Humans position themselves in relation to spaces, places, and bodies – sometimes within harmonious and reciprocated exchange, but often in opposition to mystified processes of commodification. Sitting in council with this tension entails questioning, dissecting, deconstructing, and de-schematizing concepts, definitions, or group dynamics. It seems that we are systematically transitioning from operating as parts of a collective with common goals and shared values, to a state of being constrained by circumstance, material conditions, and routine.
This new status quo feels like being in a room full of strangers trying to make themselves unstrange; rather than surviving as part of a homogeneous whole, they exist in a state of seriality (Young 1994). They appear to be socialized, categorized, and positioned by material and immaterial constructs that have been imposed on them, but essentially disconnected from the idea that they are all the same. They asked questions and absorbed answers, and explored different mediums to start embracing the gravitational force of their individuality.
Understanding gender as a serial reveals the ways in which individual actions and desires are not simply the outcome of inherent biological, physical, or psychological factors, but emerge from self-situated positions within socially-defined gender categories. In finding commonality within the vast diversity, one’s hair – in relation to societal forces – becomes a focal point in the contested domain of woman-as-series. Individual responses to these pressures and constraints hold the potential for self-invention, self-expression and open a series of eccentric imaginative queer spaces. In the presence of hair to rebel against the norm, it becomes a language that moves between aesthetics of the emotion and the embodied and is one tool to protect the fullness of who we are. Our hair and its implications and meanings enable us to establish an intimate relationship with ourselves, draw boundaries with the outside world, and rediscover a connection to our sexuality.
Childhood in Arab societies was a time of imagining. Many of us grew up around tight family bonds that attuned us to the resonance of hair with babies’ earliest memories of contact, sensuality, comfort, and communication with their mothers. It was an evocative symbol of union and a rich medium of expression. We then drew parallels replaying this relationship with dolls and toys. It gave us a sense of control, even for a briefly-lived moment. This was our first initiation rite; we assimilated the pleasures of pattern, mothering, styling, and fashion meant to prepare us to envisage the set of choices we might make as we became independent.
Our hair and its implications and meanings enable us to establish an intimate relationship with ourselves, draw boundaries with the outside world, and rediscover a connection to our sexuality.
L’Oréal shampoo commercial with Cindy Crawford, 1989
Cartoons then instilled and affirmed society’s values in a way that was accessible to us as children; they helped formalize our second initiation into the cultural forays of social structure. Though their approach was playful, dark undercurrents undergirded an insidious notion of innocence. Rapunzel used her golden locks to weave her narrative and spin her plots, each strand linking her to those she loved. Haircutting, in turn, symbolized her detachment from symbiotic family ties and reclamation of her agency over her choices. On re-examination of the opposite case, Violet Baudelaire (from the Lemony Snicket series) ties back her hair when concentrating, allowing her to control her thoughts and steady herself.
Wild and untamed Barbies often sparked controversy within the family. They implied an inclination to live outside the boundaries of society, to lead a life beyond social control that, at such a young age, already hints at the indifference towards polished and lustrous appearances. Both Rapunzel and Violet Baudelaire undergo rituals around taming hair. They both collapsed under the dualism of innocence and guilt and dreamt of breaking free of the rusty chains that suggest a subliminal control of one’s energy and the appearance of docility and composure. Many of us subconsciously understood the illogical and deceiving exigencies of social conduct, and we deliberately bypassed them when playing with dolls.
Striding along the same play, young girls’ desires are insidiously metamorphosed into socially acceptable behaviors and heteronormative beauty standards, and they are subsumed as objects of the male gaze. Betty Boop, the ultimate 1930s black-haired femme fatale, began as an unwavering symbol of female independence and unabashed sexuality, evoking the potential of liberation. Over time, this lecherous gaze turned her into an overt promiscuous sex symbol for everyone to look at. Instead of a subject, she became an object. As a potent icon, she never really disappeared. She challenged the same gaze that demands conformity and modesty over self-expression and lessens the flair of individual power. In severing our ties with what we’ve been conditioned to choose as a result of traditional beliefs, we claim the right to a series of holistic spaces of our own making and contrive to redefine our inner gaze in original ways.
With age, we grew discontented with our containment and longed to expand ourselves beyond social series, gender categories, and child’s play. We saw the possibilities of (re)creating one’s identity and being (re)born into a new one in the catacombs of our refusal to be boxed, sexualized, and disregarded. Butterflies were once cocooned before they learned to emerge in a new form. Like the perhaps inadvertently subversive messages of cartoons, Egyptian popular culture and media narratives molded a collective consciousness and unearthed the power to create our own culture, one that does not cede to norms or deny our identities and aspirations.
L’Oréal shampoo commercial with Cindy Crawford, 1989
Ismail Yassin’s legendary performance as Miss Hanafi (1954) shatters all taboo conceptions of trans issues and gender reassignment in Egypt. Soad Hosny and Nadia Lutfi’s cross-dressing in Lil Rigal Faqat (1965) reaffirms how hairstyles can change the way we look and perhaps help us assume an entirely new persona. Warda appears in an exquisite and glamorous selection of colorful wigs in her iconic music video, “Lola El-Malama” (1975), reminding us of the innate desire to get out of one’s skin and create unpredictable new narratives for beauty and style that do not fit within the standard culture of natural hair.
Why has the pleasure of self-invention been burdened with the imposition of erasing the scent of authority from our skin? In addition to the hair on our heads, the hair on our bodies also lies at the indiscernible border between ourselves and others. The weight of convention torments how we view our body hair, its foreign perceptions still engender aversion and repugnance. But, like heroines in cartoons or mythical long-haired women, we conjure coils, twists, and forests of entanglements that fan the flames of a coup against gendered perceptions and change the ultimate meaning of hair.
Queer, multi-faceted, and dynamic bodies are forced to fit within notorious series of inconvenient amalgamations, but reductionist reactions are dissolved into a mayhem of empowered bodies. Our lived experience can subvert the expectations placed on our policed and politicized, liminal and estranged lives. We become embodied beings. We reconnect with that which has been repressed in cartoons and mainstream culture, and the power we vest in hair becomes intriguingly magical.
It is believed that it is the seat of the soul, itself being in a constant state of flows-and-becomings that compel us to think of hair as an empowering cloak of resistance against the concept of women-as-series. As an agent in the body, hair restores its primacy, revoking inferences to cloning and compliance to gendered and fragmented languages of imagination. What other references do we have, if not through the reminders and metaphors of the body, to identify with and occupy space?
About the writer:
Friya, a project exploring the fluidity and creativity of an identity that is not represented through the material aspect of an objectified image, located at the intersection of social and human sciences, gender studies, and radical personal experience. Freja, Norse goddess, free-er than her ancestors before her. Farida, a sensuous amalgamation of generations of women rooted in strength, resilience, and grace.