When you have fabulously curly hair like mine, it seems like everyone wants to touch it.
It’s been this way my whole life.
In elementary school, I wrapped my friends’ birthday gifts with curly ribbon and pleaded, “Keep this ribbon so you can boing it instead of my hair!” (It didn’t work.)
Kids would sit behind me in class and dare each other to stick pencils in my hair. Each day, they tried for a new record for most pencils. When I felt something and turned around, some of the pencils would stay, and others would go flying. The kids would erupt in laughter, and the teacher would scold me for the interruption. What could I say?
I hated my hair then. I hated cutting Jolly Ranchers out of it, after kids on the school bus licked them and stuck them in my hair to see what would happen. I hated when they called it a birds’ nest, when they asked, “How many rats live in there?”
I don’t have a single memory, from when I was a kid, of someone asking first to touch my hair. And it never occurred to me then that I could demand someone ask first and only touch if I gave affirmative consent. The teachers and the bus drivers certainly weren’t enforcing consent, so the idea wasn’t on my radar.
I wanted to be nice, so I tried not to make it a big deal. Of course, it was still a big deal to me, because it communicated to me that my body was not mine, and also that my differences made me a spectacle.
Thankfully, there’s hope for kids today with lovely nappy and curly hair. There’s an increased understanding that body autonomy and consent apply to your whole body, not just your bathing suit area. And there are fantastic children’s books like Don’t Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller.
Don’t Touch My Hair! is a therapeutic read for anyone who has first-hand experience with the hair-touching phenomenon, and also a must-read for anyone with grabby hands who doesn’t understand why hair-touching is a micro-aggression.
In Don’t Touch My Hair!, everyone is trying to touch main character Aria’s hair. They mean it as a compliment, but that doesn’t make it any less invasive.
Aria escapes under the sea, to the jungle, to a castle, even to space. But no matter where she goes, everybody’s grasping for her beautiful hair. My favorite image is an octopus reaching for her hair with all 8 limbs.
When I turned 18, I started relaxing and ironing my hair to make it as straight as I could. People stopped touching it.
At 26, I met my husband. He urged me to let my natural hair come back, and I did. For the first time, I saw the beauty in my curls, let myself love my hair, love myself just the way I was.
Of course, people started touching my hair again.
I feel a responsibility to say something now, when it happens, because I’m an adult, and because I know black people have way more than enough institutional racism to deal with, and helping white people understand about the hair-touching micro-aggression is just one little thing I can do to help. I’m not black; I came by my 3C hair through my Jewish genes. I want to guide hair-touching offenders to do better next time, because I know if I don’t say something, they will do it again and again. But it’s hard.
Last year, a 15-year-old started petting me, and attempted a compliment:
“Your hair feels so cool, like sheep’s wool.”
I found myself speechless. I knew it was a teachable moment, but just then, I wasn’t feeling like a strong, empowered woman, capable of teaching anyone anything. I was that little kid again, hiding under the school bus seat, while they stuck Jolly Ranchers in my hair.
All this came up again yesterday. I met someone new, someone in her ’60s, who immediately said,
“Can I touch your hair?”
Her daughter groaned, “Mom, don’t say that!”
Yeah, I’d rather hair-touching not be part of any introduction. But at least she asked.
“That’s okay with me right now,” I said. “Thank you for asking first.”
“Well, of course,” she said.
“A lot of people don’t.”