The Harriet Experiment

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Via Chicago Tribune

Earlier this month, Emon Fowler launched her Chicago-based “Harriet Experiment,” in which she is asking black women to abandon weaves, wigs and chemical relaxers and spend a new year with new hair. She wants the women to start with the “big chop,” in which they shave off their processed hair completely and start anew.

Fowler, 30, has organized gatherings to take place throughout the year for women to cut their hair while surrounded by cheerleaders who have done the same. She has been recruiting women on Facebook, stopping them in grocery stores and making appearances at fairs and festivals to promote her cause.

“This is all about breaking free from that hair bondage,” said Fowler, a hairstylist. She says her project isn’t about building a clientele but changing mind-sets. “When a woman decides to cut all her hair, she discovers something underneath that is liberating. It can be therapeutic because you have to let go of the idea that you need these superficial extras to feel beautiful. It says, ‘I’ve accepted me.'”

Fowler said she was inspired to start her movement after reflecting on the life of Harriet Tubman, the iconic hero who risked her life to free hundreds of slaves. She sees her mission as helping free African-American women from the emotional and psychological baggage associated with their hair.

There are varying opinions in the black community about the meaning of straight hair, but some think it’s an attempt to imitate the white standard of beauty. Fowler said she wants to reinforce to African-American women that they don’t have to change their hair to feel pretty or accepted.

For African-American women, shaving off all their hair is nothing new. In the 1970s, thousands of black women wore their hair short and close-cropped as a symbol of racial pride and consciousness, said Lanita Jacobs, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California.

But in Fowler’s project, the women who decide to undergo the big chop do it publicly and with a built-in support system of cheerleaders, Jacobs said.

That support can help ease what can be a shock to black women’s psyche, one expert said.

“Black women have been conditioned to believe that our hair, in its natural state, is not beautiful, not professional and not manageable,” said Chris-Tia Donaldson, a Chicago-based author who wrote a book about the topic. “When you go to hair that is short, it can take a toll on your self-esteem. You have to learn how to work it and own it.”

There is a growing trend toward wearing hair more naturally, which some believe means a change in the definition of what beauty is for the next generation of African-Americans, Jacobs said.

“There has been a radical shift in black people’s minds on what can be beautiful,” she said. “Increasingly, black men are making room for non-straightened and non-long hair as a qualifier for beauty. More African-American celebrities are experimenting with natural hair.

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“What black women do with their hair has always created questions: Who are you? Who are you trying to be? What does this mean?”

When a woman shaves her hair close to the scalp, it can unearth feelings of vulnerability, Jacobs said. For those African-American women who have straightened their hair for much of their lives, it can be particularly jarring.

“You are in some cases stepping away from something that you know and into new, unknown territory,” Jacobs said. “When you do the big chop, people come up and ask questions. It can complicate your appeal to the opposite sex, it can complicate your job searching endeavors, it can complicate your family relationships. Your family may ask, who are you?”

Because her hero, Tubman, freed an estimated 700 slaves, Fowler has an ambitious mission to find 700 black women willing to undergo the big chop this year, she said. So far, she’s only gotten a couple of dozen to join her on the journey. But her project isn’t just about numbers, she said. It’s about making a statement.

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