Hair as Storyteller and Reimaginator: A Conversation with Imani Tolliver and Beth Gilstrap

HER KIND: Let’s just get down to it. Why do we care so much about our hair?




Beth Gilstrap: I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year since I made the big cut. Hair is deeply tied to our sense of identity, both cultural and personal. Hair has emotional memory and, as with anything, society has its ideas of appropriate and normal for gender and culture.

My grandma cut hair. Old white women were in and out of her chair with the same “set” and cut. Even then, the hive mentality bothered me, but my grandma’s in-house hair studio was my playground. I’d stick my hand in jars of awful blue jelly and spray Strawberry Shortcake’s hair into spikes until I cut it down to nubs and took the scissors to my own. I’d cut right down the middle of my part turning it into a sort of mohawk without the side buzz. Mortified, mom had my grandma fix it into the same cut as my brother’s, cowlick included.

People said, “Oh, what a cute little boy.” I corrected them, hands quick to my hips, never afraid to sass.

The sub-conscious fear of mistaken gender stuck. Now of course I know gender is a social construct, but as a youngster, it messed with my head. Maybe that’s why I kept it long for most of my life. People complimented my long hair and little else.

At 17, I dyed my hair. I colored it every 8 weeks for 19 years. Self-induced burgundy. Black. Blonde streaks. Cherry red. Any shade but my own. Kool-Aid. Manic Panic. Henna. Professionals. At that age, my hair hung past my shoulder blades not brushed as much as it should have been. Still a virgin, rocking my army jacket, smoking my Marlboros and weed, I worked hard to wear the uniform of a girl who didn’t give a damn about depression or panic attacks or breaking apart razors to cut lines in my leg. Yeah, I was that girl, with that hair. Put the apparel on and make it so.

Last December, I suffered a series of losses. My 16-year-old dog, Mia, who was more mother, sister, and friend than any human could have ever been. Within six weeks, I also lost two senior cats. I still don’t connect with many people. In the pit of grief, I no longer recognized myself. Going through old pictures, I found a black & white 15-year-old me. Eyes down. No smile. Long hair with bangs. At 35, I had the same haircut, the same despondence. Off it went.


Imani Tolliver: I can’t remember a time when I did not care about my hair. As a child, it was my mother’s nimble hands and my father’s heavy ones that would straighten my dark hair into ponytails that never quite reached my shoulders, try as they might.  I remember the handful of coils, never artfully festooned with barrettes and colorful rubber bands like the other brown girls that I went to school with.  Rather,  their main mission was to keep the follicles together – some kind of brown, crowned community atop my head.  This wasn’t about style, functionality was the point. I barely remember thinking about my hair until the bun that my mother artfully pinned to my scalp morphed into the mid-seventies mushroom bob.  It wasn’t the shape that was so topical with the black girls who were mystified with the way I spoke, dressed and ate, that I as I look back, I probably seemed more like an international exchange student than a girl who only lived around the corner. Victim to the constancy of the California sun and the chemicals used to straighten my hair; it bleached.  I was rocking ombre decades before I could define the word.  The girls insisted that had I colored my hair.  No, I cried.  No I didn’t.  You dyed your hair!, they countered.  My mother didn’t even color her hair; the most revolutionary change that my she made to her hair (exempting her brief afro phase in the early 70s) were her small assortment of wigs that she would sport from time to time.  For kicks, I placed her pageboy on my 5 year old brother.  He would sway his head back and forth, tossing the brown tresses from his shoulders.  I laughed as I imagined him the darker and cuter member of The Beatles. Yup, even cuter than Paul.

As the late 70s manifested into window pane jeans, rabbit fur jackets, and playboy gold-front silhouetted grills, all I cared about was my armpit hair. When would I be able to use the pink Flicker razor, the blades of which were wrapped with a fine wire to keep inexperienced and eager hands like mine from nicking my adolescent pits?  Pubic hair was a mystery.  It came in slowly, without much notice; it wasn’t there, then it was kinda there, then…full bush.  It was my armpit hair, the managing of which would made me into a real teenager.  Mysterious management of blood and mood and underpants was to follow.  How I wished to be one of those girls, shaving, superintending my woman self.  These days, knocking at 50s door, I am shocked at the sight of silver on my head, and yes, down there too. In fact, silver hair on my pubis happened first.  What did it mean, I wondered? Grief?  The mark of trauma?  Or wiser…is my vagina wiser than it used to be?  If so, I wish that she would share what she knows; sit me down in front of a toasty fireplace and impart that warm, woman talk that my mother’s friends whispered to each other when I was sent to bed.  Imagine it, your own vagina (ahem) imparting knowledge.  I’ll bet she’s got some stories.


BG: Why is it that hair can be so revolutionary? When women or girls step just left of what’s deemed normal, other women often barrage them. Natural is a loaded word, full of pocks. When my stylist cut off a foot of my hair, her assistant said, “What will your husband say? My boyfriend would never let me cut mine short.” I let her comments sink in, twisting the gut of so much pain. I’d never have a partner that would “let” me do anything.

Cultural expectations shape our shaved pits, legs, and vaginas, too. I never talked to my mother about managing my woman self. One day a pack of razors and shaving cream showed up on my bathroom sink. At 13, my cousin wanted to compare pubic hair. Uncomfortable, I pulled my bikini bottoms out. “You have more than me, dammit,” she said, looking at her own.  Frankly, all that business terrified me.

In college, a full year after I’d been sleeping with my boyfriend, I was shocked to learn I was supposed to landscape down there. A friend said, “The other night when this guy was going down on me, he asked me if I’d ever thought about taking a pair of scissors or a razor to my bush.” My pubic region was grateful to him.

To get back to the central question, I care so much about hair not only because it threads memories of my mother and grandmother and the fright of my sexual development, but because it makes me vulnerable. Perhaps hair is the definition of vulnerability, our attempt to control some aspect of our own physicality and external lives when all else is so difficult? Our shapes. Our minds. Our bones. Our diseases. Our losses. All so elusive, but baby, we can hack away at my hair.


IT: Hair as the definition of vulnerability…such a compelling thought.  Is hair the signifier, the inner part that tells on the outer part of us.  It enables the judging of others and ourselves.  We manage the sprouting of our faces, our heads, legs, toes, pits and pubis. It’s the surgery that everyone can afford.  The storyteller, the reimaginator, the blessing, the curse.  Our hair tells on us; revealing how well we are taking care of ourselves, our social status, our political beliefs, who we belong to.

Once, when I was in college, on a slow Saturday night, a friend of mine and I decided to straighten my hair.  Up until then, I had always worn my hair in natural styles in school; twists and braids, mainly.  I had even prided myself on sporting one of the largest afros on campus.  When I was really feeling revolutionary, I would pick it out to its fullness and tie a long scarf around my head, just behind my ears to reveal huge silver hoops.  After we did the deed – and I remembered the trauma of a scorched scalp, the fear of burned ears, and that awful smell – my friend and I paraded me down the dormitory hallways.  Some of my friends loved the look, others wondered if I was feeling alright in the head by making such a deliberate choice in contradiction to the nouveau panther hippy style that I rocked on the daily.  One friend didn’t even recognize me.  I mean, he knew my face, my body and my name, but the hair did not jive with the balance of the me that he knew.

These days, I wear my hair in locs. They are long enough to curl, put into ponytails, and even a bun that I haven’t worn since I was a little girl. I’ve intentionally colored my hair pink, black, auburn, blond and back to brown. I’ve sewn in shells, beads and charms.  I’ve even wrapped my locs with embroidery floss, creating rainbow textiles on the ropes that I’ve worn for over 15 years. I was never the girl (or the woman, for that matter) who got her hair done in salons. Over the course of my entire life, my hair has been professionally styled a handful of times; my locs, only three times. But something got into me; I wanted my hair “done” and done right. For the past few months, I’ve been getting my locs washed and groomed by a professional loctician in a salon. Oh, the luxurious warm, wet of the water. The tender scrubbing of my scalp. The agility of my stylist’s fingers as she separates that locs that become entwined at the root.  The styles that she creates by braiding my hair into itself. I must say, there is nothing that I’ve experienced like it. When she’s done, I feel liberated, beautiful, strong…and like the others, the other women who take the time to get their domes managed.  Am I one of them now?


BG: When you get down to it, our hair tells a story, fiction, non-fiction, or maybe even when drastically changed and pumped full of so much emotion, it even aspires to poetry, but we craft it. We craft hair into some expression of who we think we are or who we long to be. I am the tough, unconventional woman who don’t take no shit off nobody. Maybe, if my hair’s right, I can even convince myself.

Perhaps because I grew up with a cosmetologist, had close friends who did hair, and now, a talented younger sister who crafts hair, I never thought much about the implications of being able to get my hair done. It seemed ubiquitous to me, but it is a luxury and you tapped into what an intimate experience it is when someone washes your hair. Ever the introvert, I’m never sure what to say when a stranger has my head in their hands, but I am thankful for the warmth of the exchange. Yesterday at my salon, I got to witness a 4-year-old girl getting her first big haircut due to her own handiwork. What I heard was a child afraid of what it meant to have her hair cut and a mother and cosmetologist explain, “You will have a thousand haircuts in your lifetime, and the magical thing about hair is it never quits growing.” In the mirror, I saw her at the shampoo bowl, eyes closed and smiling, her hands crossed in her lap. When I took off my smock, I leaned over to her and said, “You will be beautiful and fierce.”


IT: A luxury, indeed. The warm clean water, the perfumed soap, the heavenly touch from another human being – whose purpose in that particular moment – is to make us feel something different, something more beautiful and fierce. Fierce. This makes me think of our drag queen sisters. RuPaul says that “…we’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” Indeed.  =The queens teach us how lucky we women are, born into a culture that supports and encourages our radical transformation; makeup, clothing, and most certainly, hair.  =Our appearance is a language unto itself, teaching and translating, signifying place, letting go, and letting in.

At night, I oil my scalp and locs. Tying the long scarf around my head, I place my hair in an order before I lay down to dream. When I awake, my hair is softer and more pliant, ready to endure the constant combing of my fingers, the bands that break and pins that bend, as I attempt to harness it while working. Mostly, I think my hair just wants to be free. It wants to be brightened by the sun and captured by the wind. It doesn’t mind being caught in a rainstorm, dressed in silks or sparkly, pretty things. Perhaps we are more alike than I have imagined, my hair and me. We take up space, our bodies, abundant. We have the flexibility and silence of the Tao, yet a bodacious gesture, so beautifully looms, around every corner. Blessed be the strength and resiliency of our lengths, our endless possibilities.


Beth Gilstrap was a recent writer-in-residence at Shotpouch Cabin with the Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word at Oregon State University. She earned her MFA from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Blue Fifth ReviewThe Minnesota ReviewSuperstition Review, and Knee-Jerk Magazine, among others.


Imani Tolliver is a poet, visual artist and educator. 

She has been a consultant for several museums, educational institutions and has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation by the City of Los Angeles for her work as a promoter, host and publicist in support of the literary arts in Southern California.  She also served as the 2007/2008 Poet Laureate for the Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles, California.

She has been a featured poet across the country, including the Smithsonian Institution, Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, The World Stage Performance Gallery, University of Southern California, California State University at Long Beach, California State University Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Central Library. Imani also volunteers, marches, and pitches in whenever she is able, in support of the vibrant and beautiful LGBT community of which she is wholly and happily a part.

Hair as Storyteller and Reimaginator: A Conversation with Imani Tolliver and Beth Gilstrap

One thought on “Hair as Storyteller and Reimaginator: A Conversation with Imani Tolliver and Beth Gilstrap

  1. MizzGivens says:

    Thank you for this conversation. I felt teary while reading it. For some reason, as women, there is so much angst around hair, on the top of our heads, on our vaginas, and everywhere else. I have one stupid gray hair that I pluck–or ask someone else to pluck–every time it appears at my hairline. That bitch must go. I’m not ready for it. I feel like my hair is the one thing I can usually feel good about, and I don’t need it turning gray.


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