Objectification and Reconciliation

One month ago, I called up a local beautician and told her that I have decided to go natural but was afraid to do the “Big Chop”—that courageous move so many sisters of mine have done where all the chemically-altered hair is cut off, leaving only new growth in your natural curl pattern. It’s efficient. It’s potentially more cost effective. It’s dramatic and for this natural hair neophyte—it’s terrifying.

So I told Rochelle that I wanted to go natural and I needed her help because I didn’t want to spend my days crying over my hair. I wanted to walk out of her salon feeling beautiful and feminine and proud to be a black woman.

She ran her fingers through my hair, pulled out a few bags of crochet braid hair and said, “I think you’d rock a deep twist. I’ll cut your hair, condition it, braid it, and then crochet long sections of deep twist hair.  That way you can get used to seeing yourself with curls. I bet you’ve always worn your hair straight?”  My wide fear-filled eyes met hers in the mirror and I nodded.

“Don’t worry, sweetie. You’re going to love your hair when I’m done.”

Three hours later, I did. It took us a few tries to trim it and shape my hair to frame my face but eventually I loved it.  There was something so restorative about seeing my hair in braids and curls knowing that someday if I grew my natural hair out it could look like this. Looking at myself in the mirror I began to notice the warmth in my brown skin, the hospitality of my full smile, the fascinating almond shape of my eyes, and the audacity of my wide nose. I finally began to feel black girl magic tingle all around me. Like Harry Potter the moment he stepped into Hogwarts, I finally began to feel like I was coming home.

And it took a wise stylist, her skilled hands, three hours of patience, a four bags of kinky, curly hair.

“Baby! Your hair!” my husband exclaimed when he first saw me with my deep twist extensions, he reached out and played with the curls. A soft smile crept across his face and I knew he wouldn’t be the last white person eager to touch my new tresses.

That evening while I laid in bed, my new hair wrapped up in a scarf, I prayed to God for forgiveness for coveting the straight wash and go hair of my white sisters. I asked him to help give me confidence in the body he gave me. I entrusted this journey to him and told him that whatever he wanted me to learn, I was open.

This week at a predominantly white family camp in Northern California, I learned a surprising lesson—patience for white women who want to know all about my hair.

One of the reasons I think I loved wearing my hair straight was that it was a non-issue. White women were less interested in my hair because, for the most part, it was just like theirs. But with this hair, I’m noticeably different. It’s big and curly and refuses to be ignored! Take, for example, the elderly lady this morning in the breakfast line who reached out to touch my hair and announced, “I’ve been looking at this hair all week long and I just had to come up and talk to you. It’s beautiful…can I touch it?”

Now, I was holding a plate of scrambled eggs! The last thing I wanted to do was lean down for this octogenarian to touch my hair, but I sensed the Spirit say, “She’s simply trying to connect with you in the only way she knows how.  Give her grace.” So I leaned down and said, “Sure, I love how curly it is. Don’t you?”  She joyfully played with a section and said, “I love it so much. Thank you.” I thanked her for the compliment and she tottered off with her cup of tea in hand and I went to my table. Two different variations of this encounter happened throughout the day. That’s three different times a white person (or in one instance, a white couple) commented and wanted to touch my hair. I would be lying if I said, I wasn’t annoyed and even vented to my husband to which he said, “Babes, maybe this is a teaching moment, just in Zootopia when Judy Hopps tells Claw Hauser that non-bunnies cannot call bunnies cute. Only black women can touch your hair, babe!”

Maybe before my prayer to learn on this journey, I would have jumped right in with the lessons on racial micro-aggressions approach, but today it didn’t feel right. Today, I’m letting God teach me to put my assumptions of racism aside and see the humanity of my curious, fascinated sisters.

Yes, I get that touching our hair is a form of objectification. I feel this every single time someone wants to touch my biracial children’s hair—they are not oddities for other’s enjoyment. While I’ll quickly educate any person who wants to put their hand in my children’s hair, I’m not a child.

I’m a woman interested in reconciliation, devoted to Shalom, driven to humility. Is there a way I can celebrate my hair and invite white women on this journey with me? I think there is and for me, it begins with letting down my defensive posture whenever I’m asked, “Can I touch your hair?”

Eventually, I’ll craft a thought-provoking response to the question that’s kind and direct and maybe doesn’t give white women a blank check to touch any black woman’s hair just as long as she emotes enough curiosity and appreciation. But for now, the lesson I’m learning is to see the humanity in white women, to not put them all in the “ignorant, condescending” camp—which I have to admit, I’ve done more than a few times.

I get that this response is for this season. But for now, I’m so happy that God is stripping my own prejudices away every single time a white person is interested in my new hair.

I love it and it’s no wonder they do too.

It’s fantastic.

Osheta Moore
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11 thoughts on “Objectification and Reconciliation

  1. Bravo! I feel like this is the perfect wrap up for this month at Mudroom. I love the way you pray for grace and give it so freely, seeing the heart of the ladies who want to know you. You are right. Reconciliation is a journey and we will all make stupid mistakes and stumble in the learning. Thank you for your grace and helping usher others into shalom!

  2. Thank you for the post. I have learned so much this month on the The Mudroom, and this is an honest question: is a white person touching a black person’s hair objectification solely because of the act itself, or is it due to being a stranger? I agree – a stranger touching me or my child without permission would not be OK (and I would never do the same), but sometimes I get the impression that even complimenting without touching is not taken well, and I’m ignorant as to why. So I don’t compliment, and then I feel like I’ve missed an opportunity. So the person gets a fake, “stranger” smile and no comment when I want to genuinely connect. Thank you for the grace in your post…I really appreciate it!

  3. I’ve been struggling with my body image lately–something that isn’t usually a big struggle for me. In my head, I think “all body shapes are beautiful; your body is healthy and strong, be grateful” but my lizard brain isn’t having it. There’s so much out there that contradicts the message that my (actually quite thin) body is not okay as-is. It takes SO MUCH to be comfortable in our skins as women. And as I hear about black women and their hair, it adds a whole other, harder layer of difficulty. To be comfortable with hair that’s not ‘normative’ is hard–and then to add on people wanting to touch it and comment on it? I’d be a lot less gracious then you; I’d also hesitate to put myself in the spotlight like that. I appreciate your spirit of generosity, Osheta, and wish that we white people didn’t need to be educated as much as we do. And I so appreciate your commitment to grow into the woman God made you, hair and all.
    Also: you look stunning. So excited to see how your hair journey shapes up.
    (For the record, I wish we could have more conversations about touching other people in church. Especially children. Hugs are wonderful, but we need to ask permission before giving them, especially when there are power differentials).

  4. Osheta, you are beautiful! I appreciate you mentioning how other people make you feel when they touched your hair and your grace to be forgiving. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about it because I am a toucher. Whenever I see someone or something beautiful, I ask permission if I can touch them or what I am admiring. Be it the person’s clothing to see the texture and color with my hands and marvel at it’s beauty and the person’s exquisite taste in expressing themselves. I have also touched objects to be in awe of the skill needed to make, and design it. Plants to breathe in the scent and appreciate the design. I appreciate beauty in all forms. But, I can certainly understand it bothering you deep down to have your hair touched and your children’s hair touched, and how you would feel objectified. Touching hair is so personal, and it would be a boundary crosser. It’s not okay to touch without permission.
    I have always noticed people’s hair whether straight or curly and I know the point you’re making. When I was very young, I had very straight, baby fine hair, and my sister had the beautiful hair, the very, very curly hair. People used to comment about her beautiful, pretty hair my sister had/has. I do recall people did touch her hair, she was so small, drawn to her hair.
    I have finally come to terms with my hair in my 50’s. I don’t have wash and go hair, my hair growth patterns don’t allow that very well. But, I can still think my hair can be beautiful even though it is straight. Everyone has their own idea of beauty.
    Not to in any way minimize what is being said, but I have looked at all of the authors and thought they are beautiful, in all of their messages, in their vulnerability describing their experiences, and in their bravery, to say it anyway, showing their souls, and their pain, and their memories. And then thinking in all of their physical beauty, across the board, all colors, skin, hair, body shape, and size, there is no one definition of beauty.
    I am grateful for the messages this month, and the other side of the story. These conversations need to somehow continue.

    • What a lovely, gracious response, Joanne. I agree with this: “It’s not okay to touch without permission.” And if you are a touchy-feely person, it can be wonderful to connect with people in that way. However, I have heard that simply being asked–over and over and over by different people, all probably kind, all well-meaning–can get wearying. Saying no over and over is wearying too. I think if we want to be kinder to our black brothers and sisters, it’s better to just not ask.
      It reminds me a little of my experience having an adopted sister. People often say, not thinking, that she and I don’t look like sisters. They’re only curious and interested, and don’t mean any harm by saying it, but it’s a REALLY hard thing to hear over and over, especially for my sister. Similarly, I have asked, in the past, where people are from when I hear an accent, especially if I think it’s a Spanish-speaking country. I speak Spanish, and have lived in Latin America, but I realized, finally, that simply asking was making a lot of people uncomfortable (pointing out that they’re not FROM here, are foreigners, etc). I decided a few years ago that it wasn’t loving to ask, even if I was curious and celebrate their heritage. Curiosity is lovely, but it can lead us in the wrong direction.
      And Osheta, I hope it’s okay that I’m chiming in and saying this. I am a little hesitant, since I clearly have no experience with people asking if they can touch my hair. 🙂

  5. You look gorgeous. Having a roommate for a few years who was black gave me just a little insight into how much time and work goes in to managing hair. I’m only now beginning to realize the societal pressures that lead to that.
    Honest question though. OK, first…I’m not a toucher. I don’t like to be touched, don’t like to touch other people (other than a hug or whatever if I know them). So the asking someone if I could touch their hair…um…NO. But the other day I saw two black girls with THE most beautiful hair. Both different styles of braids, but the amazing thing was that each braid had a different color woven into it (I thought dyed, but now I’m thinking it was probably some technique similar to yours). It was like they had rainbows woven into their hair, and I wanted so much to just say “I love your hair, it’s beautiful!” But that seemed weird and also I’m an introvert so…no. So, um, is that ok, or should I probably just keep my mouth shut and admire from afar? I mean, women complimenting other women on their hair is kind of nice, I’ve had complete strangers compliment me every now and then and it feels good, but I really don’t want to come across as patronizing. (But…rainbow braids!)

  6. Thank you for your post. I’m a white girl and my mom has super-curly ringlets that I love to touch. They’re just beautiful; the springy spirals make me feel like a kid when I sit behind her in the car. It would never have occurred to me that a black woman would feel differently about that. I would never want to add to someone’s perception of racism, so I’m grateful you saved me that discomfort.

  7. Keep rocking that Black Girl Magic Sis! I’ve been on the “natural hair” journey for 5 years now. The attention, the looks, the curiosity of white women in particular is often times overwhelming. I struggle with this start-and-stop, tug-of war, in trying to answer in a split-second, “do you want to connect with me” or “do you want to connect with my hair. I am not an exotic pet on display but I know that I am uniquely made and that difference stands out. When that difference serves a purpose and I am feeling secure in that call I’m cool. But when I miss my quiet time or Holy Spirit tap…ahhh-yea.. doesn’t always turn out so good.

    Your words brought this question to mind: Could the curl of our locks be the draw of our witness?

    Thanks for your offering. <3

  8. Thank you so much for extending grace – more grace than is often shown to you. I was in tears reading your article because you are such a reflection of God’s loving attitude – meeting us where we are and drawing us into further understanding. I grew up in a very insular white environment and I thank God for my friends who showed me grace when I was being ‘that person’ – asking them questions that I probably should have googled – trying to learn their cosmetic terminology (and dreadfully failing!) They had every right to shut me down and tell me how and why I was being offensive – instead they used the moment to connect with me-a shared humanity. I will be thinking of you when I brush my straight, thin hair in the morning and praying for your strength and continued grace to reflect God’s image – not just through your gorgeous hair – but in your wisdom, grace, and mercy.

  9. Osheta, I loved reading your post! You are so beautiful!!! I love the hair! I also love the way that you are spreading “shalom” through all you do. Blessings to you, sister! xo

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