Decolonising My Hair

Image of Irihipeti Waretini

Image of Irihipeti Waretini


I'm of the era that would watch my older sister and her friends, use an iron and tea towel to straighten their hair.  The days when Avon was a "thing" and watching the girls get dressed up to go clubbing at Dan's would become my life goal.

Colonisation - 1 VS My Hair - 0.

My first visit to a hair salon, was when a hairdresser came to our Maori class to find 'thick, dark brown hair' for her hair competition. She would photograph one of us with our hair and makeup, so you can imagine, a room full of teenage girls, jumping at such the opportunity. The only catch was she wanted to cut, colour and straighten our hair. My friends without hesitation said, "No, she's not changing our hair." This ruled out everyone but me. I didn’t have the long, curly, beautiful hair they had. Mine was straight frizz.

I spent 8 hours on a school day in a salon, watching women come in and out of that salon. Drinking my first cappuccino and reading Vogue and Women's Weekly. I shared about my school life and how much I loved kapahaka. After two dye sessions, it was clear to me the hairdresser was no good and clear to my hairdresser, my hair was not going to do what she had planned. So instead, she decided to go with the flow (as created by my hair) and altered her concept as I told my stories.  Sitting outside Rehua Marae at 9pm, a light dusting of rain undoing all of her hard work and my kapahaka uniform on, I felt like the beez-neez.

Colonisation - 0 VS My Hair - 1.

This opened the door to bleaching. My brother and I bleached our hair using an at-home kit whatever colour it would end up before the bleach started to burn. Our last family photos would be the constant reminder…

… of Colonisation - 2 VS My Hair - 1.

By 18 years old, my hair was its own entity. It did whatever it wanted, so the trusty topknot was my go-to-approach. The halo of frizz at the end of each day reflected my innocence, thus my immaturity, I felt. To reclaim my independence from my family and prove my growth from my teens, I shaved it all off.  My sister assured me it would grow back silky straight like when I was a kid. It did not. But what did grow back was the beginning of the decolonising of my hair.

Fast forward, I have done every temporary change you can to your hair, and I emphasise temporary because since shaving it, I never wanted to make a move that was that definite, again. I wanted to always be able to revert back to my trusty top-knot if and when required. When I straightened or blow dried my hair, the compliments were of awe and amazement until they were sexual and advancing. My topknot never received that sort of attention. These predatory lenses that are normalised in our society as "compliments" set the precedence for my self-worth. I am plain and unnoticed when I am me. I am powerful, and my opportunities expand tenfold when I am not. Until that is, I birthed a baby girl, and there was and is no way, I would allow that lens to become her normal.

Soul sister, Sahida Apsara's poem 'Read the Signs', puts it best:

no I don’t give u permission
to lay your curious on me
with all of your industries
to test your fantasies
strategies for some contest
it’s not your satellite tower
to broadcast your stolen conquest…

…so cast your pious eyes
your greedy hooks
your dirty looks
away from my body
there is nothing wrong in
walking proud and strong
flawed and vulnerable
there is wrong in
making you pay attention to
the swaying hips of my
gullies and my oceans
I have always been here
just doing my thing
there is nothing wrong with my body


So what does decolonising your hair look like to me? Simply put, reclaiming your body.

But that is only half of it. When we start to acknowledge the mamae from the continued colonisation of our people, of all indigenous peoples, we not only ensure our children's futures but we also breathe life into our whakapapa. We reconnect with our ancestors and tap into power and knowledge that is limitless for generations to come. At the same time, we help heal the generational trauma our whanau have endured and still carry because of colonisation.

My tupuna have given me many an opportunity to reconnect with myself, my hair, my body, my culture, my people, my power. Like this hair competition, sitting outside Rehua marae. Rehua, the Atua or god, who was believed to have held his large locks of hair in bands on top of his head, loosened his bands to release his hair, and a number of tui flew out*.

Or the trusty top knot, which many of us Maori women and men still wear today, connecting us to Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga meaning ‘Maui formed in the top knot of Tarangaa’, thus joining us to Taranga, to Tangaroa - the ocean and all of our Atua.

Colonisation - Lose VS My Hair - WIN!

Game Over.


*As quoted on:<