Monday, January 12, 2009

Every Black Woman Has a Hair Story . . .

. . . that left her with a distinct impression of her hair as either good (easy to care for, manageable) or bad (unruly, coarse, tough, unmanageable). Of course, the hair issue has been discussed time and time again. There are books and documentaries all over that discuss the complexities of Black hair. Hair is so many things: political, personal and fashion statements. Sometimes trendy and sometimes classic. Hair is problematic in that even when a woman is not trying to make any kind of statement with her hair, she is. If you want to suggest that Michelle Obama is a militant or a terrorist of some sort, picture her with an afro. Many would argue that since Black hair in it's natural state is such a statement, dreadlocks and afros are not acceptable in the professional setting where personal statements of any kind of frowned upon and assimilation is prized.

I read an excellent and highly-recommended book called Hair Story : Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps. The most significant thing I gleaned from that book is that taking care of our own natural hair is indeed a lost art. I wondered as I read the book, "Were all those days of hot combs, pulling, blow drying, tears and pain simply a result of not knowing how to care for my hair?" Was caring for my hair really as simple as say baking bread (another art that is considered lost) except that I just did not have a memory of how to do it? When I hear women complain that their natural hair is "too hard to care for" and "takes too much time to deal with," I wonder if it's really just because we have forgotten how.

Hair Story posits that hair has always been extremely important to Black people and that before slavery and colonialism, we spent much time and gave much attention to what was on top of our heads. Hair care was an art form. Even the combs that we used were specially carved and the hairdresser was a crucial and essential part of traditional African society. It's not a new thing that Black people still pay so much attention to their hair although the dynamic has certainly changed. Slave catchers knew one of the best ways to break the spirit of the enslaved African was to shave off his or her carefully coiffed hair, take away her comb and oils and other styling implements. The slave catcher knew how important hair was to Black people so beyond this act of physical violence, they also instituted a psychological campaign of violence against Black hair and indeed all things uniquely Black. We as a people internalized all of that. The generally accepted standard of beauty has never included uniquely Black attributes and so we've spent so much time, energy and money trying to change those attributes. The argument is sometimes that we change ourselves to try to be more White. I think we know on a base level that we can't be White. But we can try to change those things that make us unequivocally Black. From this stems the whole idea that less kinky hair is better hair and that straighter noses are better noses and the whole brown paper bag test. Growing up, being mixed or "part-Indian" was a mark of pride no because of being proud of one's who heritage but because it meant that you weren't 100%
Black straight, no chaser.

We spend millions of dollars every year to alter our natural hair either through chemical treatments, heat treatments or weaves.
There are thousands of style options especially with the advent of the weave and dreadlocks becoming more and more acceptable, Black women are free to wear any style they like. To be sure, every Black woman has the absolute right to wear her hair however she sees fit.

But I often wonder how things would be different if the standard of beauty included or rather was typically Black features. If the "norm" were kinky hair that grows up and not down, wide noses, etc. I like to question why women decide to wear their hair the way they do. I like to know the reasons behind their style choices. Some women never think too deeply about their hair choices, asking themselves why they make the choices they do. I find, though, that most women who have decided to wear their hair in it's natural state (no heat or chemicals), have in most cases thought about their hair and what they do to it very deeply. That's not to say that they've all come to the same conclusions but I find that a woman wearing her hair naturally is generally more conscious of the personal, historical and social ramifications of her hair style and walks in that consciousness.

A while back on a message board I'm on, the question was asked: Do some people bring a "permie" mentality to dreadlocks? In other words, do some people approach this natural style in the same way they approach a perm. My answer was no. That even if one did start dreadlocks with a desire to see them "perfect", i.e. lying down flat and staying just so, being perfect width, height, having the perfect coil, etc . . . they would soon realize that when Black hair is in it's natural state, there is no way to get it to be perfect in that sense. By it's nature, Black hair does what it does (and therein lies its true perfection) so a person trying to achieve perfect dreadlocks would soon either cut them off or accept them for what they are. Now, that doesn't mean that folks with dreadlocks who've accepted the nature of their hair are anti-styling and anti-grooming. Just that they know that no amount of styling and grooming will change their hair. Just like no amount of exercise will change my height. My hair and my height are inherently perfect because, I believe, the creator made them that way. I can twist or braid my hair or wear high heels to change what it is temporarily, but I should and have embraced the perfection of me. And that's not some vain idea of perfection either. It's the realization that everything is in divine perfect order.

But how do we get along in a society that says that our hair just in it's natural unheated, chemical-free state is a political statement of aggression? Unprofessional? Disorderly? Ugly. I've heard sisters say before that when they went from natural to relaxed they found that men paid them more attention. But is it the chicken before the egg conundrum? Is it that as a natural there is a sense that she is not as pretty, not at chic and so therefore her confidence is lacking or is not as pronounced and ebullient as when she's rocking it straight? Or is it truly that straight hair is just better, prettier in the eyes of most, especially to ourselves as Black women? [I find myself asking that question too . . . when I notice how pretty a woman looks and I realize that I never noticed until her hair was permed or she was wearing a weave. I feel annoyed when I am thinking, "Oh, she looks cuter what that (straight) style than with her afro. Why do I think that?] It was pointed out to me that it's not only Black women who alter their hair--that all races of women do. But it is only Black women who are constantly inundated with the message that they must change their hair in order to even be considered amongst the ranks of the truly beautiful. I've watched celebrity after celebrity go from rocking some natural style and being called "Earthy" to rocking a straight look and being called "Sophisticated". Natural and sophisticated are terms that are not used simultaneously to describe women.
There is indeed a psychological assault on Black women that says natural is just not the best and most attractive way to be.

Many women have rejected that message and you are more apt to find clear examples of extremely confident and beautiful women who wear their hair naturally. I am working on that. I've said before that keeping a close cut has in a way forced the confidence out of me--in a way that wearing locks, braids, and twists never did. When people ask, "Oh, why did you do that?" or "Why did you cut all your hair off?", you had better find that confidence somewhere or else your response will be all mealy-mouthed and apologetic. You energy simply sinks. This style option, which I sometimes feel is an imposed style option for me, takes confidence and has again made me look closely at what I value about hair.

Many women have rejected that message and are extremely confident and beautiful women who wear weaves and relaxers consciously as style options
, simply and purely . Not because they don't like what their unheated, unprocessed hair looks like. Not because it's too hard to deal with, too consuming, just don't want to be bothered or takes too much effort. But too many women, in my opinion, have embraced that negative message and the weave is the marker of self-rejection.

I'm not a militant natural in that I want everyone to wear their hair in it's natural state. Again, I want women to be free to be women and express that however they want to, to wear their hair in ways that flatter them and emphasize their beauty. But I also wish every woman would examine the reasons behind why they do things. Of course, I know in our society people don't really like to think too hard or too outside of the box. We are encouraged not to. But I think for Black women, who drive the entire hair industry, that would be a worthwhile ideal. Maybe we'd find ways to keep that money in our own pockets.

I'm glad that my own hair story has reached an end where I know that no chemicals or heat will touch my hair again. I'm not anti extensions (although the hubby adamantly is)--I think it does give freedom to change up a style. But I'm 100% content with what grows out of my head. That is my own personal peace.

My hope is that every woman can make peace with what grows out of her head. Loving it. Embracing it. Calling it names that uplift. Manageable. Soft. Touchable. Cooperative. Easy to care for. Beautiful.


Anonymous said...

Girl, the past 2 posts you have been on fire. Hair....I have been natural going on 9 years this spring and loced 5 years so I am at that point where I don't think as much about my hair as I used to.

I did want to comment though and say that I do think some folks bring a permie mentality to locks but those are generally the ones that will start a zillion different sets and eventually let them go. I don't think you can wear locks long term and maintain that mindset.

When I first started my locs, I had them professionally maintained every 4-6 weeks which was a day long process since I had to travel 2+ hours each way to a shop in Boston. Six months into the process, I started freeforming, it wasn't intentional but I got pregnant and broke and just could not spend $150 every 4-6 weeks. Oddly enough the real journey to accepting my hair started when I freeformed. I wash and seperate but other than that I let nature do its thang. I won't lie at times, I am like maybe I should cut em off but overall I love them.

Thanks for such a powerful post on a Monday.

Smokie said...

I'm natural. I love it. Some parts of my hair are kinky, some more curly. I will admit that men holla more when it's straight (or fresh out the shower curly), but somehow that doesn't bother me. That issue is totally THEIR issue and I don't even pay it any attention. Mabye I don't care b/c I'm married? But when I meet my husband I was going natural, so....

You're right: it does take a lot of self confidence and really self LOVE to love your hair as is and wear it proudly. I don't think I could wear my hair natural if I didn't REALLY love it myself. I look in the mirror and see beauty and freedom.

I've often wondered what life would be like if big noses and kinky hair were the "norm" also. I wonder where we'd be, mentally, if slave catchers hadn't caught anybody. said...

Hello there!

This is a good topic to have!

I don't have a hair story.

I was never made to feel that my hair was more gorgeous when it was straight versus when it was natural and in a 'fro.

I wore a permed Mohawk several years ago until my sides grew back in.

Hair texture was never an issue in my family.

No one talked about "good hair" and "nappy hair" in our family.

That was probably because my parents were world-traveled and didn't cling to that type of narrow characterization of blacks.

I find that some black women do feel that their hair style is a decision that reflects their political ideologies. Because THEIR hair choice is a political statement, they often feel that ALL black wonen should feel the same way and should view hair style as a political statement.

I think it's up to the person.

If a sista wants to put chemicals in her hair...she can. If she doesn't want to...that's on her.

I don't think that a sista who has chemicals in her hair is denouncing her African heritage and I don't think that a person who doesn't use chemicals is celebrating her African heritage.

I have a friend who cut her perm out of her hair and wears a 'fro because she could not afford the weekly hair appointments to maintain her perm properly. It wasn't a political statement at all...for her.

Most black women do not think that deeply about WHY they choose their hair style.

Most are looking for what's the most convenient style for their hair length and type.

Some black women HAVE bought into the notion that whatever white women are promoting is what is "in fashion". This is why some people were criticizing Michelle Obama for imitating Jackie Kennedy's hair style. Black women have been wearing the flip looong before Jackie Kennedy made it popular.

I find that there are many black women who wear their hair natural for spiritual reasons....they say that they believe they should keep their look the way God made it...but these same sistas buy make up!

There are many black women who grew up in homes where "nappy" hair was deemed negative. They internalized that. However...I can't say that ALL black women have internalized that nappy=negative equation.

The most African-looking black women are usually deemed the LEAST attractive by many black people...a very dark-skin with a wide nose or flat nose is deemed an uggmo.

I feel that this reflects a disdain for African ancestry.

Some women will say "my hair looks better this way" (straigh, curly, natural). I don't think that "better" means Eurocentric. I think that "better" for some women means that they feel that the style they choose brings out the features they want to accentuate.

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

Chi-Chi said...

Lisa, sounds like you do indeed have a positive, uplifting and affirming hair story.

Chi-Chi said...

Yeah, BGIM, when I did have locks, I tended to freeform. I did start latching but not with any kind of consistency.

Smokie, I've seen your hair on your blog and it's fabulous!! About guys, yup, totally their issue!! :)

No one actually called my hair bad in my family. My mother didn't want me to get a relaxer at 12 at first. But she herself wore a Jheri curl and seldom wore her own Afro (she did while in her 20s in Nigeria though). At school, everyone had a relaxer. I wanted one too. And I think my mom was tired of the time commitment it took to do my hair. So by not putting up a too strong fight against the relaxer, I figured relaxed was better than kinky . . . easier to comb and style. I had all kinds of visions of the styles I would do. Until it all fell out. No one in my family can really keep a relaxer--even if it's professionally maintained so most women wear weaves or braids. So with no examples of natural ladies, even without anyone saying, "your hair is not good", it left a distinct impression of my hair as a hassle.

Also, if you've read some of my earlier posts, you'll know that hair is never to be used as way to try to identify someone. My personal hair journey/story has taught me that. A person with locks all the way down to their ankle might be the most mentally oppressed person you did meet while a woman locking a waist length weave might be the most in-tune person you ever did meet. I agree, it's your head and your hair. You can (and should!) do whatever it is you want with it.

Sometimes, better doesn't mean Eurocentric but often times it does since Eurocentric features are the standard in our culture. I do wish every woman could look at what grows out of her hair as fundamentally, perfectly beautiful. Even if she decides to change it.

LoL . . . makeup is different than a relaxer because makeup is not permanent (unless you get tattooed). But I get what you're saying . . . I've heard it many times before. Wanting to be natural doesn't mean wanting to be un-styled or homely. Makeup is supposed to enhance what you've got naturally. Supposed to cover up blemishes and imperfections, emphasize the features we're naturally gifted with. Since our hair is neither a blemish or imperfection, since natural hair can be styled in a myriad of ways, I don't see it as a good comparison at all.
Thanks all for such great responses to my post!!! Lots of encouragement and lots to think on. :)

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