You Can Touch My Hair…or Maybe Not

April 23, 2014

H Combing Hair
I recently discovered a two-part video series called “You Can Touch My Hair” (via Design Mom), and it struck a chord: Two days before seeing it, I happened to be standing in line at a store with my daughters when a woman behind us starting asking lots of questions. Are they twins? How old are they? Where do they go to school? Are they yours? I kept my answers short and polite, and then came the last question: Can I touch their hair?

The woman had some boundary issues, but the hair question got me thinking… On one hand, curiosity is part of the human condition, and hair is a feature that stands out about people. I know that when I see people with radically different hair from mine, I often wonder what it’s like to care for, how they style it, what it feels like, etc. I also know friends with hair like mine who’ve traveled in parts of Asia and Africa and had people constantly wanting to touch their hair. So it’s universally true that unfamiliar locks captivate our interest.

H Hair
On the other hand, nobody likes to feel like an object, and hair is personal. Perhaps even more to the point, we live in a pluralistic society where it’s not unusual to encounter people with different hair types and styles. Why is hair like my daughters’ such a fascination to random strangers in modern American culture? I know the topic of “natural hair” is a big one, but I think it’s odd that their hair is such a novelty.

If you’re curious about the video project I mentioned above, you can watch it here and here. I’m not quite sure what I think of the actual event, but I’m hoping that by the time my daughters are grown, natural hair of all types will be more familiar and accepted and not such a big deal.

By the way, if you’re wondering how I answered the stranger in line, I was saved just in time: The cashier called us over before I had time to respond. But I probably would have said, “What is you want to know about their hair?” to avoid having her actually touch my daughters’ heads.

Have you ever had a stranger ask to touch your hair — or just reach out and do it? If someone asked to touch your child’s hair, what would you say?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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1 Kate April 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm

That is weird. I’m not sure how you go out with the girls with people asking so many dumb questions, giving them candy bars, questioning your behaviour in church, etc. I thought you lived in a big, bustling city- aren’t people suppose to mind their own business?!!
But in all seriousness, I live in a small city and people are generally friendly here. I’ve never had strangers give candy to my kids at a store or ask to touch them (not even when they were babies). I’m not sure how I would handle it but I think I would politely decline. And I have never asked to touch a strangers hair!! That is just bizarre to me. It’s never even crossed my mind!


2 Zoe Saint-Paul April 23, 2014 at 12:20 pm

These people have (mostly) all been friendly — just nosy! :-) Yes, you would think people would mind their own business but we seem to draw a lot of attention where ever we go, which in turn seems to invite comments and questions. I suppose I’ve gotten used to it — and was somewhat prepared for it — but every so often it stumps or annoys me. I’ve had at least two cashiers, who see us regularly — comment that S has “gained a lot of weight” or “is getting chubby.” I wish I could have said, “So, are you calling my daughter FAT??” just to make them squirm. But, my daughters were there so I couldn’t. What to say in such situations though? Ugh.

I also get a lot of comments on their short hair — mostly positive — but I don’t understand why it’s a frequent subject of conversation with strangers.

What I try to keep in mind is that my responses should always be less about my feelings (and the other party’s), and more about teaching my daughters how to treat, deal, and respond to other people by my example. Not always easy!


3 Molly April 23, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Argh! I know people mean well, but it’s still very “othering” when they say/do stuff like that. Off to watch the videos! Thanks for sharing.


4 Kate April 23, 2014 at 2:28 pm

I lived in Italy for several years and had people try many times (and succeed sometimes) in touching my reddish hair. They mostly wanted to know if it was natural as many people there dye their hair hues of red. I thought it was invasive of my personal space, but otherwise it was just funny.


5 Zoe Saint-Paul April 23, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Your comment reminds me that personal space is also different from culture to culture!


6 tricia April 24, 2014 at 1:25 pm

This reminds me of when my sister (Irish American descent, with super-curly short hair), spent a college semester in Japan — people would ask to touch her hair (or just reach out and do it without asking) on a daily basis!


7 Dawn April 23, 2014 at 4:15 pm

On the one hand I understand completely that it is not appropriate for a stranger to touch your hair….but on the other hand, when I visit with my friend from Sudan, I can’t resist patting her little guy’s hair… I realize its different because I have a relationship with them, but for someone who has never met someone in real life with hair like that, I can see how curiosity could get the better of them! Thank goodness she asked.


8 Zoe Saint-Paul April 23, 2014 at 5:38 pm

I get the curiosity part, too, since I think that’s normal. Heaven knows, I love touching my daughters’ hair all the time simply because it’s so cool and different from my own. But I guess it seems that strangers in public should (a) have more manners/boundaries, and (b) be a little more familiar with hair like my daughters’. (In fact, the woman that asked had hair much closer to theirs than my own.)


9 Anna April 23, 2014 at 8:11 pm

Did the woman have similar hair? I was actually wondering that – just because my own reaction would be like yours but my friend from West Africa talks about her hair type and her kids’ hair types all the time and I get the sense that commiserating over “difficult hair” (as she puts it) is a standard topic of light social small-talk in Africa, a bit like talking about the weather or traffic here.


10 Zoe Saint-Paul April 23, 2014 at 10:19 pm

No, it wasn’t the same, but in this particular case, I think this woman just had poor boundaries generally, based on the way she was asking other questions. I do get more hair comments from African and African-American women, though, so you are probably right — but I can’t help but wonder if some of this is because tight/curly/natural hair hasn’t been acceptable or considered beautiful so many of these women have grown up wrestling with their hair (?) Not that it doesn’t take more care; my experience of my daughters’ hair is that it *does* take more care and attention. But calling it “difficult” hair seems negative to me. Definitely more for me to learn about this topic!


11 Anna April 24, 2014 at 8:57 am

I agree, “difficult” does sound negative and I wouldn’t have chosen the word, but my friend definitely thinks of it that way. I don’t think it’s purely because African women have compared themselves to a white ideal, though it might be partly that: the fact is my friend’s hair requires a lot more TLC than mine does. If I ignore my hair, it’s just going to be lank and ho-hum, but if she ignores hers it breaks and gets impossibly tangled, etc. Also, she says hair like hers has a very tough time with the colder climate here. E.g., her daughter’s hair requires constant moisturizing in winter to the extent of daily Vaseline applications – something I’d never have guessed hair would need. (For the record, I’m the one who convinced her to try going natural with her hair, and I think it looks great that way.)

12 Olga April 23, 2014 at 8:06 pm

Hey Zoe–this sort of reminds me of being pregnant and complete strangers touching my belly–sometimes without asking! I was unprepared in my first pregnancy, for the people who felt they had the liberty to comment on my belly shape and size, whether it was a boy or girl, people who actually suggested names!! That always floored me. And in my later pregnancies, the ones who commented about whether “it” was going to be my last!! It’s bizarre to me, really, but some people out there just don’t have boundaries or social etiquette.


13 Zoe Saint-Paul April 23, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Pregnancy is probably another good example of this, Olga! Suggesting names? Crazy.


14 jen April 23, 2014 at 8:36 pm

hi zoe — like you, I have Ethiopian twin girls with amazing hair. last winter we were at an event at preschool, and the grandfather of one of the children walked right up to my lily, started talking to her, and started touching her hair. she was clearly uncomfortable and nervous. I was appalled! I knew the old guy was harmless…. and clueless….. but come on now people! so I just walked up, took her by the hand, and said – let’s go find your sister. then, about 15 minutes later, the old guy sought her out AGAIN. this time he didn’t touch her (I was right with her), but he said to her, “where did you get that beautiful hair?” she looked at him for a couple of seconds, and then said, “God.” I was like, great answer! and we excused ourselves and walked away.

what was most distressing to me about the incident was not solely the racial aspect of it — it was the old-white-guy/beautiful-little-black-girl scenario. it was really really disturbing. and like I said, I think he was harmless and clueless, but it is what it is…. .and what it was, was TOTALLY inappropriate.

I get they have amazing hair…. and it is human to be interested in something that is different from what we know and see every day. I can’t get enough of my girls’ hair! I have no doubt that one day they will come home with military haircuts as a result of my preoccupation with it. but people need to understand basic boundaries. there is historical precedent for children not being considered “people” with rights of their own, and we all know our historical precedent for people with black skin not being considered people with rights of their own.

I think we cannot escape the fact that we are witnessing the echoes of that history, when someone doesn’t think twice about walking up and touching the hair of a black female child. I think people are more likely to observe the right boundaries with white children, and with adults.

sorry for the long comment….. I just can’t give people a total pass on this one.

jen in ct
lily and maddy’s mom


15 Zoe Saint-Paul April 23, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Thanks for sharing this, Jen — really appreciate your thoughts, and ugh, what an experience. I’m not sure what I would have said to that man, but sounds like you handled it well! I know sometimes I’m just so baffled in the moment that I can’t find the words.

I loved your daughter’s answer, btw :-)


16 Alex April 24, 2014 at 11:09 am

I travelled quite a bit when younger and remember people on the streets or busy marketplaces feeling my hair in Taiwan (my hair being light brown/blonde and wavy). I was even asked, once, if they could take a picture of it!

I have become much more aware of touching children’s head when teaching – I find it an affectionate point of personal contact and here (in Greece) it is quite common to do so while talking to a pupil. However, I was recently told to not touch the head of our new addition, a little Indonesian girl, because touching someone’s head is considered very rude in Indonesia.

Similarly, about twenty years ago I was on a Greek island with a black friend and she had several people, usually older women, ask if they could feel her skin! She was happy for them to do so and we took several pictures of the old ladies marvelling at the smoothness of my friend’s skin.

We all have our cultural norms and things we have grown up feeling comfortable with – but touching strangers’ hair… I can’t see how that is normal in Western cultures… (At least she considered asking…)


17 Zoe Saint-Paul April 25, 2014 at 1:00 pm

So much of this is cultural it seems. As you point out, boundaries are certainly cultural, in part, and then there’s the universal human qualities of curiosity and fascination with (as well as fear of) difference. I guess we still have a way to go before different skin and hair types are familiar enough to people as to not solicit a strong reaction. In some places this will take a long time because the populations are very homogenous.


18 Jen April 24, 2014 at 8:29 pm

Zoe — I Immediately thought of you when I saw this (slightly off-color but funny) video. A helpful rule of thumb for everyone?


19 Zoe Saint-Paul April 25, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Love this video, Jen, thanks! It’s actually a pretty good rule of thumb :-)


20 Erin April 25, 2014 at 1:24 pm

I traveled throughout Latin America with my daughter who has white blonde curly hair, and saw it all: people taking photos of her, petting her, giving her candy and soda, and occasionally taking her out of my arms so they could hold her. All of this without anyone asking permission. I just had to roll with it, as it was generally accompanied by lots of words of love.


21 Navah April 27, 2014 at 6:16 pm

When I was in Nepal, I had people come up to me on a daily basis touching my curly hair, and was stared at wherever I went. Curly hair is extremely rare, perhaps nonexistent, in Nepal, and mine received a remarkable amount of attention. Oddly enough, given how I am, it didn’t bother me. The reaction from people was not, “Oh, how weird!” but, “Oh, how beautiful!” I saw a German woman in one of the trekking lodges with hair like mine, and asked her about her experiences, which were exactly like mine.

I wouldn’t want people touching my (non-existent) child’s head, though.


22 Kelly May 1, 2014 at 2:56 pm

We luckily haven’t had any comments about K’s hair or requests to touch it (or unapproved touching), but I do know it will come eventually! I think your planned response of asking about the curiosity is a good one – it might make the question poser think a little more about what she’s requesting.

Something that I’ve learned about myself from reading/thinking so much about K’s hair is that *I* have a tendency to touch kids’ heads, by giving them little pats or tousles of the hair. It’s a sign of affection from me, and I honestly didn’t realize that I did that until recently! I wouldn’t do it to a stranger’s child, of course, but only to children I know well. I am also actively trying to stop touching K’s hair so much, because I know it will look better if I keep my hands out of it!


23 EbonyBeautE May 25, 2014 at 6:45 pm

As an African-American woman I have always found it strange how Caucasians are fascinated with African hair especially in it’s natural state. I find it rude but as the dominant culture (privileged/entitled and some plain old curious) as many have mentioned when you travel abroad and encounter others from different backgrounds these question and actions occur.

I even find discerning when friends of other races do so without asking. There is a lot of cultural and racial undertones to that and people just being plain rude. I personally never touch someone’s head without asking (and only if a mutual topic) or having strong familiarity with them.

This is something you will have to get used to as well as your girls. Some people grin and bear it while others say no when asked or use it as a moment to educate like the women in the video. I tend to just answer peoples questions not to make it awkward and move on. Long as you teach your girls how to respond and they understand their personal boundaries I am sure it’ll be fine. Honestly it is few and far between. But I do wonder if your girls may encounter it more while out with you because people may see it as less intimidating and you are also of a different racial background than your daughters? (just a thought)


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