Selam G.

Dec 11, 2018

4 min read

A portrait of the author’s hair

For some people (and especially in some cultures) their name at home is not their given name. It is useful to have different names, though it is sometimes also frustrating. It allows you to easily change yourself from one context to another, depending on what you are called. But as a child I didn’t like my home name and didn’t want it to be used in public, though this was really just another instance of, well, America.

My home name, with my family, is Mao Mao (毛毛) which is a common Chinese nickname. The reason I disliked it was in large part that my mom translated it to me as “hairy”. Hairy???? What an awful and unattractive nickname. But it also translates to “furry”, which sounds a little less gross and maybe cute. My mom just shrugged and said “well, you had a lot of hair”. Families in such cultures often give much more thought to given names than to home names, but this is ridiculous, because they will spend the rest of their life calling their child by their home name. Read The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri for an extreme example.

I did (and do) have a lot of hair, though. I have come across other curly-haired ladies that think of or speak of their hair as an independent, conscious entity. There are definitely days where I feel like my hair has a personality all on its own. This rhetoric of anthropomorphizing the body and body parts is strange, because it puts you, a person, separate from you, your body. You find this in common speech everywhere — “my thighs gave up on me”, as if they had a choice, or “my back is complaining” (apparently the body often speaks in pains and aches).

What I find interesting is how people, especially women, treat themselves and treat parts of themselves differently. Exercise and weight loss is often framed in a war against the body. The body is the enemy, who you try to outrun and defeat.

But skin care and hair care is more often framed as cooperating with the body — the body is a friend, to be cared for and listened to.

This is why no one ever writes blog posts titled “my belly care journey” after completing an exercise regimen, but there are many for skin and hair care ‘journeys’. The belly, even with growing positive rhetoric about the body, is still something to be fought and wrestled with.

We feel our bodies have different motives than ourselves — so what is the self? Is it the body, or the mind, or a third entity, or something more which is, as the saying goes, “greater than the sum of my parts”.

Is my hair a part of me, or am I part of my hair, or both?

I think the tendency to speak and think of the body this way, all parts included, is part of the reason curly haired women and especially black women have a unique relationship with their hair. There are so many blog posts and YouTube videos and other internet content forms filled with personal reflection about hair. While at MIT I once encountered three different student class projects in the same year, all about natural hair. The mechanics of it is certainly important too — curly hair (depending on length of course) is simply more noticeable than straight hair, and more visually stimulating. It draws the eye, it entices comments (both positive and negative), and women grow up with those experiences. Curlier, more textured hair has that much more of an impact on personal identity and expression.

And I see my hair, too, as both independent of myself and an extension of myself. Like a friend, I have ‘gotten to know’ my hair, and even still continue to discover new things. In college one of my friends pointed out how dark it was —very black to others’ more brown hues . In pictures sometimes it just looks like a dark mass — just solid black color in the densest areas. I also realized that my hair texture reflected my mixed heritage — the curliness, obviously, from our Ethiopian side of the family, but the individual strands are thicker and more wiry, like my mother’s. The darkness of it, too, comes from my mother. I had my hair permanently straightened for one very short period in high school (about two years), this being less the norm and more something I just tried once before I really learned to take care of my hair (my mother being Chinese, I am mostly self-taught). But after cutting it away, I feel reluctant to ever do something like that again, though I contemplated it for my stay in Shanghai. I think I wouldn’t feel quite like myself.

I wish my nickname could have been more elegantly translated, maybe “one with lots of hair” or “thick haired”. But plain and simple, it does mean, quite literally, ‘hairy’. I don’t mind anymore, and am actually rather sad that I don’t get to be called “maomao” as much anymore in my day to day adult life. My hair at least has earned it —I put her through a lot back before I was informed on how to take better care of myself. It’s fitting that, in some settings still, she gets the honor of being my primary title.