Jonathan Jansen: Hair makes social statement

Hair is a protein filament that grows out of a follicle through the epidermis of the skin. That’s the dictionary definition. If only it was that simple, for hair has always been politics, economics and social status.

Even the absence of hair is a social statement just as the abundance of hair makes a political point. Hair it was that became one of the measures of racial classification – the pencil test still stands as one of the more bizarre methods for separating black and white when skin tone alone did not suffice. Deep in the emotional psyche of South Africans, hair was and still is a race thing. Hands up if you had an aunt who ironed her hair. You smelt the burnt fibres from a nearby room, but that hair had to be straightened before the dance or the dinner party. Hair straightening became an obsession for all those with curly hair, black and white, and the chemical industry made a killing. Print and television media had those “Wow, look at me now” advertisements of thin, fair-skinned women hopping along a lighted path as their straight hair waved in the breeze of a manufactured wind. Many white people carried the evidence on their heads that there was a black ancestor not-so-hidden in the closet. How else did one explain away the kroes hair? Hands up if you had a girl at school who was taunted at some stage about her “bushy” hair. Alice, an experienced teacher on the Cape Flats, recalls coloured teachers saying (I translate from Afrikaans): “Those of you who don’t have straight hair, go to the back of the line!” Such devastating comments would perturb parents and spur some to action, but, mostly, you let it slide focusing rather on how to fortify your daughter’s character for dealing with these callous people. No wonder when the ’60s and ’70s came around growing an “afro” was a political statement against the straight-haired people. University students in South Africa carried the new headgear proudly – black is beautiful was the one message, as did those black American athletes with fists raised on the Olympic podium in 1968 – black power was the other message. Then came 1994 and black men took over government with a shine. Suddenly, every male of the bureaucratic and political classes had bright, bald heads even if this polished, distinguished look did sometimes reveal unruly grooves along a smoothing scalp.

It was about hair, even when those protein filaments lodged in the dermis were not present above the skin. A black shiny top in a sleek black car could mean only one thing: you had arrived. Given our history it should not surprise, therefore, that schools stuck in another century, still making hair an issue when their job is to teach the subject matter. Hair must be short for the boys and well-managed by the girls. To this day one school places a swimming cap over girls’ hair to check compliance with hair policy. No, this is not simply a supposed measure of order and discipline in former white schools. All schools concerned with dress and decorum do it. It is as anachronistic as the rule determining the length of the hem of the school dress, so many centimetres below or above the knee. Some teachers in Pretoria went further, it is alleged, and even made racist remarks about the bushy hair of black girls. At that point a regulation covering all children became racism targeting some children. Yet hair is both threat and opportunity. Remember the shock when Bo Derek ran down that beach in that 1979 movie, 10, with, wait for it, cornrow braids. “Cultural appropriation,” shouted black American critics, but an industry in braided hair was suddenly spawned all the way through to Kylie Jenner’s cornrows today. There was money to be made by turning the things the privileged despised into an art form. More than one Cape Town comedian has capitalised on this commercial opportunity by sporting an unruly Afro on stage as part of the joke set. “Hair today, gone tomorrow” still draws laughs in that recent television advertisement for we know what that is really about. Believe it not, academics got PhDs on the subject of African hair and produced best-selling books like Tenderheaded: A Comb-bending Collection of Hair Stories. Even the Almighty got drawn into the follicle fray on social media this week. “Indeed, every hair on your head has been counted,” the Great Teacher once said. Which means, concluded a friend, that if your hair is “deurmekaar” (all over the place), fear not – it’s just the angels doing stocktaking.