Updated: Jul 21
The piece is inspired by Maggie Nelson’s methodology, style, and argumentation in her autotheory “The Argonauts” (2015). With this, I will incorporate personal anecdotes and a poetic voice. Similar to Nelson, I will be writing a “coming of age” story where I chronicle my own personal relationship with womanhood and how it relates to American beauty standards and gender performance. The primary question that this serves to explore is how, or why, one may shed their femininity in an attempt to shed beauty standards? This is the main question that drives many of my experiences with performing my chosen gender as a heterosexual, cis female. Further, I will be incorporating the writings of Charlotte Bunch, Sojourner Truth, and Sandy Stone within each vignette.
During the summer of 2015, I shaved my head. In autumn, I begged my mother to finally go through with my “big chop” and by summer she relented. The perks were immediately evident. I could wear hats. I could wake up in the morning minus the stress of needing to style my hair. I could look in the mirror and be forced to truly see my face, flaws and all. To me, my motivation for shaving my head was simple and twofold. First, I did it because I was tired of seeing her. The woman on the front of the green African Pride Oliver Miracle Relaxer box. The woman with glossy straight hair and bone white teeth who validated the years I spent putting harsh chemicals in my head to make my hair “manageable”. To be Dark & Lovely, African Pride, No Lye. To feel my scalp burning and picking the scabs. Secondly, and more importantly, I wanted to let go of my infatuation with beauty, my aesthetic fetish. I am obsessed, and I have hours of scrolling through pages of Instagram “influencers” and studying “beauty gurus” to prove it. In practice, my obsession often manifested in how I viewed my hair. I distinctly remember repeatedly sobbing before school because I was having a bad hair day. I was afraid of being viewed as ugly.
Being ugly would mean that I have nothing to offer. Being ugly would tell the nine-year-old Dayo in etiquette classes that I was a lost cause. It was a direct challenge to the validity of my womanhood. But to the dictionary “ugly” is unpleasant or repulsive, involving violence or other unpleasantness. I didn’t see ugly for what it is. Ugly is systemic. Ugly is what, according to Charlotte Bunch, allows for the fact that in most developing countries girls are fed less and taken to the doctor less than boys. It is how Amartya Sen reports that 80 to 100 million women are missing worldwide (Bunch 16), and how women are denied democracy and human rights publicly and privately (Bunch 14). In my innocence, I could not be ugly, but I can exist in ugliness, and reflect my understanding of ugliness onto myself. By this, I mean that I don’t blame myself for feeling ugly. When I look in the mirror, I get a glimpse of what it looks like for me to exist in this world. And nobody ever claimed that beauty diminishes ugliness.
Yet at the time, all I knew was that it was a conceptual understanding that I needed to forcibly detach myself from. I believed that in order for me to be comfortable and confident in my natural self I needed to make an immense change internally and externally. I did this because I was unsatisfied with the image of beauty/womanhood that I was prescribed. She was a tall, blonde, skinny, and white woman. I knew this because the television, the billboards, the magazines, the music videos, and my father told me so. She was an image that I could physically never live up to. It would take a few years for me to learn from feminist theory the negative implications of viewing my body as a screen (Stone 11). I didn’t consider how the very framework from which I was trying to extract validation was precisely the basis for the machinations of violence against women worldwide. I just wanted to be “pretty”, or rather I wanted to believe that I was. I wanted to believe in pretty—especially because up to that point I hadn’t experienced that feeling. All I knew at the time was that I wanted my body to reflect what I’d been projected. However, what I was not prepared for was how this simple act of haircutting would influence my perceived womanhood and sexuality.
On multiple occasions that summer, I was referred to as “sir” by strangers and presumed to be queer by friends. I once horrified a waiter when he realized, after an hour of serving me and my family, that he had been serving a “miss” instead of a “mister”. It also didn’t help that I was president of my high school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, and as my mother put it, I “left the house without earrings”. By my senior year of high school, I cut my hair three more times. I dabbled with getting flowers cut into my hair, then cut it, played with my hair shape, then cut it. After a nightmarish stint with a “hair color like Amber Rose”, which my mother interpreted as a dusty brown, I cut my hair once again.
Admittingly, I became increasingly annoyed with my endeavor to gain confidence in myself and not be obsessed with my looks. Some days were better than others, but I often felt defeated. Almost in a Foucauldian way, my mission to detach myself from my ideal of beauty only seemed to reinforce my fear of ugliness. In many respects, my obsession only heightened because I found myself dedicating more time to the discussion. With the help of the Young Entrepreneur's Academy, while other students were creating wrapping paper holders and bath bombs, I developed a club at my school dedicated to building a movement around shedding beauty standards. Though behind closed doors, even though I didn’t have hair to cry about, I began wearing waist trainers and restricting my calories.
On April 20th, 2018 on the anniversary of the Columbine School Shooting, I and some friends organized a school walkout as part of the national walkout to advocate for legislation against gun violence. To no one’s surprise in my conservative town, our protest sparked a lively counter-protest in support of gun-rights. As part of the programming, I was tasked with giving a speech to organize the students who attended our rally. As I was speaking, I was nearly attacked by a conservative counter-protester who was holding anti-gay literature in his hand during the pursuit. There is a myriad of reasons for why he felt the need to attack me— all of which are frightening to theorize. But part of his violence was predicated on me seemingly being gay. Here it is important to note that I personally identify as a cis-gender, straight black woman. Yet I truly believe that if it wasn’t for his friends holding him back, I would have been attacked for being/looking/living gay.
I want to say that I had the confidence to persist. That I didn’t let what people thought of me affect my decisions, and that nevertheless, I remained to be radically myself. But I didn’t. I care about what others think and perceive of me. Although I understand that no matter how I chose to perform my gender it’s impossible for everyone to accept me, I still felt the urge to pass. Passing, as Sandy Stone puts it, is “to live successfully in the gender of choice, to be accepted as a ‘natural’ member of that gender” (Stone 12). Somewhat ironically, with prom around the corner, I realized that in order for me to be understood as “a woman” I needed to lean more on female stereotypes and present myself as more “feminine”. And by this, I mean the stereotypical male account of the constitution of woman: Dress, makeup, and delicate fainting at the sight of blood (Stone 7). From then on, I made a personal vow to not cut my hair again, and let it grow. Dark and Lovely, African Pride, No Lye. I walked into the prom venue, in a lace dress and long Brazilian hair. I was praised, “I didn’t know you could look like that”.
What is present here is a disconnect between who I believe myself to be compared to how others chose to perceive me. This dissonance has been the exploration of many gender theorists throughout history, from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler to Maggie Nelson. We each are women. Looking back on it, from these women I’ve learned that I am not an anomaly. And that my gender is my own and my ownership is a direct challenge to the intersectional power structures in our society. My womanhood will not and should never be defined by the straightness of my hair, the diameter of my waist, nor the existence of my vagina. For this to be the definition is almost insulting. My womanhood is defined by my resilience. Nevertheless, she exists as woman.
I remember the elementary school me that led up to Dayo in 2015. One me that I hold in particular was me during third grade. From Ms. Baker, I was tasked with writing an essay about my role model. Candidly, it didn’t cross my mind that the other students would write essays about their parents, their dance teachers, their sports coaches. I decided to write about my role model, Sojourner Truth. I believe I discovered Sojourner Truth because there was a poster of her in our school library and she initially caught my attention because I couldn’t pronounce her name. So, with the support of my third-grade teacher, and after a glorious “AHA” moment, I decided to write about Sojourner Truth. The problem was that I knew nothing about her. My first advisor was Google, who quickly referred me to their contemporary, Wikipedia. I distinctly remember this moment because of how proud I felt for reading a full Wikipedia page for the first time. I read about how she was a slave who gained her freedom and how she went on a treacherous adventure to free her son. It was also at this time that I first came into contact with her “Ain’t I A Woman” speech.
If only I knew that first time, that when Sojourner Truth was asking “Ain’t I A Woman?” she already knew the answer. If only I realized that even when she exclaimed “I have borne thirteen children” she still had to also explain how Christ came from God and a woman (Truth). If only I acknowledged that before others can recognize your beauty, they first have to be able to recognize your humanity. I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? Even beauty is conceived through the sum of utility one can extract from it. You are pretty because you can buy it, he can enjoy it, and they could show it off. Here Sojourner Truth speaks to more than just her equality to men, but the nature of her womanhood which is inherent to her activism. She asks the questions so that she can mobilize an answer to why a woman can work and not even receive their little pint full. If only I knew that there was something out of kilter and that something prospers when I strive to “pass” a test with no correct answers.
So, in the third grade, I wrote about how Sojourner Truth was my role model, and now it all makes sense.
I never fully related to the trope of hair-cutting in media. She is going through a break-up, a divorce, she is aging, she is preparing for the fight of her life, she is depressed, she is a lesbian, so she cuts her hair. Short hair is a common style among black women. In fact, in my mother’s culture, it is not only common but required for young girls to keep their hair short. My grandmother, my mother, and my aunts all have short hair. In black American culture, there is a term for it “the big chop”, an act that simply represents a starting over. When I cut my hair, I believe this to mean that I too was starting over… with my hair. Looking back, I didn’t truly change anything about myself. On the one hand, the erasure of my feminine identity strove to reinforce that image that the societal archetype of women is not my grandmother, my mother, or I. What I didn’t anticipate was how I seemingly shed my femininity in other's minds while trying to shed infatuation with beauty standards. This suggests to me that the two are linked, and that is exactly the problem.
But in the meantime, I will create my own. My own terms for my womanhood, and that is beautiful.