To the man who asked me if I was a man or a woman,

Monday, January 15, 2024

To the man who asked me if I was a man or a woman,

I won’t forget that you asked me as I was coming back from a first date that would never lead to a second. It was balmy July and months after I’d freshly buzzed my head following a few years of twist-outs, braid-outs, box braids, and anything that would offset my hair’s shrinkage. That was two summers after I’d graduated college and resolved that, after a year of involuntary celibacy and feeling ugly, I was going to go on dates and get laid.

That night, we got into an elevator together. I was doing some post-date analysis in my head, considering the man who smoked me out and took me to dinner. He was a life coach/personal trainer/cashier and brother to a successful public figure. I wondered what it must feel like to be on the rough side of that comparison when I heard you snicker. Then you scanned me up and down, from my off-white kitten heels, to my tapered black pants, to my sheer black blouse, to the brown leather camera bag I used as a purse. You said something to me, slowly, in Spanish. My Spanish comprehension, though quite weak, was enough to decipher the words muchacha and muchacho.

The last time I’d shorn my scalp I was in high school. Grace Jones was my idol, and I got a flattop just like hers when I was seventeen. When it grew unwieldy, I shaved it all off that summer for a low, even cut. I came home to my dad asking why I wanted to look like a boy. Months later my mom had asked for the umpteenth time when I was going to texturize or get a relaxer because as women, our beauty is our hair. “Maybe really beautiful women will do fine without it. But for women like you and me, our hair is our glory.” Back then, I didn’t know if I was more offended that my mom didn’t see me as beautiful, or that she didn’t see herself as such.

When you saw me in that elevator I was twenty-four and in love with my long legs, straight shoulders, and defined collarbone. And after my recent haircut, I was enamored with the symmetry of my face, the slope of my neck, the bas-relief of my cheekbones, and the evenness of my nose. I had never felt so feminine. You asked if I understood what you said, and I answered yes. You gave me a yellow-toothed smile.

“Because to me, what I’m looking at isn’t a woman.”


The summer before I turned twenty-one I was a counselor for a nerd camp in East-Central Texas. I spent two months leading teenage girls in team-building exercises, making sure they knew where on campus their college-level classes were, shouting “hand check!” periodically during co-ed movie nights, and sweating buckets in the non–air-conditioned dorms we were housed in. I could see the clear divisions between the “popular girls” and the other girls. The girls who didn’t have toned legs or svelte bodies. The ones who didn’t languish in front of mirrors, or care about what clothes flattered their newly burgeoning shapes. What I didn’t tell them all, during our weekly huddles packed tight in my room, was that they were gaining their own awareness of the politics of desirability. Or that the self-consciousness wouldn’t disappear with their next decade of living.

Without my mom around to apply the box-kit relaxers she normally did, my natural kinks began to peek through my roots. Being around image-conscious girls brought out my own image-consciousness. I bought a box-kit relaxer from the Walmart in town and attempted to tame my hair. Twice. I burned my scalp so badly that I went to a barbershop to salvage it. For the next few years, I learned to care for my strands in their natural state, basking in the satisfaction of a perfect twist-out once my hair grew long enough. The maintenance was still a bit much for my low-maintenance tendencies, though, so I shaved it all afresh one April, months before you’d accost me in the elevator.

After you spoke to me that night I looked at you with barely concealed incredulity, then told you that I did not care what you thought. Your confused chuckle trailed after me as I exited the elevator. It followed me through the keyhole of my door and into my bedroom.


I consider how confident you would have felt in declaring my lack of womanhood had I been several shades lighter. You remind me of the legacy I inherit. It’s the same legacy that tells Caster Semenya to take drugs that lower her natural hormones. It’s the legacy that allows the world to joke about the shape and body of the greatest living athlete, Serena Williams. It’s the legacy that ran Leslie Jones off Twitter after she was bombarded with abuse likening her to apes. It’s a legacy I’m reminded of when, in the magazine aisle of my local Walgreens, someone lazily scribbles “MAN” over a cover with Michelle Obama.

I taste my femininity when I’m buying small kitchen appliances and making sauces from scratch. When I slather on cocoa butter and the sun hits my skin just right. When I light incense after cleaning and care for the other living things in my home. Being Black and a woman means seeing myself when others refuse to. We learn to marvel at our sun-eating skin and hair so strong-fragile that no one knows what to do with it. After the marvel comes disbelief; how did we let anyone convince us we were anything other than exquisite? We know our existence is threaded with joys, traumas, and forced and chosen strength. And that we contain multitudes that others know nothing of.

You believe womanhood should be digested easily. But you can’t digest what you aren’t willing to swallow.

My favorite thing is receiving compliments from other Black women and girls. They’ve declared their love for my close-cut coils while in line at the dollar store, while shopping for summer shirts, while swiping transit cards on the CTA. Nine times out of ten their compliment is followed by It looks so good on you. I could never pull that off. I always encourage them to go for it anyway because hair is just hair and it grows back. But I get it: our hair isn’t “just hair” when our kids get sent home with notes to shave their dreads, or when white conservative radio hosts can deem a women’s basketball team nappy-headed hoes.

To me, what I saw in you was very much a man in that elevator. One who was taught to comment on a woman’s appearance as if his words have weight. My hair is never not political. The world has made it so, in the same way it told you that this hair length + this hair texture + this skin color can only equate to a mannish thing. And you believed it, foolishly.

I don’t know how you treat the other women in your life. I hope you don’t splinter them with your carelessness. I hope they bloom right in your face. I hope their beauty is so indigestible, it sickens you.


Monday, January 15, 2024