally, and softly frame my brown face. I was no longer an empty vial waiting for some identification.

Then one day, the commentary on my hair stopped. Just like the unremarkable day when I cut it, one unremarkable day months later, after we had been out with friends, my husband said, “You look pretty tonight.”

He never mentioned it, but I accepted that his compliment included my hair. I knew that it was too difficult for him: he was too proud to ever talk to me about his initial reaction to my haircut. Yet I was surprisingly happy that I didn’t need him to admit anything. I loved my new hair and the person I was on the inside and out. And I loved having the freedom to wear my hair short now and perhaps-just perhaps-long again later. As long as I was the one to choose.

Archived Article by Lisa Ahmad

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