Chicago Sun Times: They are not their hair

Women are far more than the some of their parts — six Chicagoans reveal what lies within

Once in a while, amid the prefab, love-soaked lyrics that pollute radio airwaves, a song resonates, reaching into our souls, nakedly asserting to the world how women feel and how women will be reckoned with as individuals. So when India.Arie declared “I Am Not My Hair,” women Chicagowide collectively responded, “And neither are we!”

India.Arie sings that she endured hot-combed hair, the dreaded — and drippy — Jheri curl, and straightening her natural kinks with relaxers, which consequently and inevitably led to breakage. Then she went au naturel with cultivated dreadlocks, eventually sacrificing them to a bald cut. Nearly every step of the way, somebody had something, often negative, to say about her choice.

What’d she do to her hair? / I don’t know, it look crazy

Despite the drastic changes, women could relate. The chart-topping song validates that universal female experience of being judged by looks. India.Arie gave life to the idea that a woman is more than the sum of her parts.

If I wanna shave it close / Or if I wanna rock locks / That don’t take a bit away / From the soul that I got

That leads to the question, if we are not our hair, then who are we? Six Chicago women answer just that. From a smart blond to a cancer survivor who held her own hair-shaving party, we peek inside the soul that lives within.


25, senior account executive, West Loop

The song: “It’s really kind of funky and fun, but when you take time to sit down and listen to it, it really resonates. To use a completely overused cliche, you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Who you are: “I tend to be a dichotomy. I have style and fashion sense, but I love putting on a T-shirt and going to a college football game. I’m passionate about everything: art, work, being a wife, my family.”

Personal philosophy: “You have to have something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to.”


24, student, hair stylist, social advocate, Bronzeville

The song: “I wear locks. I had an afro; that was my favorite style because it was so free. I had a perm once. My hair started breaking off. I said, ‘Oh, no, this is not going to work.’ I cut it off after that and just started over, from scratch.”

What you want people to see: “Juse me. I’m always changing. I’m never the same.”

First impressions: “I’ve had friends tell me they thought I was mean … bourgie or stuck up,” Smiley says, laughing. “Those are the people who fall the most in love with me. That just says you can never make an assumption off looking at somebody.”

Who you are: “I am young. I’m free. I’m intelligent. I’m full of new ideas. I’m a spiritual being. I’m trying to make my life happen.”

What you learn from your clients: “I’ve noticed they always had a problem with their looks. Your hair is a big part of that. When they transition to natural hair, they feel not pretty, not adequate. Then I see them blossom into what they are. I see them get this confidence back.”


26, outreach coordinator, Harwood Heights

The song: “I felt it completely represented my personal philosophy, an Islamic philosophy. The emphasis is on your soul, your character … not your physical appearance.

Personal philosophy: “To live authentically and to do so in harmony with myself and my surroundings. This cannot be achieved without serious introspection about who you are, not who you should be.”

First impressions: “Usually the first impression for people who don’t know what a hijab stands for … is, “There’s an oppressed woman,’ or ‘She’s foreign,’ ” says Rehab, who says her sacred head covering has a lot in common with nuns, Orthodox Jewish women and monks. When she covers her hair, people “sort of tune in to what you’re really about.”


27, fund-raising consultant, Logan Square

About your hair: “I found out in May that I have non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I just finished my chemotheraphy, and my doctors believe it’s gone. I was actually upset about the fact that I might lose my hair. I’ve always had long hair.

“I decided if it started falling out, I would shave it off. My hair has always been a big part of me; I couldn’t emotionally go through watching it fall out. Three other friends shaved their heads with me. We had a hair-shaving party. It made it a lot less impactful, a positive thing.”

VanderWerf is now encouraging a member of her Gilda’s Club cancer support group to shave: “When else are you going to have a chance to do this?”

Personal philosophy: “To take things one day at a time. If you worry too much about tomorrow, you don’t enjoy today,” says VanderWerf, whose Tuesday indulgence was going to therapy and obsessing over the latest episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Who you are: “I am someone who highly values working on yourself and doing something to better yourself every day. I am not cancer. I am not my hair.”


46, community affairs vice president, West Loop

The song: “It’s funny,” says Palomar Scott, who started graying at age 20, “every time I hear it, something resonates differently.” From cancer, which runs in her family, to strength, it’s appealing on many levels.

Personal philosophy: “To do good in whatever [way] that means. Our actions should speak that.”

Who you are: “A strong, loving, caring, loyal, hardworking, good person.”

First impressions: “The gray. It surprises people. they ask me, ‘Did you get it colored that way?’ A lot of women walk away thinking, ‘If you can do it, I can let my hair go gray.’ People will come to me and say, ‘You’re really very beautiful, but you’re really very nice.’ It’s very touching to me, especially when it comes from other women.”


Ageless, associate director, Near West Side

The song: “I was in the truck. I was actually having one of those days re I was feeling underappreciated. It was hot outside, and you know how you’re listening to something and say, ‘Oh, this is catchy.’ I tuned in to to what she was trying to say, that I am more than my hair, I am more than what you initially see. It spoke to that.”

Who you are: “I’m a global, driven, Peter Pan-esque person. I’m a peacemaker who’s creative but a realist.”

Personal philosophy: “Be honest and have fun. Tap into your joy.”

What you want people to see: “Power. And style. Approachable. I am the epitome of openmindedness and acceptance.”

I am not my hair

I am not this skin

I am not your expectations no no

I am not my hair

I am not this skin

I am a soul that lives within

India.Arie, “I Am Not My Hair”

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