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No, you CAN'T touch my hair.

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Submitted by Pamela Merritt on Mon, 2010-09-20 07:47

I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis Missouri in a mostly white neighborhood. One of the first things I noticed was that my hair was different.

My fellow students would run their hands through their hair, flip it from side to side or pull it back into ponytails. Their hair moved... my hair didn’t move. If I pulled it back in a ponytail it stayed in a ponytail even after I removed the hair clip. I wore my hair in braids – no flipping or fluffing for me. Sometimes I wore Afro puffs, but my usual style was two braids that came together in the back.

In grade school folks used to tease me about my hair just because it was different. I was the only black girl in class and my peers considered being different a bad thing – they teased me about my dark skin and full lips and made fun of my Afro puffs. I grew to resent the things that made me different and hated my hair. Girls would ask if they could touch my Afro puffs and it felt as if I were some sort of exotic animal at the zoo they wanted to pet.

I didn’t start to like my hair and it’s unique texture until I was in college, where I met other women of color who wore their hair with pride and celebrated the difference whether their hair was straightened or natural.

I came to understand that difference isn’t a bad thing and there is a lot of hair diversity out there.

I now wear an Afro and I love it!

Some people still ask if they can touch my hair and the answer is no.

I am not an exotic animal at the zoo.

I understand that some people may be curious about the texture of my Afro, but that doesn’t mean they get to satisfy their curiosity by petting my hair.

Have you had similar experiences?

Drop a comment and let me know!

Comments

I'm a guy with a fro and its just as bad for guys.

Mon, 2011-01-31 13:36
Anonymous

It is wrong plain and simple to just invade someones personal space out of curiosity. I don't mind when its children as they don't really know what boundries are but if you are a full grown adult then you should know better and get over your curiosity. I went on a date one night and it took me about 30 minutes to get my hair right and proper, then minute we walked into the establishment some white girl grabs my fro with both hands and as hard as she can pulls back and forth. She then high fives her friend, I swear I almost grabbed her drink and threw it on her but I'm not gonna lose my cool. If it had happened twice I would have cussed her out.

The right to bodily autonomy

Thu, 2010-10-21 04:45
Anonymous

I really admire the look of an Afro -- and I agree with the first commenter that people are going to be drawn to touching it because it's soft and pretty. I am tempted to do the same.

But the fact is that I have no right to approach you and put my hands anywhere on your body without your permission. Women's bodies are not public property, and this includes their hair. You have a right to your own space, your own bodily autonomy, and that includes people messing with your hair. I suppose we should be thankful that the people are at least asking if they can touch your hair, instead of just bald-faced walking up to you and putting their greasy hands right in your Afro. A lot of women experience this phenomenon when they're pregnant: people walk up to them and just plop their hands on her belly without asking. It's rude and people need to stop thinking they have a right to invade your space to satisfy their own curiosity.

you're overthinking yourself

Sun, 2010-10-17 14:03
Anonymous

:sigh: I'm white, and my hair is dirty blond and long and straight as can be, and anytime I wear it out of my usual braid, people want to touch it. Because it's *pretty* and *soft* *people like to touch pretty soft things*. Get past it.

on overthinking and getting past it...

Mon, 2010-11-01 03:49
Pamela Merritt

I've long felt that a woman can't overthink or overvalue herself. I'd say I learned to value myself and my boundaries by thinking of myself rather than making excuses for the behavior of others. Other people's interest in touching me does not trump my right to personal space. As for getting past it...well, that's a privilege that some have because they aren't faced with the negative perceptions I talked about in the post.

Well, I honestly think you're

Wed, 2010-10-13 07:25
Anonymous

Well, I honestly think you're overreacting a bit, they're just curious. If you're white you'll get the same reaction from people if you go to Asia, especially if you have blond hair--hell, they even want to touch your skin to see if it feels the same. They're just curious about someone who's different from them, no harm no foul.

Cheers,
Andrew

On curiosity...

Mon, 2010-11-01 03:54
Pamela Merritt

I'm sure they were curious, but their curiosity doesn't trump a person's right to personal space. And, while it is tempting to think of this from the perspective of the person wanting to touch, I think we all might want to start thinking of what it feels like when you are the curiosity. What one person may think is causes no harm or foul may actually be dehumanizing and humiliating.

The same thing happens to me!

Thu, 2010-10-07 17:56
Anonymous

People touch my hair all the time, sometimes even after I say no. However, my situation is a bit different from yours. See, I'm mixed Irish, Romani and Caucasian and as a result have been light, soft, crazy curly hair.
I recently moved into a community that's mostly African-American and for some reason, everyone just always wants to touch my hair. Sometimes they don't even ask permission! I'd be at school walking and someone will just touch it, or at Walmart and people will ask me how do I make my hair this way.

It's a bit strange and yes, I DO mind. It's just hair, you have too, touch your own!

thanks, and thinking of other connections

Mon, 2010-09-20 10:39
Cory

Hi Pamela,

I'm very excited to hear about your column here on ST, and wanted to say thanks for sharing this first post and piece about people touching your hair. It makes me wonder about the possible connections to all sorts of other ways that people ignore boundaries and cross lines around touch and bodies.

I'm thinking of friends who, as soon as they are visibly pregnant, get touched by strangers. I'm thinking of disabled friends who are always being touched, patted on the head, getting some strangers hand on their shoulder, some stranger touching their wheelchair. I'm also thinking of the ways that some folks think nothing of asking other people about their genitals, because they presume they must look different than their own. Because I'm white and read as both straight and gender normative, and because I talk about sex for a living, I'm usually on the receiving end of the people who do this asking me why others have such a problem with it. They're "just curious", they'll say. Often where I turn for help with this is Eli Clare's work on gawking.

Like everything we do, we could look at these actions as individual transgressions, or expressions of racism, abelism, sexism, and all manner of queer-phobia. But are they similar? I don't know. Certainly the way you describe your response to people touching your hair or asking to touch it feels similar to others responses to unwanted/unwelcome touch. But maybe it's just one of these things we don't talk about enough in big groups, so the responses feel the same when they aren't.

I'm not really suggesting something here, just appreciating your post and sharing what it made me think of. Thanks again, Cory

Thanks!

Mon, 2010-11-01 04:01
Pamela Merritt

Cory, thanks for the welcome and the comment. As we move forward with this section we're going to delve deeper into a lot of those issues and how they intersect. I'm really excited to share this journey with all y'all!

Hey

Tue, 2010-10-05 11:04
Anonymous

I used to hate being pale, just because I always got made fun of for that. I also hated when teachers somehow thought they had permission, and would move my bangs out of my face.

You make an important point...

Mon, 2010-11-01 03:58
Pamela Merritt

Anonymous, you make an important point. How we see ourselves is often influenced by how others react to us. I've heard the same things from people about height, weight, accents - the list goes on and on.

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