“Hair is everything”- Fleabag

My memory of Tuface Idibia’s African Queen is soothing chords and a compulsively singable chorus. When I return to its music video as an adult, eighteen years after it first lifted Tuface to acclaim, I am looking for a name, a face that will take shape on my tongue. But none of the three women who sway to Tuface’s lavish, lyrical praise are credited. Still I recognize two of them: Yvonne Jegede and Annie Macaulay-Idibia. They did Nollywood, do things that keep people talking. I have burrowed down Google’s infinite scroll, submitted to clickbait Opera News articles, endured and enjoyed the painfully 2007 slang and graphics of Nairaland, jigsawed words into Twitter’s search button, but like me, everyone names the third woman by this one fact: she is as bald as a mannequin head, as bald as Tuface himself. She is who my sister is referring to when, as I return from the barbershop one Sunday, starts to sing African Queen. It is not praise; she is laughing, but there is no malice. It is the half-truth, half-joke mockery that is the bread of siblinghood. The Bald Woman is also on the mind of the man who, as I walk through the bus park Wednesday that week, begins to shout, “African girl! African Queen!” I ignore him but I walk faster, worried that this man—the kind who shouts things at women on the street—will follow me. Earlier, on Monday, I’d been in the bus park when a man left the conversation he was having and turned to me, his mouth breaking open with laughter, “This one that you cut your hair like this . . .” I didn’t hear the rest because I don’t stop to hear what men on the street have to say to me. When I arrived at work, my co-worker looked at me and asked, “You cut your hair again?” I smiled, an exasperated pretense, “Yes.” The next day, Tuesday, as I was walking out of the Obalende Local Government Office, the Man O’War officer at the gate called me, smiling, because he thought he was being funny, “Don’t you need a hat, in this heat?” 

I stop making notes on my phone on Wednesday, but there are pieces of that week debrised across my memory—my mother again, a gateman, another shopper at a clothes store. My mother all the time, church members, classmates, people who do not know me, have never known me to have hair, all of them want to know when I will make my hair.

*

When I was not failing math, I was unhelpably average, so I think of my hair in brushes and combs, never in inches or centimetres. At its lowest, no brush, no comb, new stubble. Those days, I simply wake up and fall upon the world, hair untouched. In a week, it is at Hair Brush: too low to be smoothed by anything but a palm-sized brush run backwards and forwards to hide the anti-widow’s peak of my hairline. Two or three weeks after, I need a Tail Comb: thin-toothed thing thinning off into a long, pointed stick. And then I reach the many weeks of Afro-comb, a problem of a name. There are about three sizes, so in boarding school, we would speak in superlatives: “Do you have an Afro-comb? No, the bigger one. No, the biggest one.” Big, bigger, biggest Afro-comb. I never let my hair get there any more, but if I leave it for many many weeks, months, it would need a Big Comb, orthonym Rake Comb. Wide-toothed and weapon-ready, Big Combs excel with boisterous clouds of hair, or a small afro for the coarse, dry, why-is-it-this-hard, needs-water-before-combing hair on my head. 

I cut my hair to the length of my mood, how permeable, how impregnable with confidence and content I am feeling. I am not bald. Not since my last cut. Not really ever. I usually leave something on. I dislike the shape of my head, which is still visible, but even a brush’s worth of hair is something like underwear, the sheer shawling of my nakedness. I am often almost in fact bald and for many people, whether I am at Hair Brush or Afro-Comb, I am. Whether I am at T’Nia Miller or almost Arlo Parks, with certain people who have known me longer, who feel that I am lingering in a childish disposition that I should by now have outgrown, the reaction differs only slightly, a tired disappointment, as with correcting an always erring child. This is the problem: in my hairlessness, in my disinterest in earrings, is a scandalous neglect of my femininity. A posturing against my obligation to be woman—ornamented, adorned, en garde, always for other people’s eyes. 

The first time I cut my hair, I was ten and verging on secondary school. Like many others, my new Anglican boarding school required new entry female students to wear their hair like the boys did, low. Low low. If-it’s-not-low-enough-we-will-not-check-you-into-your-hostel low. They reasoned, younger girls could not be trusted to manage plaited hair neatly. Once you completed the three years of Junior Secondary School, from your first year of Senior School, you could resume braiding your hair, your ability to see the furry roughness of your aging braids, understand they needed remaking, quickened and sharpened. 

My parents did not object. Perched on the edge of their bed with a pair of scissors, my mother sat me on the floor between her knees before the full-length mirror in my parents’ bedroom, and hacked my already short hair into a wild, uneven shrub that a barber later levelled. I remember a distinct, weighty sense of loss, an impulse toward tears. I don’t remember if I did cry, and whatever I felt I was losing then is now so far from me; this memory could belong to someone else. My guess is that an unhaired head felt a weight I could not bear. I had only known myself to have hair, and removing it would have been as jolting as a sudden, unwilling change of name, which in a sense was happening. To lose your hair is to become the wearer of new names: gorimapa (there was a character Gorimapa in the 80’s TV show Village Headmaster, frequently bald), koyambolo (meaning something like “small”), afaridon (see, for an example, Sofiyat Ibrahim), not to be confused with fadon, which means the same thing. 

The thing I feared has overcome me. But for a five day period in 2016, I have not made my hair since 2010, and I don’t wear wigs either. This is how it has been, this is how it will be.

*

My life is the bed, and unlike other lovers, they don’t etch their contours on opposing sides of the mattress. They body into a compromise, singular and inextricable, the weight sinking the bed at its middle. They are one person—my laziness and my inability, sincere and true. Child of their union, I am easily distracted and struggle to remember routines and commit to them, especially if they are complicated and require careful, specific tending. My hair, the quiet, unneeding animal of it, is a small ease for me. The entirety of my morning hair routine is a rub-in of shea butter, or coconut oil, or Cantu, and a brush or comb through—if I am likely to see people other than my family—I know my Black hair needs—and I can forget that I have hair until the next morning. Yet I am more than unwilling and unable. When I look at my shaved head, I am looking at my self and I feel like myself. Inarticulate, and yet the clearest it ever comes. Me without my hair made is my self in ways that I am unable to fully enunciate. There is psychology, there is personal history, but it is first simply that some crucial piece of myself understands this as necessary self-expression, an external projection of an internally realized truth. In this state, my body is somewhere more familiar to me, more hospitable, where often it is a site of discomfort. 

I am not unaware that there is something gendered about this, a manifestation of a lingering conflict between who I am not simply choosing to be, and the person I should be on account of my being a woman. I am a woman. Less certain I ask myself, “What kind am I, should I be?” A small answer is that I am a woman who does not want to have hair. And for some people, this is worth challenging me over; challenging my womanhood, challenging my sisterhood. For most of these people, maleness and femaleness are fixed, predetermined destinies. Yet to be a certain way and do certain things is essentially inherently masculine or feminine. There are sacred borders, the trespassing of which unstables person and people. 

I have just concluded my one year service with the National Youth Service Corps. For twenty-one days I was deployed to an Orientation Camp where soldiers and paramilitary officers taught me, among other similarly useful things, the highly practical, entirely crucial, everyday skill of parade foot drilling. Then there was one day on a gadget field, the Man O’War obstacle course. The day before I left for the Camp, I needed to cut my hair. I had noticed a new barber across from my usual; higher-end, richer in ambience, and three times more expensive I would learn, which made me think, better service. In a risk-hungry state, I decided to try it and I was ecstatic to see two women working, unusual for barbershops. One, the barber, was finishing a cut on a man. When she finished, I sat and allowed her to drape me, and then I asked for the same cut she had just given. She paused, clipper in hand, and we looked at each other in the mirror. I don’t know what she thought I came to do in a barbershop but it could not have been  to cut my hair. We went back and forth. Me, trying to convince her that I understood the words I was saying, and that she understood me correctly. I referred to the haircut she had just given, “A fade, like the one you just cut.” She looked at me confused and unsure and asked, “Like a man?” The way she asked me, she was asking, “You want me to cut your hair in a way that is for men?” This is typical; a reversion to masculinity, the erection of maleness as canon, that inevitable norm against which certain desires and behaviour is to be measured. Masculinity is the narrative in which to interpret certain choices, even the thing that certain women, like those who shave their heads, are always and necessarily reaching for. The barber of my most recent haircut at the same shop, a second and final misguided search for better service, did the same thing. When I told him that my fade, which normally tapers downward, thinner at the temple and nape, did not taper off to my satisfaction, he assured me that what he had done was more proper. If my cut was any thinner, my scalp would be visible, and that is for men. If as a woman, you start to shave your head, you will get even more of this than usual—men assuring you that they are best positioned to make decisions about your body. You tell them like this, they do like that. The woman I convinced to cut my hair. The man did what he wanted. 

On the day of my Man O’War training at Camp, I was called a man three times. The jungle boots I had been given as a part of my uniform were bigger than my feet, so I borrowed my friend’s. In her room, we were laughing about something she was saying when one of her roommates shouted across the room, “Hey uncle! What are you doing in the girl’s hostel?” Distracted by my conversation, I mumbled something at her, but I heard another roommate tell her I was a woman. I left the hostel and joined the other corpers gathered on the parade ground, kitted in our green khakis and orange jungle boots. The Man O’War instructors asked us to form lines as men and women. I stood at the front of the women’s line, and one of the officers, standing behind, called in my direction, asking why I was on the women’s line. He walked toward me, and leaned over my shoulder. When he confirmed that I had breasts, he withdrew. The officers walked us to the gadget field, a grassy plain of monkey bars, rope walls and bridges, simulated tunnelways. They asked us to partner up as were on the lines, “As husband and wife,” they said. Again, another officer saw my shaved head from behind and challenged me for partnering with the first man on the line. Again, after walking toward me, she saw my chest. This one apologized, and then started to ask me, “Are you one of those . . . Don’t be offended o. One of those . . .” lesbians, monks, Squidward impressionists? She did not complete her question, but I suspect it was the first. She would look at me a little too long whenever she saw me afterwards.

Through the half-sight of a bus window, I am sir, uncle, bros, bro(ther), oga, to drivers, conductors, passengers, and people who beg. I never correct them, and if I step out, lean forward, or speak, chest or voice in view, they never apologize. They would be doing the same thing if they decided I was a woman because of my breasts or the pitch of my voice, and sometimes it is even a kind of affirmation, so I am usually not bothered, not if they are not malicious or mean-spirited. And they generally are not. Some are, like this bus conductor I run into when I am seeking a bus on my route. The first time he saw me, in the cold of a grey August morning, navigating the kinetic swiftness of Lagosians on commute, he stopped conducting and followed me with his voice and eyes. He had been calling for people heading towards Iyana-Oworo, but he left his paying job and began shouting at me, “You no wan do your hair? You wan turn to man? Man-girl, Man-girl, Man-girl!” until I mixed into the crowd. When he did this again the next day, I told him to stop, and he responded, “I will say anything I want to say to you.”

*

All of us pre-Senior School girls had to shave our heads at my secondary school. All of us, except for a biracial girl we called Chioma Brazil. Chioma was allowed to keep all of her long, wavy dark brown hair. Those of us with skin and hair that suggested two black parents were the rule, and we straightened our minds accordingly. We agreed that hair that long, that lush, should not be bound by the same rules as our ordinary, kinky, shorter hair. Our school board wielded hair clippers as control, sheathed it for a student of a different social, ethnic, and possibly financial status. (It was rumoured that Chioma’s parents, presumably wealthy in the way the non-Black in Nigeria often are, paid additional fees.) 

Power attaches to hair. Exceptions borne of privilege, surveillance enabled by various, intersecting hegemonies, hair is another system for controlling marginalized people. Ruth Sutoyé, visual artist and curator of Bald Black Girls, a multidisciplinary project collecting the experiences of bald and low shaven Black women, recounts the first time she cut her hair. The questions men asked her, “Does your husband know?”, “Did you lose a bet to your brother?”, she understood as their asking, “Did you consult a man in your life before you made this decision?” I remember entering my class for the first time after a holiday in my second year of Junior Secondary School. A group of boys gathered around a desk laughed. I wanted to know why. They told me they were celebrating because for what seemed to be the first time, I did not cut my hair so low. I was presentable. And I was embarrassed. I realized suddenly and simultaneously that I was being measured and not measuring up. It may have been my first awareness that I was being seen through male eyes.

Men are always saying things to women, and being a bald woman is one more thing for men to offer you their unfiltered and unsolicited opinions on. Many will not like your baldness and they will feel that they must tell you this. Like the pharmacist who frowned at me and asked why I cut my hair so low. He then called me brave, but added, to be clear, that he did not like it, not on women. On the other hand, I am simply not like other girls. Women are materialistic, superficial and colonized, but I am not. As Fela Anikulapo Kuti sang, a Black woman who wears wigs is a Shenshema, inauthentic and gone astray. Some men think it is a compliment to emphasize just how much better looking and better minded you are as a woman who prefers to not make her hair. By the time I was completing my undergraduate degree, I had worked off much of my anxiety around my appearance and the comments it invited. When it was time for my project’s oral defence, I went against the custom and decided not to wear a wig or make my hair. My project supervisor, a man who offered no assistance when I was writing my project, was deeply pleased by this decision: he was happy that I was not distracted by the small matter of my appearance, unlike the other girls. He tried to seize the heels I planned to wear, so that my decision would be more complete. Recently I boarded a keke marwa, and the man already seated leaned towards me, as if with a profound revelation, to say that I was in a state of natural beauty. 

Hair is desirability. It is to be attractive and wanted. Some barbers will not shave a woman’s head until she can prove she has her husband’s permission. There are funerary practices alive in some communities in South-East Nigeria, that require a widow’s head to be shaved, in part to underline the weight of her grief, but also to diminish her appeal to other men. How fact changes meaning. The same shaved head, unaccepted and accepted, (un)tolerated or demanded, and the difference is whether a woman is choosing for herself.

*

My mother is Delilah in reverse. She used to joke about making my hair in my sleep. Sometimes she says things to me that are unintentionally hurtful in the way that parents can be. These are real questions she has asked me: “What is the difference between you and your father?”; “Aren’t you afraid that they will be laughing at you at work?”; “Won’t they say you look like a man?” They, the greatest fear of a Nigerian parent. 

Twice in 2016, I put hair on my head. It was easier than dealing with the comments and questions and working up the confidence to carry myself unashamedly. So for my secondary school graduation, I bought a mess of wig that wanted to be Jheri Curls but tragically fell short. And in the late 2010s? I hope that every picture I took that day is irretrievably corrupted. The second time was for my university matriculation. Keeping with my university’s length policy, I had a weave sewn in that cautiously brushed the curves of my shoulders. After six years of cutting my hair, I was not prepared for the pain and itching that came with my hair being plaited, threaded, and layered. By the fifth day, tired of scratching with the end of a tail comb, I took a blade to my hair and unbound it. I have one picture from the matriculation ceremony: I am squinting into the camera, head tilted; my face is a metallic bronze from the mismatched foundation powder and my hair is arranged in curly waves held down by my mortarboard. My father’s father died that morning and, because he was a Muslim, my parents had to travel to my father’s hometown for the first burial, so it is my mother’s mother beside me, smiling. I look awkward and uncomfortable; that is also how I felt.

A few women celebrate my choice, welcome it with an honest, kind admiration. Some tell me, that they wish they could cut theirs too. I wish I were bold in the way people seem to think, and yes, I do think of my choice as encouragement, for myself and for other people, toward self, choice, and liberation, but mostly, I like to lie down and roll around, head unweighted.

*

All the good looking people are doing it, so recently I am thinking of getting my hair locked but with the bonsaied length of my hair, I might need a little time. And then, dreadlocks twin braids for problems, the care and the carrying. What I have started to do, to bring variance to my endless style, is to dye my hair. Even that is contentious with people like Pastor Idowu, pastor to my mother, who called me aside during my father’s birthday party, and asked me to promise to undye my hair because coloured hair is “not for Children of God.” I told him I wouldn’t.

About the Author:

Nike writes from Lagos, Nigeria. Her work has appeared in The RepublicAgbowo and elsewhere. She’s on Twitter @adenike_onwu.

Feature image by Steve Johnson/Unsplash