What does the politics of hair say about modern Britain?

Racism and sexism are intertwined - so feminism must tackle them both head-on, says Veronica Wood-Querales

Veronica Wood-Querales, 30 August 2007

Every now and then, I see an article about the death of feminism or about how young women aren't interested in it. This infuriates me (and has put me off mainstream women's magazines), because it is evidently not true. I think over the years our battle has changed and the way we are fighting it has changed, and feminism is adapting, not dead.

Ask any woman if she thinks the world she lives in is fair, and she will probably say no. I would say no, and one of the first times I became properly aware of this was in the classroom. I also became aware that while the marginalisation I got from my male classmates was sexist, it was also undeniably racist. Ever since, I have realised that while your life in the UK is often defined by your gender, it is also defined by your ethnicity. Race and religion have never before been so relevant to feminism. To me, the experiences that have made me realise the prejudices against women, are the same experiences that have made me realise the prejudices against ethnic minorities.

Take hair, for example. We are all encouraged by the beauty industry to work against the natural condition of our hair. If it is naturally straight, it is never smooth enough. Natural curls? Not bouncy enough. I'm not against experimenting with your hair, but then again the beauty industry does not exist to make us feel good, it exists to make money. The more we are encouraged to change our hair into something 'acceptable', the more hair can become quite political.

We challenge the fashion and beauty industry for their part in eating disorders. We need to challenge them about the part they play in the idea that afro hair is 'unprofessional'

Growing up, I hated my hair. I am half Venezuelan, and have inherited thick, curly hair. I used to do everything possible to work against those curls, and when my hair was finally straight I would avoid anything resembling humidity. All my friends had straight hair, all the models in the teenage magazines had straight hair, and I would have paid to have my hair relaxed, if I had been able to afford it. This had to stop, and a couple of years ago I fully embraced my curls. And, apart from my hair looking better, I realised that nights out should not be spent in the toilet in a cloud of hairspray, rain is not the enemy, and you save so much time just letting your hair be. I make of point of telling all my friends to just go natural, no matter what colour or texture their hair is, but the friends that feel the most pressure are those who are mixed race, like me, and have curly or afro hair.

A friend of mine was once told by an employer that her afro hair was not "professional". Her boss went on to say that if she got her hair relaxed it would better suit the company's image. She changed jobs and kept her hair the way it was, but that did nothing to change her boss's view. Now when I see photos of women like Jennifer Lopez or Beyonce Knowles, on one hand I admire them for not submitting to the size-zero trend, but what message does their straight blonde hair send out? That it's OK to celebrate your curves as a Latina or African American woman, but not your hair?

And if you still have any doubt, and think that hair is not political, consider this: the standards set by the beauty industry tell us that we must work against every part of our body. If you have pale skin you must tan; if you have hair below your eyebrows, you must remove it; if you have wrinkles, they must be eliminated. If the beauty industry can be prejudiced against age, weight and skin colour, then it can be prejudiced against hair, especially if you have afro hair. Many make up brands stock foundation, concealer and powder in a variety of beige colours, with one dark orange shade which is supposed to suit every woman who is not beige. Magazines might have one page devoted to 'women of colour'. Not every woman is 6 feet tall and a size 8, and similarly, not every woman is white. We challenge the fashion and beauty industry for their part in eating disorders. We need to challenge them about the part they play in the idea that afro hair is 'unprofessional'.

In Venezuela you can dance with anyone and no-one will bat an eyelid, but on no condition must you talk. I really struggled with getting my extended family to understand the concept of a platonic relationship

At the other end of the spectrum, you might find that instead of finding your ethnicity 'unprofessional', there are those who find it exotic, which in reality is just as offensive. In the UK, there is not a big Latin American community, so naturally people are curious about my family, but in the US we wouldn't be unusual. Some would consider my mum to be just another immigrant. The UK is full is migrants and their descendants, but why are only some exotic? Personally I think to exoticise a woman is just another way of sexualising her, and therefore controlling her. I think people view the Latin culture, and many other cultures, as being quite hot-blooded and sexual, when in fact many of them are very patriarchal and almost misogynistic.

In a lot of Catholic countries in Europe and Latin America, women can dress quite provocatively, but their behaviour must not reflect this. For example, in Venezuela you can dance with anyone and no-one will bat an eyelid, but on no condition must you talk. I really struggled with getting my extended family to understand the concept of a platonic relationship. And growing up in the UK, I had conflicting views from different cultures that only affected me, and not my brother. Consequently, the idea of 'preserving' patriarchal culture and traditions is something I reject. It is these traditions which force women into marriage, withhold access to abortion and lead to genital mutilation.

And this is not something that happens in far-away countries. In the so-called modern, multicultural UK, we are quite tolerant of other cultures compared to other countries, but we are so tolerant that we allow women get forced into arranged marriages, or get murdered for falling in love with the wrong man. I see these stories in the news all the time, and a lot of people are afraid to get involved with somebody else's culture. But ultimately, these women in the news are UK citizens and they deserve the same rights and protection as every other woman in the UK, regardless of religion or race.

We need to start celebrating the positive aspects of each other's religion or ethnicity, but at the same time seek to change traditions which harm women

We need to stop being afraid to criticise other cultures that don't show enough respect to women. It may be controversial, but other cultures criticise the UK all the time. Last September there was a media frenzy over Jack Straw asking Muslim women to remove veils that cover the face. At the time I thought, why shouldn't a woman be allowed to cover her face if this is part of her religion? I had a conversation with a Muslim friend of my mum, who told me that while it prevents unwanted attention from men, a woman shouldn' have to cover her face to be modest. She made me realise that the burqa, or niqab, is something that we are really afraid to confront in the UK. Men aren't animals and, even if they were, why should a woman have to cover her body and face to account for a man's behaviour? Doesn't this say more about the men's lack of self-control than it does about a woman's modesty?

I don't think segregation is a cure for anything and when the media was covering this story last year, I couldn't help but be reminded of the view some people hold over rape: if you look, or dress, or act a certain way, then it's your fault. I don't think women should have to cover their bodies and faces: surely men should be educated that showing skin is not necessarily a sexual act?

I would like to see women from all backgrounds questioning the cultures and traditions that exist in the UK today. We need to start celebrating the positive aspects of each other's religion or ethnicity, but at the same time seek to change traditions which harm women. Bad things happen in the name of religion and bad ideas are formed in the name of beauty and it's time to start asking questions.

About the author

Veronica Wood-Querales

Veronica Wood-Querales wants to sue the government for misleading her into thinking a degree would lead to a job

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