Keywords: don’t touch my hair, intimacy, social norms, courtesy, assault
I just saw a gif meme that I think is clearly assault. A bearded person that appears to be a sports journalist is holding a microphone and speaking into the camera while standing in front of a sports venue. Another person (presumably one of the athletes) walks behind the first and, while passing by, takes a hand full of the first person’s beard. (Perhaps of note is that the second person is so much taller than the first that you never see the second person’s face.)
This is a variant of the “don’t touch my hair” problem. I first became aware of this social phenomenon from a photography exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer museum on the University of Oregon campus but it has a wider presence. This problem is most often talked about in terms of black women. Here’s a quote that summarizes the issue:
“Asking to touch a Black woman’s hair is a racial microaggression masquerading as a compliment. In a patriarchal, white-dominated society, it denies black women respect, consent and agency over their own bodies. Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” can be read as an explicit rejection of this behavior, as a simple establishment of boundaries, or as a powerful statement of personal identity.”
But this gif, and my personal (if limited) experience, shows that it goes beyond black women. I’m a white male with long wavy hair. I was at one of my uncle’s funeral when I was talking to the mother of a childhood friend. This was the first time I’d met them in decades and the first time as an adult. So, they were someone that was, for all practical purposes, a stranger to me. During our conversation they reached out and touched my hair while making a comment about how nice it was. Let me just say that, even though this happened more than a decade ago, it was creepy enough that I still have a vivid memory of it.
Why is this gif and the social attitude it represents acceptable? If the victim was female, would it have been okay for someone to rub their hand over their face? Perhaps there is a difference in degree, but how is this different in kind from pinching a person’s butt (which, again, I have a vivid memory of someone doing to me) or grabbing a woman’s pussy? Is the acceptance of this gif simply because it appears to be man-on-man and that boys will be boys?
The above quote talks about personal identity. When I turned 18 and went off to college, I stopped shaving and have not shaved, even once, in the decades since. (In general, I don’t buy into the social norm that people need to shave. I think everyone, regardless of gender, should make a conscious choice about shaving any part of their body and understand why they choose or choose not to do so.) Although there are people that alternate having and not having a beard, my beard is very much a part of who I am. I recently had a conversation that made me realize not everyone understands this. The person I was talking to is a portrait artist and thus wondered what I looked like under my beard. My response was, “A picture of me without my beard is not a portrait of me.”
Another aspect of this is that my girlfriend relishes in my beard (and hairy body in general.) Having someone touch my beard is an intimate, sensual, and sometimes sexual, experience. Why would I want a stranger, or even a casual friend, to do so?
Seriously, unless you have a close enough relationship to know otherwise, always doubt that someone wants to be touched – even their hair or beard. Asking is a simple courtesy.