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BooksAugust 12, 2020

Mophead, and why I love my big hair


Odessa To’o on Selina Tusitala Marsh’s picture book Mophead, which was just named the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year. 

I almost didn’t read this book because of the title. Mophead. Instantly recognisable as an insult for anyone with big hair, even though I’ve never been called it myself. The kids at my primary school called me “horse’s tail” instead. I saw the cover, with that big insult in red, and thought, “Am I supposed to want to read this?”

I love Selina Tusitala Marsh’s hair and I love how she wears it now, all free and wild. It looks like mine. I’m not surprised that she wears it proudly but I was also not surprised to read about how she was teased at school and tried to suppress her locks. Kids are mean, man, but I was lucky in that my parents never made a deal out of my hair, even though I was the only one of their four kids without dead-straight locks.

I must be in the minority because I’ve always loved my hair. Kids would try to make fun of me for it but my reaction was always just to wonder why. It didn’t make sense to me that people would think my hair was something to be ashamed of. My hair took up a lot of time – my mum would spend five minutes doing my sister’s hair and 20 minutes doing mine – but all good things take time, right?

There’s something about the illustrations in Mophead that are perfect for the story. It’s how free-flowing everything looks, like Marsh was doodling self portraits in class.

A spread from Mophead (Images: Selina Tusitala Marsh)

Having great hair means feeling like a minor celebrity all the time. Strangers stare at me or ask if they can touch it; I feel high maintenance for always telling hair stylists that their hair ties won’t work; and always have to answer awkward questions from people who should probably know better.

Here’s some quick do’s and don’t’s for when you meet someone with big hair:

If you like it, DO say so.
Who doesn’t love a compliment?

But DON’T make it weird by complaining that you yourself have “boring” hair.
What am I supposed to say to that?

If you want to touch it for some reason, DO ask.
Would you walk up to someone and start touching their neck without asking?

DON’T say things like “Do you like your hair?” or “It must get annoying, right?”
Can you imagine asking a stranger if they like their face? It’s the same thing.

(Image: supplied)

In Mophead, young Selina makes her classmates jealous when she becomes head girl. As a teenaged dancer, I always let my hair move as it pleased while I danced (except for ballet, where buns were compulsory). I was a good dancer and when visiting choreographers selected their favourites, I was always picked, until one year when some of the dancers complained that I had only gotten an award because of my hair. I couldn’t believe it. The thing people tried to make fun of me for was now an advantage for me?

Turns out it was. Britney Spears’ former choreographer visited two years later and told everyone with long hair that not only was it noticeable, it was an asset. He told us to use our hair in our dancing, rather than letting it just be there. I’d always loved my hair but I’d never thought of it as being something to arm myself with.

Anyone with big hair has probably already been gifted this book by someone they know because it’s the first of its kind. Big hair is in now, just like big eyebrows are in, but it won’t stay that way. And kids will always look for something to make fun of. Mophead and horse’s tail won’t go away but maybe this book will help kids understand that, like Marsh says, your difference makes a difference.

Selina Tusitala Marsh performs her poem Unity for the Queen at the Commonwealth Service, 2016 (Image: One News)

When you live your whole life with big hair, you get used to being different. It can be tough to deal with at first but always being different from the pack helps develop good muscles. If you’re already different, why not just go for it with everything? I was alone in my hair and because of that, I never thought about being alone in other ways. Which meant my sister and I were the only Pasifika tennis players at our club. I was always the only Pasifika dancer in my crews growing up. Working in corporate banking, I’m often the only brown person in the room.

It looks like Marsh has stood out in every room throughout her life. I didn’t know about all her achievements but I wasn’t surprised to read about them. When you’ve got big hair you run your own race.

It’s not deliberate but there’s never any hesitation with challenges, particularly ones that might draw attention. Everyone’s been staring at you your whole life so why fight it? Besides, it’s way better than being the same as everyone else.

As told to Madeleine Chapman.

Mophead, by Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, $24.99) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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