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.


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