Neither Here Nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora in America

September 3, 2009

Hair – another component of identity

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 6:31 pm
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Hair – It seems like such a minor thing. However, how many of you have seen someone in a stylist’s chair ready to have their hair altered in a significant manner? Whether it’s a minor change (first video) or a major one (look at the second video around 7minutes 50 seconds) it significantly affects a person’s sense of self and identity.


When a hairstyle change is done well it does wonders for a person’s confidence. When it’s done badly it can be devastating. As I write this I remember a girl in my high school whose mother pulled her out of class for an emergency hair appointment when after coloring her hair blond her hair began to turn green.

When you go to “black” hair the intricacies get…well…even more intricate. Do you perm or are you natural? Do you straighten or wear your curls. How do you balance the professional look for work versus the wilder fun side for fun. Go to Habesha hair and you ask do you do it yourself or go for your weekly appointments? (While living in Baltimore I would frequent an Ethiopian salon in DC as frequently as I could!)

Let me get to the point of this piece, though. My transition in hairstyles has mirrored my connection to my culture and community. I have my mother’s hair, somewhat soft, not as tightly curled, and generally easy to manage. My sister’s…let’s just say hers always took a bit more work to manage. So when I was 11 our mother lost her tolerance with our hair and permed us both. I remember crying at the synthetic feel my hair attained at that first perm.  For the next 16 years I kept it permed. I learned to do it myself and generally maintained it well because it was easy for me to manage.

Once I passed 20 and got closer to our community I would see “natural” Habesha girls who had the diversity of straight versus curly and secretly wondered what that would be like. I began talking of going “natural” myself but didn’t quite have the guts to do it. First, this permed me became a part of who I was. Changing my hair would mean changing how people perceived me and who knows what that change would bring. Secondly, I had my routine down. Curl and set every Sunday and a perm every 3 months or so. I am a creature of habit and find comfort in knowing exactly what to expect. Going “natural” would mean having to learn new ways to do it – meaning it will take longer without guaranteed results of what it will look like. Plus being in school – especially graduate school – meant I did not have time to disrupt my schedule with something that could significantly impact my self confidence.

I finally graduated and thought – now I have the time to dedicate the energy and research to do this. My last perm was in December of 2007. I have a friend who says girls make drastic changes in their life only when they are going through something big and he was right. This was a point in my life that marked significant changes. I was finally comfortable in my role as a professional after 28 years of school. This was the one year anniversary of the break up of a very powerful (almost) 4 year relationship. I was more connected to the Habesha community than ever. This was a point where I finally felt like I was finding myself. My confidence in who I am as just me was stronger than ever. I was happier than I had been in a long time. I was comfortable facing the struggles that existed (life is never without struggles.) I finally got to a point where I could accept myself – I didn’t need to hide behind a permed do.

The transition has been interesting. I’m still learning how to do this “natural” thing. It doesn’t look as “good” as regularly as it did when permed. I still have days where I’m tired and briefly consider just perming it. I realize how much of the positive feedback I got was due to my hair. No one realized they were feeding into a racist, superficial, and misconceived notion. I liken it to someone saying “you are so articulate” to a black person – know what I mean? However, for now I’m ok with the struggles. The value of just being me is worth it.



  1. I absolutely love this piece! Even as I read this I am under the dryer, for the second time in as many days. I have been natural for about 4 years now. I only have Ethiopian stylist work with my hair because of its fine, curly texture. I also wear dramatic wraps, but over the years of constantly wearing them, it has damaged my hair line and the pressure of the bun caused me to bald in the back. Yesterday, I had a non-Habesha do my hair. Well…… So, now Astar is fixing my hair the way I want – SHORT!!! I find it so frustrating that non-Habesha always want you to keep your hair long or throw in a weave, even if it doesn’t look good or “natural”. I asked for my hair to be cut extremely short because I wanted a change, and low maintenance look. Instead I was given a bob. Now, my Habesha stylist has taken me to where I wanted to be in the first place. Short, bold, and beautiful! Thanks for this blog. Keep up the good work.

    Comment by Ayanna — September 14, 2009 @ 11:37 pm | Reply

  2. I absolutely love this piece! Even as I read the piece on my hand-held, I was sitting under a hair dryer for the second time in as many days. I have been wearing my hair natural for about 5 years now, and I have only ever had Ethiopian stylists work on my hair. I also wear dramatic tall wraps, but over the years of wearing them constantly, either because I wasn’t feeling my hair, or it was expedient, I found that it had damaged my hair. My hair is fine and curly, so the pressure of wearing this wrap thinned my hair line and caused me to develop a small, bald patch in the crown of my hair where the bun was twisted. Yesterday, I went to a non-Habesha and asked her to cut my hair all the way off. I was tired of trying to hang on to ends and pieces and wanted to go back to the look that I have in the photo on the first page of my blog. However, the stylist was reluctant to cut it. One would have thought that it was her hair! I have found that many African Americans are obsessed with long hair and preserving it, even if it is stringy, greasy, or just plain unattractive. They are all too eager to throw in a weave to cover deficiencies, instead of working with you and your hair to get it back to a healthy state. I am happy to report that today, my Habesha stylist cut my hair short, short, just as I requested. She cut out all the damaged parts and cut a style into my hair, as opposed to trying to curl a style into it. Since my hair is fine, if I wrap it, it normally stays very straight and I pretty much have to wash it to get it to curl. But either way, now I can ROCK my hair curly or straight. Thanks for this blog. I believe that it is important that woman discover their unique beauty, and maximize this uniqueness instead of trying to emulate someone else. Keep up the great work.

    Comment by Ayanna Nahmias — September 15, 2009 @ 1:56 am | Reply

  3. It is so funny to me that people focus more on making their hair “look good” than on it being healthy. My hair looked best when it was healthiest!! I just needed invest time/energy on the healthy part! Your experience with the hair dresser not wanting to cut it speaks to one of the reasons I don’t normally get my hair done (especially with non-habesha stylists.) They try to tell you what to do with your hair…last I checked, i’m the one who is going to be wearing it on my head so can we do what I need? Especially when I am asking for something that will make it healthier?!

    Thank you so much for your responses Ayanna, I’m glad to hear others go through these struggles as well….

    Comment by Habesha Diaspora — September 17, 2009 @ 4:53 pm | Reply

  4. Have you guys heard of Chris Rock’s new documentary/comedy “Good Hair”? Take a look:

    Comment by Habesha Diaspora — October 13, 2009 @ 9:09 am | Reply

  5. Got an update for you guys. I recently went to my usual American hair place and there I found a Habesha lady working for the first time in a year. She looked at my damaged ends (I was there for a trim) and basically said “nope, we gotta cut this madness off” – only she did it in that indirect Habesh way. My usual Gay white boy stylist was too intimidated by me or by my hair to say something like that. Or maybe he didn’t realize it really needed to be cut. Regardless, the woman who promised to take no more than an inch off took off more than 2 inches all around. Voila – I am officially perm free!! She cut off all the permed parts and I now have a full head of natural hair. 😀 The difference is extrordinary. My hair is stronger, healthier, easier to manage, and more beautiful! After the initial shock wore off (took like two days of running my fingers through imaginary hair that used to be there) I am ecstatic!! It took 23 months and a determined Habesh stylist but the growing out process if finally complete!!

    Comment by Mahlet — November 17, 2009 @ 10:46 pm | Reply

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