[Guest commentary by Jonalyn Fincher, author of Ruby Slippers: How the Soul of a Woman Brings Her Home]
"It was an attack on women first," Essence Carson, team captain of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team said. The focus on shock jock Don Imus’ words has been primarily racial. I’d like to share my emotional reaction as one woman watching this team of women warriors.
Both body and soul make a woman. Don Imus’ comment cut down both.
I have a lot of hair, it’s full, it’s got lots of body and it’s eye-catching. Most of my childhood I wore it back. One morning when I was 12 I decided to wear it down. I walked into my junior high Homeroom and felt eyes on me. I lowered my gaze, a bit afraid to meet their glances, taking my seat quietly. Then one boy laughed, pointed and said, “What a fro.”
He said it loudly and publicly. I tried to ignore it, but I instantly knew that my hair made me unappealing, coarse, unfeminine. It wasn’t just my appearance he was attacking. It was the person who owned the body. It was me. I had chosen to wear my hair down. I had been vulnerable.
The Rutgers women were even less at fault than I. They entered athletics for the express purpose of using their bodies in a sport. They were not in the lime-light to share hair tip secrets or with an expectation of being fawned over. Their appearances as they play their sport, should have been judged by the way they integrated their bodies into their work. And for the record, their bodies were lovely examples of how women work and play well.
To label their hair unattractive is like attacking a pregnant woman for sweating. It’s to poke at the soft-underbelly of women in sports, to ridicule their willingness look like real athletes. Part of real life sports is to pant, to look sweaty, flushed, disheveled with clothes-wrinkled, nose-flaring, feet-straining, abs quivering. And none of these make a woman unfeminine. If they do, something is wrong with our definition of womanhood. This definition can’t even include a woman giving birth. Many commercials make sporty women look sexy, but most female athletes will tell you that sexiness is not their priority. Imus conflated these women’s sex appeal with their gender, basically saying that if their hair wasn’t smoothly sculpted, curled and conditioned to his satisfaction, they were grossly unappealing.
When my hair was attacked it changed something in me. I realized that I would be judged by things I could not change. I began to believe that “real” women didn’t have hair like my hair, or if they did they never wore it down and au naturel. It didn’t matter that the belief was a lie. I incorporated it into my worldview.
Unsolicited by me, I had attracted judgment. I assumed that anytime I made an appearance I was participating in a ranking contest. I didn’t want to impress that junior high guy anymore than the Rutgers women’s basketball team want to impress Don Imus. But the self-appointed judges often claim that lofty ground. I felt the pressure to impress them. The publicity of the comment made it a label I couldn’t easily peel off. Where I had tried to be open and vulnerability I was publicly shamed.
He named me with the arrogance of any person who takes dominion over another human being. He named me as the girl with the fro and it stuck there for no other reason than he picked apart a real aspect of my body.
I remember the boy’s name, both first and last. As our ten year high school reunion is coming up I actually grimaced when I saw it on the roster, even though I believe I’ve forgiven him. From that day forward, I chose to tie back all my curls, pinning the wayward ones, keeping all my hair tucked tightly away from my face. For ten years I silenced a part of me that was unique.
Perhaps it seems a small wound, but it still smarts when the same word is pulled out. Even a few months ago after a day at Laguna Beach when my hair was literally wind blown, a friend with amazingly straight hair told me, “Wow! What a fro, Jonalyn!"
Her words lingered in my mind, though I didn’t realize why at first. Her word reached into my past, uncorking an old memory. It’s a memory I need to keep forgiving. It’s also a memory that’s made me wonder about what makes a woman feminine? It’s certainly more than her hair, but it isn’t less.
I don’t envy the work before the Rutgers women. They modeled to the world that they want to forgive Imus. I admire them for admitting it will take time. I think they will be forgiving Imus for years to come.
They will always think twice about their hair and how it connects with their womanhood. His words will inform how they look at their femininity, their value, their uniqueness. I noticed in their two hour meeting with Imus that most straightened their hair. How many of them were thinking of his “nappy-headed” comment as they got ready? How many times did they fuss over about how they should wear their hair?
And I haven’t even begun to touch on how his idea of them as “hoes” or whores must have cut into their integrity, their sacrificial work as a team and their proven virtue as women who can forgive. They have impressed me with their willingness to, as Mark Twain said, lend their fragrance on the heel that crushed them.
On a smaller scale, I will have to make my own decision for my 10 year high school reunion this summer. Will I straighten my hair for the occasion? Or, will I find the courage to forgive, once again?