The Politics of Washing Hair

I had waist length hair.  Then I cut it all off just a few weeks ago. All of it.

Why?  My hair is difficult to take care of using natural products.

I've tried delicate balances of anything and everything - baking soda, apple cider vinegar, made my own soap, not washing it at all... I feel like I tried everything.  And having waist length hair makes it difficult to manage not using any product.  You might ask, "Girl, why the heck aren't you using shampoo?!"

Like many people, I use natural or make my own products for a lot of different reasons.  In particular, I have allergic reactions to certain substances commonly found in shampoos (sodium lauryl sulfate, found in a lot of soaps, triggers perioral dermatitis for me.  It is a very frustrating skin rash around my mouth and nose).  For someone who does not wear makeup either, this is very frustrating.  At its worst, I've caved to put on some concealer because the rash was a little too noticeable and I felt very self-conscious given my workplaces.  In order to find new receipes and ideas for natural remedies and live a greener life, I follow a lot of natural/organic living blogs.  

One thing that has come up - something of particular interest to me - in these blogs is a clip from the Today Show where Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb talk about Jacquelyn Byers.  Jacquelyn Byers is a blogger (Little Owl Crunchy Momma) who shared her experience of not washing her hair because she wants to avoid chemicals and lead a greener lifestyle.  Jacquelyn wrote into the Today Show about her experience with "no-poo" (no shampoo) and has not washed her hair in 5 years. 

Obviously, being someone who also avoids using conventional shampoos and soaps, I personally felt very shamed by these women talking about Jacquelyn.  In fact, the word among many of the organic/natural living blogs is that Jacqueline was unfairly bullied on TV.  Personally, I'm inclined to believe that.  I mean, I feel like it might be kind of harsh to simply make the assumption that she "stinks" and "does not bathe at all" with her explanation of not using shampoo.  Also, using baking soda and apple cider vinegar to wash your hair is still washing... at worst you'll smell like vinegar for just a little while.

This, for me, begs the question: are there politics of washing hair?

I believe that this topic is loaded with many different opinions from people across the board.  Obviously, when you don't wash your hair it will get oily. This could be problematic in some settings because of workplace standards of appearance.  But, this is temporary. After a few weeks the oil glands will stop producing so much oil (I mean, your scalp has to produce more oil because shampoo has a tendency to strip the oil away!).  Most people who are able to last a few weeks will notice their hair becomes healthier and it is not oily anymore. 

On the other hand, could this be seen as another way to police bodies?  By framing it as someone who "doesn't bathe" - putting someone in a position where they are seen as "less-than," uncultured or inferior in some way - I wonder if a display like this is simply another way to condemn people whose behavior or body does not fit into cultural expectations. 

I could go on and on about this, but I'm curious what others think.  What thoughts do you have about the politics of washing hair?  What symbolism lies behind washing/not washing hair?  Is this mediated by one's hair texture? Culture? Gender? 

Let's break out theories of intersectionality and have fun with this!  I would love to hear what you have to say!

Written by Samantha D. Christopher, B.A. 

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