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?


It’s a Good Time to Be a Woman in Literature

On October 10, legendary Canadian author Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Canadian-based author to ever receive the honour*, and only the 13th woman overall in the history of the prize. It’s an interesting award because, rather than just one book, the winner is judged on a lifetime of work. While announcing her win, the Swedish academy referred to the 82-year-old author as, “Master of the contemporary short story.”

Now, the Man Booker Prize, a prestigious annual award given to “the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe,” has just been awarded to New Zealand author Eleanor Catton for her novel The Luminaries, set in the 19th century goldfields of New Zealand.

A bit of history. The 45-year-old prize was originally just called the Booker Prize from 1969 – 2001, until The Man Group Plc. came on board as sponsor from 2002 onward (gives new meaning to the term “working for the Man”, doesn’t it?!)

The shortest novel to win the prize was Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, at 132 pages, in 1979. There is no specified maximum length, just as long as the judges consider it to be a unified work.

There have been 30 men who’ve won, and 15 women. When Ben Okri won the prize in 1991, he was considered the youngest ever recipient, at the tender age of 32, and Kiran Desai, in 2006, became the youngest woman to win the prize at age 35, with her novel The Inheritance of Loss. 

Eleanor Catton just blew them both out of the water. She is 28 years old.

And this isn’t even her first book! Her 2008 debut novel The Rehearsal (2008) was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize, and longlisted for the Orange Prize. I should point out that, in literature, as in Hollywood, just getting on the short or long lists of certain prestigious prizes is often validation enough. (I mean, why else would you get to tack on “Oscar-nominated” to any film that made the list or any actor involved, forever afterwards?) Essentially, the booby prize is nothing to sniff at!

With her win, Catton not only gives hope to certain young, aspiring writers like me that we don’t have to wait till the inverse of our ages to win substantial recognition for our work…she also breaks the record for biggest book, by page-count. Her novel is 832 pages long.

According to Robert MacFarlane, chair of the judges, “Those of us who didn’t read it on e-readers enjoyed a full upper-body work-out.”

A Few Fun Facts about the Prize: The Man Booker Prize has seen some of the most influential works of modern literature pass through its gilt-edged pages, including Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991’s winner), as well as a few that have gone on to have a whole new level of success as film adaptations. The most memorable one to date is Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, which was adapted into the box office smash Schindler’s List. (The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, ended up winning seven Academy Awards.) Other successful film adaptations of Man Booker winners include Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel Remains of the Day, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Also, on two occasions the prize has had to be split between two winners: Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton shared the prize in 1974, whilst Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth were joint winners in 1992. Arundhati Roy, with The God of Small Things in 1997, is one of only two authors to win the prize for their first, and to date, only novels. The other author is Keri Hulme, with The Bone People in 1985.

One more fun fact: this year’s winner Eleanor Catton was actually born in Canada. Must be something in the water… 🙂


Sources: BBC, Writers Write, CBC

*Saul Bellow, who won in 1976, was born in Canada but raised in the US according to