Neither Hair nor There

Endia Beal, a young, black photographer in Woodstock, NY, is confronting notions about black women’s hair by photographing older white women with “typical” black hairstyles.

In a hilarious yet insightful project named “Can I Touch It?”, created during a five-week summer residency at the Center for Photography in Woodstock, Beal invites women in their 40s and older who work in corporate environments to get their hair done at black hair salons and then photographs the results in typical corporate-style portraits.

© Endia Beal

© Endia Beal

© Endia Beal

Stemming from Beal’s experience working in the IT department of Yale while interning there during her photography MFA, the premise of the project came after she discovered rumours that some of her white male colleagues wanted to touch her hair – a big red afro at the time – and decided to confront the issue, ahem, head on and allow them to not only touch it, but to pull it. She then recorded them a week later talking about the experience, which was  brand new for many of them.

With “Can I Touch It?”, she wants to use her art to open up the dialogue about perceptions about “appropriate” hairstyles and ways in which things like gender, race and generational gaps impact ways we express ourselves, particularly in a corporate environment.

“I wanted people that had a certain idea of what you’re supposed to look like in the workspace, because it would be a challenge for them to understand what I experienced in that space,” she said, in a Slate interview. “And to a degree, many young white women have shared that experience, but for older white women it’s an experience they haven’t necessarily had.”

A project like this draws attention to the fact that a lot of styles deemed inappropriate in professional environments are often sported by young, often black women but increasingly other ethnicities – things like braids, cornrows, or even dreadlocks.

It’s interesting when you think about it, just how much of a role hair plays in identity and perception of one’s identity, for better or worse. It’s one of the biggest visual signifiers, for example, when someone is undergoing chemotherapy. It is often used as a fashion statement, or an indicator of commonality with a given group (think about how spiky mohawks came into fashion as “punk” hairstyles before mainstreaming and the “faux”-hawk fad rounded off those edges!)

And then you think about the fact that a comedic documentary about hair (Chris Rock’s Good Hair (2009)) reveals a very political context for something as seemingly superficial as what grows out of people’s scalps. But it wasn’t long ago that a 7-year-old straight A student with dreads was expelled from a charter school because her natural hairdo was deemed “unacceptable”. (The school has apparently since revised their policy on so called “faddish” hairstyles, which in the initial wording included afros…i.e., the unaltered natural hair for people of African descent. No comment needed here!)

So while a project like Beal’s “Can I Touch It?” brings laughs with its deliberately quirky tone, it is an important conversation to have. I mean, if tattoos, once the reserve of salty sailors and ex-cons, have become the de facto mode of expression seen from boardrooms to beaches, then I’m pretty sure a braided up-do or stylish afro should probably be considered positively conservative by now!

What do you think?