I’ve changed my hair multiple times over my life, a longstanding effort to control the uncontrollable. As a woman with the combative, curly, expansive mane of both my Nigerian and Jewish ancestors, my hairstyle is more than a personal preference: It’s a mission statement.
One of the earliest lessons my mother passed down to my sister and me: the hair on my head is a treasure, but also a battlefield. My natural texture is coarse and coiled, always parched and yet deathly afraid of water. It can be my enemy (as it was against my mom’s frustrated comb) sopping up hours and hours with washing, styling, and wrangling.
As a kid, the trip to a hair stylist filled me with anxiety; the smell of shampoo gave me heart palpitations. Eventually, my mom threw up her hands in surrender and pushed us into a salon for girls and women who fought a similar battle. And in this room, with its bright walls and bleach smells, my hair shed its burden.
“This is your pride,” the new stylist told me. This is my pride.
In the salons at Sears or Macy’s or other department stores staffed with people of color, I felt recognized and understood. The hands that touched my head and hair did so without curiosity or malice. My curls were the easiest identifier of my being — where I came from and the strength I had within me — and when I turned my head I saw women who shared, in some part, that history.
These instances were uncommon. I spent most of my childhood (and adulthood, too) simmering in insecurity and irritation. To the people who couldn’t interpret the meaning of my hair — who were unfamiliar with the texture, look or style — it was an oddity. Strangers studied me as if I were under glass; even my friends, with their straight and fair locks, would stare sideways at my braids or dry, wild strands.
To reconcile our differences, my classmates (mostly white) would reach out a hand and ask to touch my hair as if it would share with them some exotic truth. It would perhaps confirm for them that, yes, I was “different.” My hair wasn’t treated as my pride. It wasn’t treated as my own. They twirled their fingers between the strands as if it belonged to them — and with it, me.
Years and years of feeling like a spectacle fed my shame, until, I confess, I broke and decided to straighten my hair. For years as a young adult, I wore my hair bone-straight. And I felt OK with myself, for the first time. I felt comfortable, if not complacent.
Only recently did I start to wave away the flatiron and allow a variation on my natural texture to poke through. It’s taking time to unlearn the habits of straight hair and reclaim the curls, to reestablish the pride of the childhood salon visits.
Of course, this experience isn’t unique to me or the black folks that I’ve known throughout my life.
Art director and pixel art enthusiast Momo Pixels shares a similar story. Instead of letting constant hair-groping get her down, Pixels turned a life of wonderment at her hairstyles and texture into a video game. Hair Nah is playable for free in your browser.
The premise is simple: A woman (whose hair and skin shade are both customizable) is on her way to one of three vacation sites. Can she make it there without succumbing to the predatory touches of the non-black people around her? Making it through each level requires maxing out the “nah” meter, meaning you’ve swatted away enough people’s hands to assert your authority.
The game is presented with a lighter narrative, more palatable than any of my personal experiences with my hairstyles; it’s goofy and silly and fun. But the end credits reveal that Hair Nah is as political a game as it is anything else.
“The game is over,” the win screen reads, “but this experience isn’t. This is an issue that black women face daily. So a note to those who do it: STOP THAT SHIT.”
This duality — funny and authoritative — is key to the game’s success, Pixels explained to me.
“I made Hair Nah because I thought it would be a hilarious game for black women,” said Pixels. “To finally have something to defend themselves against unwanted hands. But as I did more work on it and others helped, we knew we should also use this as an opportunity to educate.”
Hair Nah is bringing attention to an important aspect of the black experience; copping a feel of our natural hair is an alienating act, even if there’s no bad vibes behind it. Similar to other art by people of color, like this year’s Get Out, Hair Nah has the capacity to provide catharsis for some viewers, while edifying others.
But what does it mean for Pixels? How did she relate to her hair? I asked. Was the game a rallying cry for her, too?
“My relationship to my own hair is, well I love her and she love me back!” Pixels told me. “I didn’t know what my hair was like until 2011, when I did the big chop and after that, I was like, ‘Oh okay, this is amazing.’”
Her words and her game contain a shared confidence and a potent message: No one has the right to make me feel like my hair, my body and my self are anything less than wonderful.
Analysis by Allegra Frank, polygon