Spatial Realities of Salon Cultures Among Female Undergraduates of The University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

AuthorAjisogun, Omowumi Rebecca
PositionHuman Hair: Intrigues and Complications - Report


The importance of hair has been pointed out in numerous studies. Described as "our most powerful symbol of individual and group identity, powerful first because it is physical and therefore extremely personal, and second because, although personal, it is also public rather than private", Synnott (1988:381) locate the significance of hair in a 'self-presentation' frame, and as a means of asserting an identity within a larger social context. Cooper (1971) has argued that hair serves as a 'conveniently pliable form of sexual adornment and attraction', and 'an easily controllable variable to denote status, set fashion, or serve as a badge' (cited in Soulliere, 1997: 41). Those who study the arts and aesthetics of peoples of African origin have always paid attention to their hairdos; as observed by Sieber and Herreman (2000: 56): who assert that "... all African and African American hairstyles, historical or modern, have a major aesthetic component...." Other scholars have pointed to the spiritual dimensions of hairstyles among Africans. In many African cultures, "The head is regarded as the seat of power" Negri (1964: 15). Likewise for Oti and Ayeni (2013: 26) "head occupies a pre-eminent place compare[d] with other parts of the body; so too, the hair that covers the head". This perhaps informs the works of photographer, J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere (2014) who catalogued Nigerian hairstyles, and displayed them in contexts of social practice, such as important outings and festivals and even as ordinary day-to-day adornment. What is clear from the discussion so far is a focus on hairstyles as cultural indicators in traditional African societies. Hairstyling does not exist in a vacuum. How black women wear their hair is a major subject of racial debate, especially in the postcolonial era where international media and global beauty pageants have created a standard of beauty for women everywhere thereby reinforcing the question of 'black beauty versus white beauty' (see Patton, 2006). Related issues exist across Africa and indeed in Nigeria which is the focus of this paper.

While not ignoring how literature documents the traditional symbolism of African hairstyles and the aesthetics of female hair in Nigeria, this paper proposes that a more sociological, or even ethnographic, approach that presents the process of hairstyling and the wearing of hairdos within the context of salon culture can offer insights not available from other modes of investigation and discourses. There is more than aesthetic and cultural symbolism involved in hairstyling. People visit salons, not only to have their hair 'made', but for other hitherto underexplored purposes which regard hairstyling as a subculture, and the salons as communities with roving cast of members. The paper hereby examines salon culture among female undergraduates of the University of Ibadan in the understanding that the practices and discourses that take place within this gendered space can provide insights into how young university students who will become elite women in the future, create identities for themselves in the midst of various social factors, ranging from the personal to the political. Following this section are four additional sections: section II provides a background to salon culture; section III discusses salon culture among female undergraduates of the University of Ibadan; section IV presents spatial realities of modern salons cultures and section V is conclusion.

Salon Culture

There have been studies on hairdressing in Nigeria prior to this study. Ogunwale (1972) looks at traditional hairdressing among the Yoruba; describing hairdressing as an important form of cultural adornment and hair-making a prominent female occupation, he also describes some of the styles of plaiting, explaining their names, with less emphasis on deeper social issues. Lawal (1985) takes the hair analysis deeper by looking at the hermeneutics of the head and hairstyles in Yoruba culture. His understanding of the Yoruba concept of 'ori' is worked into his analysis of the symbolism that surrounds how both the head and hair are viewed by people in the society. In Nigerian cultural history as in in most African communities, hairdressing took place within family compounds and domestic spheres, however, recent commercialization of hairdressing necessitated a creation of specialized locations called 'salon'. This raises the question of what a salon is. Is it a commercial place; part of the public sphere; a private social gathering or all of these at once? While it may be said that hairdressing salons are private business centers Augis (2014) argues that they are constituted as 'internal publics' (possibly a secluded space within the public sphere), since much more than just economic transactions revolving around hair takes place in them. One may therefore describe the salon as a private social gathering, a commercial place, and a part of the public sphere.

The 21st century salon in Nigeria is now more popular as a place where people go to beautify themselves, unlike in 17th century Europe, (for instance in France) where the salon used to be a literary gathering; a sanctuary for conversation; the haven of intellectuals, serving as the venue for literary and philosophical gatherings for discourse away from the prying eye of authority, with the salonist acting as gatekeeper. In this regard, figures such as Madame de la Stael come to mind. Similarly, compared with the traditional spaces for hair grooming in traditional African communities, modern salons share and maintain the characteristic of providing a space for interaction between professional hair groomers and their clients, although the objectives, topics and modes of interaction are largely dissimilar. For both traditional and modern women, salons are centres for self-beautification and renewal of self-worth. While the salon in the 21st century Nigeria has been tagged with hairdressing and general beautification, they (salon) retain their discursive facilities and emotional labor. As was noted by Cowen et al. (1979) that there is a tendency for clients to share personal problems with their hairdressers. Hairstylists are engaged, not only to style hair but also as confidants, friends, and in some cases, therapists. Eayrs (1993) also emphasizes that hair stylists act as friends, confidants, caregivers and risk-bearers in addition to performing their hairstyling duties. Likewise, Gimlin (1996), points at the "emotion work" of hairstylists which involves listening to clients' personal stories and problems.

Salon culture may be examined from significant perspectives. The most popular is the bonding culture, where women create bonds and form friendships with each other (Black, 2004). These relationships emerge out of "women's talk (Alexander, 2003) and touch (Furman, 1997) which are both implicated in the care work performed by women beauty workers. Those with similar backgrounds, experiences and outlook on life often become closely knit at salons. This work identifies two other perspectives which are noteworthy: First is the affirmation or approval culture where women in the hair salon negotiate their relationships with one another by expressing or denying a sense of beauty expertise. The second is the class culture, where women develop caucuses based on factors including economic status, sexual orientation and religious inclination among others. These three perspectives are key to discussion of salon culture in contemporary societies as they are confluent of concocting and entrenching public opinions. Also, earlier discussions on nature of salons as private, yet public spheres necessitate the following theoretical exploration based on Habermas' Public Sphere Theory.

Following the Habermasian Public Sphere theory, the public sphere is a domain of social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens from different places to come together and discuss issues. According to Habermas (1964: 49),

A portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public. Citizens act as a public when they...

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