Dreadlocks go with doofing like ‘yeah’ goes with ‘fark yeah’. But before you treat yourself to a head of dreads, take a moment to read the stories of four doofers whose lovely locks have changed the way they’ve been treated, for better or for worse…
I’m clubbing at The Beat, the ‘gay club’ in Fortitude Valley. The guy I’m dancing with snatches up one of my dreads, inspecting it like it’s a dead spider skewered on a pin.
“Do you have cobwebs in your hair?” he asks.
His friend closes in and begins stroking my dreads, marveling at how rough they are.
Rather than the girl in the cute dress with the freshly washed dreads, I am the filthy insect who’s landed on the birthday cake.
Like John Butler, who, sick of being labeled the “million dollar hippy”, cut off his 13-year-old dreads, I was over being pigeonholed by society’s assumptions. Wide-eyed children with pointing fingers stared at me, and when I smiled at them, they hid behind their mothers’ legs. Adults on public transport were no better.
My dreads caught their eyes like a shiny disc on the ground. When I returned their gazes with a smile, they looked at me in disappointment or shock, as if they realised I was an old piece of foil, not a shiny coin. Only when the train filled at peak hour, did someone sit in stiff silence on the seat beside me.
I’m at work at the small delicatessen specialising in local and organic produce.
“So you’re getting dreads, hey?” Jodie, my boss, asks me. Oops. Should I have checked whether it’s cool with her before announcing my plans in a Facebook post?
“I loved mine,” she continues before I can ask. “There’s nothing like the feeling of dancing with dreads.”
With a nostalgic smile, Jodie shares her tips and dread stories. At the end of every story, she smiles wanly, adding “…but I’d never have them again.”
She recalls an encounter she had while waiting at the Fortitude Valley train station.”I was heavily pregnant at the time and carrying my one-year-old son in my arms. A woman approached me and asked where she could score.” Jodie nods grimly at my outraged look.
“After that, I wasn’t so in love with my dreads,” she tells me. She cut them off soon after.
After four years, Jodie’s dreads were so heavy they gave her headaches and started to make her bald in patches. “They were such an emotional and psychological weight. When I cut them off I felt so much lighter.”
And she doesn’t try to dispel any myths about how hygienic her hippy hair had been.
“I found all manner of things in them—glitter, wax, skin particles, and fluff… It was revolting.”
Last year, in an Indian hostel, twenty-three-year-old Tara chatted with her mother over Skype. After a while, her mother paused.
“And what have you done to your hair?” she trilled, voice jumping up and down like an indignant child.
“Err, surprise Mum! Dreadlocks!” Tara replied, smoothing her blonde dreads with her hands.
Back in Brisbane, Tara interprets her mother’s initial reaction to her dreads. “My mum was worried about things like stereotyping and job prospects. She didn’t want people to judge me negatively without getting to know me.”
Mostly, Tara has positive reactions to her dreads, which are loose around her face and brush the bottom of her shoulder blades. Wearing a long skirt and toe rings, she smiles as she lists her ‘hippy’ traits. She avoids wearing shoes, is vegetarian, has dream catchers all over her house, and studies ecology.
Tara confesses she was drawn to dreads because they were outside the mainstream.”I grew up in northern NSW. It’s wall-to-wall hippies, so pretty much anything you do there is acceptable,” she explains.
Despite her relaxed look, Tara works at a market research call center.
“I’m supposed to dress quite business-like.” Tara grins. “That’s never been my strong point.”
Still, Tara makes more of an effort to dress neatly for work now that she has dreads. She keeps a pair of sandals in her car for when she forgets to wear shoes to the office, which, she admits, is often.
Her work operates on an ability-based system, Tara explains, so she feels she would have got to where she is now, even if she’d had dreads from the start.
“Appearance doesn’t have any bearing on how well you do your job,” she says, smoothing her dreads away from her face. I’m curious about what Tara’s boss thinks of her dreads.
“Oh god, he hates it so much!” she laughs, explaining her boss is critical of anyone who deviates from the norm. But he doesn’t let his personal dislike of dreadlocks affect his professional dealings with her, she adds.
Tara remembers one time her boss commented on her appearance. She came to the office for a meeting wearing casual clothes and with her dreads loose. Her boss’s eyes raked her up and down, fastening on her hair.
“The dreadlocks are out are they?” he said, eyebrows in his hairline.
“Oh well, you know, I didn’t have a shift today and I was already out with my friends and I thought it would be okay…”
“Hey, dreads are dreads,” he replied, walking away before she could respond.
While Tara’s superiors tolerate her look, all around the world dread discrimination is making news.
Last year in Oklahoma, a seven-year-old African American girl changed schools after she got in trouble for having dreadlocks. She was sent home in tears because she was ‘violating a school policy’ of the dress code, which referred to dreadlocks as an unacceptable, ‘faddish’ hairstyle.
I ask Tara for her message to the ‘haters’ who seek to eradicate dreadlocks from the public sphere.
“Don’t make judgments without information or consistently dismiss something before you’ve tried it.” She winks. “Also, it’s amazing.”
Four years ago, Max was a teenager sitting on his computer chair proudly documenting the latest addition to his look: A dinosaur spine of matted hair in a strip along the top and back of his head.
Back then, when his dreads were mere babies, he looked like a cutesy anime character.
Now twenty, Max’s dreads have grown into smooth, dark ropes that fall halfway down his back. “I’ll show you the two Bulbasaurs,” he grins, gripping two fat ‘dreads’ which did resemble the small toad Pokémon.
“I find it impossible to get ones to group together because they’re rock hard now,” he laments, fiddling with the loose ends.
“My dreads were carnivorous; the big ones always tried to eat the little ones,” I smile.
“Like tree vines,” he says with a goofy grin. I bet he’s thinking of Bulbasaur’s ‘vine whip’ attack.
Max says he doesn’t notice outright intolerance towards his look, though he admits with a grin that he is ‘pretty sketchy-looking’.
“I’m sure people have assumed I’m a stoner,” he laughs, confessing that it’s partly true. Max grows the odd marijuana plant in his basement, is vegan, and does informal web design work.
Yet fulfilling the typical stoner stereotype does not equate to being a bad guy. Max informs me he once rescued a fly trapped in a spider’s web. I gently point out the futility of this exercise; the spider will catch another fly.
“I know,” he replies, “I just couldn’t stand hearing it being killed.”
I tell Max about my uncle teasing me about having red-back spiders in my dreads. My uncle’s prediction reminded me of Freaky Stories, a 90’s TV show of cautionary tales for children. In one episode, a lady sprays her beehive hairdo into rock-solid perfection rather than bothering to style it every day. It eventually becomes so itchy that she has to shave her hair off to scratch. But when she does, she gets a nasty shock—a nest of spiders is living inside.
Did people actually see my dreads as spider-infested? Weren’t my dreads cuddly Bulbasaurs like Max’s? I ask Max what he wants ‘dread haters’ like my uncle to know.
“It’s unreasonable to make harsh assumptions just based on something like dreadlocks, someone’s appearance.”
“I know that I look different to the ‘regular’ person,” twenty-one-year-old Bianca admits, flicking her rainbow yarn-wrapped dreads over one shoulder, “but I don’t set out to be different. It just happens that what I like are piercings and tattoos and long hair and no shoes.”
With a cheeky grin, Bianca admits her tendency to emphasise her alternative look.
“Often I think ‘society frowns on this, so I’m going to do it more!'” She throws me a mischievous grin.
When Bianca was done for possession, one of the policemen she dealt with was surprised to learn she studies at university, lives out of her parent’s home, and works to support herself.
Bianca tells me she aims to use a wide vocabulary and consider her opinions thoroughly. “Because I don’t want this image,” she says, sweeping her hand in front of her, “to be associated with negative things.”
One of her greatest joys is surprising people who have pigeonholed her as a free-love, dole-bludger hippy. She also loves that because she’s happy to talk to anyone, strangers surprise her all the time. She recounts going for a jog along the Kedron Brook bikeway during her stage of barefoot running. When her hair came out of its knot, her waist-length dreads whipped wildly behind her like a horse’s mane. She didn’t bother tying it up again. A man coming from the opposite direction fell off his bike when he twisted around to stare.
“You do realise why I fell off my bike, don’t you? Don’t often see someone like you,” he teased her, dusting himself off. The pair got chatting and realised that they had a lot in common.
“Society would be so much better if everyone stopped judging others based on their looks.” She falls silent for a moment. “I wouldn’t say the dreadlock stereotype is wrong, just not true in all cases. Hair is not all there is to a person.”
Thinking back on my conversations with Jodie, Tara, Max, and Bianca, the maxim ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ keeps popping into my head.
Many books’ covers are graced with the image of the nuclear family with a dog and a white picket fence to boot. Inside, however, are punks, transgender people, Goths, hippies and every other ‘alternative’ group that makes you look twice. Some are exactly what you would expect them to be, but more often than not people are “different” in all the right ways.
I mark my place in the book with a dreadlock, a difference I cherish.
– Written by Bonnie Scott