“But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”
- 1 Corinthians 11:15
I remember this vividly. It was just like any other day in Lagos. I was in a colleague's ride on 3rd Mainland Bridge heading to the Island.
A car came close to her car, and the woman in the passenger's seat had shock written all over her face when she saw who was driving the car. My female colleague was rocking a buzz cut, Amber Rose-type buzz cut.
The lady in the other car couldn't believe a woman would cut all of her hair. She tapped the man driving the car, I assume was her husband, to look out the outrageous sight. Her face morphed into anger that a Nigerian woman would cut her hair so low.
In 2017, I saw a beautiful lady, with spectacles driving a red Honda Accord car at Obafemi Awolowo way, Ikeja, Lagos.
She struggled to turn her car at the neck-breaking pace that Lagos required. She made a number of yellow danfo buses of Lagos wait in line, as she struggled with her steering wheels.
She had a buzz cut, tinted gold. The horde of angry men insulted her, saying many nasty things about her haircut.
In their eyes, she couldn’t have been any better than a prostitute; who got her nice red car from a sugar daddy.
What is it about a Nigerian woman’s hair?
Just like with black women, a Nigerian woman’s hair is her beauty, source of pride and strength. In narrow terms, the essence of a Nigerian woman’s hair is defined by its fullness and not when it is trimmed or when she decides to go bald.
This is why eyebrows are raised when a Nigerian woman rocks a buzz cut, or decides to go bald. In conservative circles, it is a rejection of her spiritual glory and pride as a woman.
Culturally, going bald is reserved for extreme situations. In South-East Nigeria, it is customary practice for a woman’s hair to be shaved when her husband dies.
Female Nigerian millennials have been embracing the buzz cut and bald look for a while now. A couple of them speak to Pulse on why they decided to it.
Funa Ikenta, a digital marketing specialist & pastry chef who now carries a buzz cut with a killer fade, tinted gold says, “I had always been a confident, stare-back-at-you-as-you-stare-at-me person so it never really bothered me. My friends laughed and teased me and called me so many names like Zlatan the rapper.
“Family members, well, they always knew it was something I could do so no hassles from them, strangers it was just the stares that could get uncomfortable till I stare back and they look away (laughs). Plus it helped that I looked great in it (laughs). So if I’m being completely honest, I receive tons and tons of flattery and sweet, positive compliments about it so I loved it. ”
Itunu, a recent graduate awaiting her NYSC call-up tells Pulse that, “I cut my hair first, because the weather is crazy, the heat is too much. Exposing my head gives some sort of relief. Secondly, it’s cheaper to maintain..”
Speaking to Pulse, Ayom Stella, an entrepreneur says “I cut my hair because I just wanted to try something new, secondly the cost of making hair is too much and I have a target for this year so I am trying save some money.”
Not all women decide to go for the big chop because of the flex, some do it for health reasons. Damilola Banji-Ojo, an artisan says, “I did the big chop two months ago because of dandruff.”
Also, Elizabeth tells Pulse that, “I did the haircut personally because my hair wasn't as healthy as I'd have loved it. So I thought to cut and have fun before I start growing again.”
While speaking with Pulse, as explained above, Itunu tells Pulse she has a health condition which makes her lose hair. This was one of the reasons she decided to cut it all off. After giving her first two pertinent reasons, Itunu says, “Thirdly, I have a medical condition that makes me lose hair so I felt it was best to cut it instead of having to spend money to help it grow and all that.”
Hair and Freedom
In pop culture, media and entertainment, hair has been used as a symbol of expressing free will – These thoughts awaken echoes of the classic India Arie song featuring Akon, ‘I Am Not My Hair.’
A pivotal black hair pop culture moment has to be when Angela Bassett’s character cut her hair in the classic movie, “Waiting to Exhale,” after her husband of over 10 years, to whom she gave up her dreams to become a homemaker left her for a white woman he committed adultery with.
Just after burning all his clothes in his favorite car, Bassett’s character called her friend in to snip it all off – she’d kept the hair specially for her husband, and cutting the hair offered her the freedom and closure that she required, to rise from the world of hurt around her.
Circa ‘96 Nigerian Hip-Hop legend, Weird MC, born Shola Idowu released the classic ‘Allen Avenue’ single with a video. In the ‘Allen Avenue’ visuals, now unfortunately expunged from YouTube, Weird MC rocked a bald head - a shocking look for Nigerians back then in the 90s.
While an Onyeka Onwenu was known for her low-cut hairstyle, Weird MC was a mainstream symbol of expression and free will.
Now a successful 35-year-old former investment banker living at Chevron drive, Salewa was married for 8 years – it ended three years ago. As one of the sacrifices she made for her ex-husband, Salewa kept her natural hair growing for almost five years during the marriage, till he consented to allow her use attachment, extensions and weave-ons in their sixth year of marriage.
But the story of his possessiveness and destructive appetite for control didn’t end there – he was also abusive. While Salewa was pregnant with their second child, he pushed her off the stairs of their home.
About two years before Salewa decided to end the marriage, he also broke her arm for simply talking back at him in what she said was, “Like a professional wrestler going for a submission pin.”
Immediately Salewa was rid of his presence, even while the divorce proceedings were ongoing, she ran to a barber and instructed him to shave her hair off.
She has been on a buzz cut since then. She tells Pulse that, “I wanted to prove to myself that I was rid of everything that reminded me of him. He manipulated me and made me feel worthless, like something was wrong with me, like it was all my fault.
“Cutting my hair was proving to myself that I had some power left. Excelling at my job was simply not enough to garner me the confidence my personal life required. I also quit my job after the divorce was finalized and traveled the world – my marriage took a lot off me.”
In another quest for freedom, Funa tells Pulse that, “I’ve always been the bold, confident kid in the room. I don’t remember ever being shy or reserved. I’ve never been one of those people that let something as flimsy as hair define them. This is probably my 4th or 5th haircut since adulthood.
“I cut my hair because of about 3 reasons; one, even though I had been natural for years, I was unhappy with my hair growth and structure, and truth be told, we don’t have great hair gene in my family, so I thought “why not snip the b***h off?” (laughs).
“Two, I was taking up fitness back (gym) and I wanted to be freer. Three, I was honestly tired of wigs and going to the salon. Four, I love swimming a lot, hair always got in the way of that or I have to reschedule it to only periods I had cornrows (I hated that). Five, I wanted a new look.”
Summing it up, Damilola Marcus, a branding consultant and founder of Market March says, “Something about it makes you feel naked. it’s also freeing, it requires considerably less time and money. I enjoy and love it. I alternate the lengths sometimes it’s low low, other times it’s just short. I love the look and I get to see my face without any distraction. It also makes putting on wigs much easier, because then they just lay flat.”
Hair and Tradition
In Igbo culture, when a woman is widowed, her hair gets shaved bald to signify her widowhood. Sometimes too, other members of the family also shave their heads to signify the their mourning period or loss.
In addition, the Ezekiel 27:31 of the Bible reads, “It might have originated from the bible,the Israelites put on sackcloth and shave their heads anytime they were mourning.”
Other people, however, believe that it’s simply to signify mourning, to stand the mourners out of a crowd. Thus, human hair becomes a currency to trade with - hair can easily be noticed and it covers the scalp.
Hair then must have such power if robbing people is to signify subjecting them to the dire state of mourning. That means hair must be generally perceived as a premium tool of beauty or humanity.
As such, that appreciation for human hair then flowed through history to contemporary times and evolved into criticizing children who liked tinting their hair and especially women who go low with a tint, fade, a sharp cut, or even go totally bald.
Society holds women to higher supposed moral standards that only seek to limit them to the accepted definition of ‘rightness.’ The problem though is that, some of these things society sees as right are not necessarily right, they’re simply what society has internalized, which them became a standard.
In the context of appearance, and especially haircut, some of the things society sees as wrong are simply not wrong, just different and risqué because they represent a shift away from what we are accustomed to. As is normal, humanity nearly always idolizes or demonizes what is new and what it cannot rationalize.
As such, because women have long been seen as seen as weaker and subservient. For the longest time, they were simply not allowed to express themselves, to perform as they like. Thus, a lot of women have conformed to these standards and societal demands. However, not anymore.
Modern women want to express themselves, not for rebellion as society will tag it, but simply because they admire certain things and will like to express themselves in ways they like. They simply want to experiment, either out of a pressing need or simply for the basic human appetite for change and expression.
“The beauty standards are really heavy handed and beauty is a form of social currency for women, so cutting one’s hair can require a good amount of bravery” says Damilola Marcus.
On her part, Funa says, “I honestly don’t think anything has been different or changed, to me though. Because like I said, I never put much value on hair and I can decide to change it anytime. I mean it’s just hair.”
Other side of the conversation
Society is judgmental towards women like this and their lives are subject to high societal scrutiny. But while people like Elizabeth and Stella have enjoyed good reactions from people, even getting admired for it – Elizabeth especially says she gets complimented on how her gold tint gets complimented for matching her skin colour, Funa has been called Zlatan. The rapper carries the same hair colour as Funa, but without Funa’s mad fade.
Itunu, however, says, “How has it been? It’s been good for me. I love that it gives me an entirely different look. My family members are shocked but they don’t have a problem. But strangers; those are the ones that think they can give their unsolicited two cents. Some also love it though.”
Reactions from people who don’t like like bald, and low cuts with tints and/or fade
Speaking with Umeh (not real name), he says, “While I would love my woman if she decides to cut her hair and tint it with a fade and respect her right to do it, I don’t like it and I have a right to dislike what I don’t like. I feel society has a standard for responsibility.
“Asides that, the way I perceive it, it’s kind of not too good. You have to be responsible. While non-conformity is sometimes necessary and healthy, we are not there yet, but I salute those pioneering this struggle.”
The power of the human hair will probably always engulf the typical African society, but that should not necessarily be the authoritative standard we hold everybody to - especially not women.
We don’t live in medieval times and it’s just hair that everyone has a right to. It definitely shouldn’t be anybody’s problem what people choose to do with their own hair.
While all the people Pulse spoke to said they were open to making their hair again, Funa was more dismissive. She says, “No, I do not think I’m growing it back. It has given me freedom. I pour water on my hair everyday. I have a lit fade and curls and I only have to touch up once every month. Why would I give this stuff up?”
That should be okay too. It shouldn’t be anybody’s business.
*Additional writing by Ayomide O. Tayo