I came across a video on YouTube where comments were made repeatedly on how the average (or better put – the stereotypical social construction) of a Black girls’ hair cannot grow long because "it’s not in their genes."
On Instagram the matter came up again on a post where the author asserted her long hair is due to genetics. I questioned this notion of hair length contingent on genetics and she responded: "It's not a myth, my grandma has long hair. I got it from her. Nobody in my family has the same length or volume as me. I inherited it from my grandma."
Now, I know the myth the YouTuber was spewing (the one that Black girls can’t grow long hair because it’s not in their genes) and the fact that having long hair is down to genetics has absolutely no truth to it. But the issue is, it presented as an unquestioned truth. The seemingly innocent comments from women maintain this myth, aiding in harmful implications. Implications which perpetuate and tie into misogynoir that police and politicise specific Black hair textures to curb its “expression of the infinite possibilities that emanate from this creative and daring consciousness."
Genetics does influence the time period (anagen phase) or can be a determining factor on the rate of growth, but not the actual growing or length of hair. The average growth phase for hair on the head is roughly around 2 - 6 years for humans across racial lines. Some of us have longer phases, some have shoter ones. The terminal length is determined by the amount of time a hair has been growing overall, if left to grow undisturbed.
Moreover, social attitudes on hair length are integral in the way Blackness has been constructed as the antithesis of Whiteness. To construct an entity and position it as universal, you need a representation of something that is the complete opposite and what society should steer away from. Thus, people who physically fit into the social construction of Whiteness are afforded a standard of femininity, while those who do not are stripped off their femininity. The dominant universal idea of ultimate femininity - long flowing hair - is Eurocentric, and translates into power structures that harshly target people whose hair do not conform or fit into this idea of femininity. Especially, people whose thickly textured or coily patterned hair grows against gravity, so true length most time is shown through stretched hair or blow dried hair that hasn’t been shrunk by moisture or liquid.
Black children and women particularly are directly affected by these social attitudes where it transcends hair and where they are not given the presumption of innocence or are not seen as vulnerable. Very often, for this reason, Black women in the public sphere are viewed as masculine or strong and indestructible, and the displays of emotions are reduced to anger.
The YouTuber in question didn’t mention anything negative about having short hair, but you could clearly observe that she felt superior because of her hair length and texture. The superiority complex and borderline xenophobia from Black people that do not have stereotypical social ideas of Black hair is unfortunately, but not something rare. Her words also indirectly reinforce and insinuates the misogynistic idea that “a girl isn’t a girl if she doesn’t have hair or long hair". Tying gender to hair length is a violence that attacks freedom of identity, particularly gender identity. It perpetuates hair as an ideological symbol where femininity is given one definition that places one specific narrative of femininity above all.
Contrary to common beliefs and to the attempts to masculinise coily or thickly textured hair, it is soft, fragile and delicate. It has to be carefully handled with patience and love because coily hair tends to have the smallest diameter - thus gets tangled easily. Using words such as ‘hard’ and ‘coarse’ as opposed to ‘soft’, ‘fine’ or ‘smooth’ or even ‘thick,’ are intentionally used to entrench negative connotations of the dominant social construction of what is Black hair. Actually, if we interrogate the term coarse with regards to hair width, thickly textured hair is very fine as the hair stands tend to have a small circumference and therefore is prone to damage and breakage.
This is another reason why it is difficult to maintain length. But this does not mean your hair cannot grow long. It’s just about knowing how to care and maintain healthy hair, so your hair is not breaking at the same rate of growth. If you don’t wear silk scarves to bed or scrunchies, your hair can snag, get tangled then break. And if you brush or comb your hair without it being saturated with liquid, you are literally being creative in the way you cut your hair.
It’s important that someone else’s self-esteem issues, ego and complex are not projected onto young girls who watch YouTube videos and take what they view as the truth. Especially young Black girls and children in their formative years, who may not have the defence of self-confidence and faith in God and therefore may internalise "it’s not in their genes" for tightly coiled or thick textured hair to grow long. Your hair is not a challenge, it does not need to be tamed, controlled, treated or straightened to be managed. The concept itself of hair needing to be managed is harmful as it reinforces ideas that your natural hair is difficult and is only 'presentable' and easy to deal with when it is straightened or less curly/coily.
Most importantly, long hair doesn’t define you. You do not need to prove to anyone that you can grow your hair. If you are bald or have short hair, so what? That’s completely fine. The focus should be on healthy hair, where the health of your strands and scalp represents the love, grace and patience you have for yourself, your growth and the potential you will reach. Hair, skin complexion and phenotype are proud statements of our identity which includes rich culture, history and the beautiful stories of kinship and memory we share. Never accept conformity or assimilate to fit into what you are not.
Written by Linda 'Ayaba' Arowolo
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