Ahead of the release of Reign, we caught up with Ruth Sutoyé to talk hair, identity and challenging experiences of beauty
“Does your husband know you’re doing this? Is he allowing you to do this? Did you lose a bet to your brother? What does your dad have to say about this?” These are some of the reactions poet, creative producer and visual artist Ruth Sutoyé was initially met with when she first shaved her head.
Now premiering her short film, Reign, this week at Free Word, Ruth Sutoyé’s afrofuturistic work is based on a re-imagined world where only bald women of colour exist. “A place free from the white gaze, the male gaze and the prevalent narrative when it comes to black hair,” which, she says, was created in the hopes of sparking “intra-community discussions” on the challenged autonomy of black British women and the scrutiny they face.
The film comes as part of Sutoyé’s endeavours with Bald Black Girls: a project born at the beginning of Sutoyé’s head shaving journey almost three years ago. It was founded initially as a way of finding other women who shared the same difficulties she faced as a woman in male-dominated barber shops, when she simply wanted a shave, and has since evolved into a multi-disciplinary platform dedicated to telling the stories of black women who choose to shave their heads and their complex relationship with notions of gender, sexuality and identity.
Making up the rest of Bald Black Girls, Sutoyé is joined by Anita Barton-Williams, poet, translator and producer; Aliyah Hasina, poet, arts producer and curator; Liv Little, gal-dem founding editor-in-chief; Sarah Atayero, writer and research assistant; Chelle O.T., poet, songwriter and actress and Gina Atinuke Knight, businesswoman and social media inspiration.
Ahead of the film’s release, we caught up with Sutoyé to talk hair, identity and challenging experiences of beauty.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and where you grew up?
Ruth Sutoyé: I’m a poet, creative producer and visual artist from Hackney. By day, I work in Education/Financial Services. Growing up in pre-gentrified Hackney was complicated, but I am grateful and would not change my upbringing. I think the complexities and the nuanced narratives I was surrounded by and immersed in prepared and gave me the voice and outlook I have today.
What’s the story behind Bald Black Girls?
Ruth Sutoyé: The project was born out of my initial journey shaving my hair almost three years ago. I had a desire to find other women who I could be in community with, especially when it came to navigating some of the difficulties I experienced being serviced at barbershops. Ultimately, the moving parts of the project came to life from wanting to document across multi-mediums and bring to the fore the conversations that I did not necessarily see happening on a wider scale within the context of Black British Britain.
From the exhibition and forthcoming events surrounding it, I just want to continue bringing the conversations about this particular section of Black British narrative from the margins to as close to centre stage as possible. I desire to bring barbers into the conversations that are being had and hope rich intra-community discussions take place. In many ways, I wish for those who engage with the project to see that the autonomy of specifically Black British women is something that is always challenged and to continue highlighting through this lens the ideas about surveillance and monitoring, it being tiresome and how conversations generated can change perceptions.
When did you first shave your head? What impact did it have on your life and what were the reactions?
Ruth Sutoyé: I mulled over the decision for several months before proceeding to shave off my hair towards the end of 2016. Reactions were varied but initially negative. The day itself, I spent several hours waiting in the barbershop for my turn with my friend. Over the course of the day, I was met with questions from other customers like ‘Does your husband know you’re doing this? Is he allowing you to do this? Did you lose a bet to your brother? What does your dad have to say about this?’ At another point, an older black woman came into the shop when I was in the barber seat and yelled, ‘What are you doing? Your hair is your glory as a woman, you shouldn’t be doing this, why are you doing this?’ My brothers were supportive and liked the cut; my mum not so much, as she thought I was going through a breakdown or rebellious phase of sorts. But I’ve finally won her over now and she’s on board.
In terms of impact, initially it was practical things like not having to spend so much money on doing my hair; not having to spend hours deep conditioning and shampooing and treating it, not feeling frustrated with not knowing what style to do next. Later, the impact was actually knowing the shape of my head (which I’m really happy with), to more problematic and nuanced things like being deemed as angrier at work when I was not. The idea that I was this ‘edgy, fearless, brave and insanely strong force’ all the time simply because I had no hair felt like I was being robbed of the ability for people to exercise compassion and empathy towards me (when necessary), which was strange.
Broadly speaking what does a shaved head signify for you?
Ruth Sutoyé: At this stage, almost three years in, for me on a personal level and not on behalf of anyone else, having a shaved head as a Black womxn simply means I have a shaved head. It is not for me a grand signifier of ongoing bravery or ferocity, as I do not want to be held to that. I am however grateful to have found a community through this project of womxn who look like me with varying experiences and to showcase that. So if it is to signify anything for me on a personal level, having a shaved head served as a vehicle to create this project which is contributing to the growing canon documenting the various facets of Black British culture.
What statement does having a shaved head make about your gender?
Ruth Sutoyé: There are several projections other people make about what having a shaved hair could mean as a statement, specifically within my context as a Black womxn. To me, I did not shave my hair to make a statement to anyone else, but what the experience to date has taught me is that I am not any less feminine because I have a shaved head. I am as a result though, more comfortable navigating through my personal understandings and expressions of masculinity and femininity.
Has having a shaved head changed your experience of beauty?
Ruth Sutoyé: Challenged my experience of beauty? Definitely. The day after my cut, I woke up with the sudden realisation of what I had done the day before and I had a brief moment of mourning my hair and feeling so aware of my face. That still happens from time to time, this experience of not feeling beautiful, but that is completely normal, irrespective of whether you have hair or not. Seeing women like Julie Adenuga and Michaela Coel, Black British women like me, who were visible with their shaved heads was really encouraging and continued reinforcing a wider definition of beauty for me.
How do you challenge notions and expectations of race and gender in what you do?
Ruth Sutoyé: The audio interviews in the project address the experiences the women involved have gone through from the choice to shave their hair. The conversations themselves present the disruptions of contemporary beauty expectations for black women in Britain, so I would advocate for folks to attend the exhibition to listen to them.
Will you continue to shave your head in the future?
Ruth Sutoyé: For the foreseeable future, yes, but you never know what can happen. If I were to ever grow my hair out again, my desired style would be to loc it.
Can you tell us a bit about your recent video? What happens in your re-imagined world where only bald black women exist?
Ruth Sutoyé: Reign is a short visual featuring black women with low shaved and bald heads. Ultimately, I would say the visual is a long trailer to (perhaps an upcoming) feature film. It serves to present an aesthetic or an idea of a different black future. As a snapshot, the desire was to create a place free from the white gaze, the male gaze and the prevalent narrative when it comes to Black hair.