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Beauty

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You should really reflect how the client’s top executives look

“You should really reflect how the client’s top executives look.”Say what?!I was taken aback by the comment because I was dressed beautifully in a tailored suit and donned a cute natural hair style.At the time, I was working as a management consultant on a work project in one of the largest private firms in the United States.The comment came from one of my project leaders.How do you react to such a comment?Perhaps she was referring to the fact that I was wearing a red suit?Or, was she talking about my hair? That is one of the challenges of being in a society where your beauty is often devalued:you don’t know if such comments were intended to be personal and related to immutable characteristics (e.g., YOU need to have straight, long hair) or general and related to things that you can change (e.g., NO ONE should ever wear a red suit).As our conversation continued, I picked my mouth up off of the floor and realized that her comments did in fact seem to be about my hair.Wow.I took a deep breath and weighed the thoughts whirling in my mind.Should I blast her?Should I say nothing?For those who know me in a professional setting, you know that I picked a diplomatic way, but direct way, to let her know that I thought her comments were ridiculous.I said, “Wow, that’s a…different perspective.What if we were working at Black Entertainment Television?Would you be willing to shave your head and wear a short hairstyle a la Robert Johnson?”A blank stare greeted my gaze.That was the end of that. Well, at least she didn’t say anything else. But, I’m not so naive to think that her authentic beliefs were changed as a result of our exchange.

Was this a one-off situation?I think not.The article in this link suggests that other Black women have been and will be subjected to insensitive comments about their hair in the workplace:http://ybpguide.com/2007/09/02/natural-black-hair-not-glamorous/.The picture of the beautiful, professional Black woman was copied from the same article.

What do you think?How would you have responded to my situation?To what occurred in the article?Have you experienced such behavior in the workplace?How did you react?To those who are non-Black, how would you have responded if you witnessed this situation?

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Brazilian Blowout

Last night my husband and I watched a fascinating episode of Dr. Gates’ “Black in Latin America” on PBS (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/black-in-latin-america/?gclid=CMXYwfKRzqgCFaNd5QodHjphgQ).The episode focused on Brazil, specifically Salvador, Bahia.This city is the third largest in Brazil (behind São PauloandRio de Janeiro).Dr. Gates was drawn to investigate Salvador because upwards of 80% of the population has Black African heritage.This is not surprising because Brazil had the largest Atlantic Trade slave population in the world at a whopping FIVE MILLION SLAVES.This was ten times the number of slaves deposited onto the soil of the United States of America.

Given the high number of slaves, it was almost inevitable that there would be a lot of “race mixing” and the resulting rainbow hue of people.And with mixed race, you KNOW there are varying hair textures.I was thrilled when Dr. Gates visited a hair salon renowned for teaching women how to embrace their natural hair texture.This is in stark contrast to the famed hair treatment known as the “Brazilian Blowout” which is reputed to have originated in Brazil.The hair treatment is renowned for giving people shiny, bouncy, frizz-free hair and works best when applied to chemically treated hair according to this website:http://www.brazilianblowout.com/faq.

But, STOP!Recent media coverage (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/41742315/ns/today-today_fashion_and_beauty/ and http://www.foxnews.com/health/2011/03/16/brazilian-blowout-craze-safe/) suggests that the hair treatment contains formaldehyde which is hazardous to your health.Why would such an unsafe hair treatment have originated in Brazil? The above MSNBC article “Hazardous for Health?Roots of Brazilian Blowout” quotes Ms Eliza Larkin Nascimento[1] as saying, “There is a racist culture in Brazil, and one of its expressions is a beauty standard that values what is European.Discrimination in Brazil rides a lot on appearance — on facial features, on hair texture. Hair is a great focus, a great symbol”.

Wow, we are all sisters confronting many of the same issues.


[1] Ms. Nascimento is director of IPEAFRO (LOVE that “AFRO” is part of the acronym!) an organization that concentrates on Afro-Brazilian studies.

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Me, my head scarf and I

Yesterday, as I prepared to hit the gym, I had an interesting hair experience. I had to decide whether or not to wear a headscarf to the gym. The thing is, the gym is located at the college where I work and I often see my colleagues and students at the gym. This may seem like a small issue but I had a flurry of ambivalent thoughts. On one hand, I said to myself, “Who cares what people think? Girl, you better protect your hair! You know if you don’t wear a scarf your hair will get sweated out and you’ll have to tighten up your edges all over again.” On the other hand, “You are one of a handful of black female (or male) professors here. People already have preconceived notions why are you helping to confirm them? Why in the world are you going to walk around looking like a mammy?

(I found this image at http://www.theblackactor.com/images/2007/12/21/mammy.jpg?)

Yes, I went there. Picanniny, mammy, ghetto. These words darted into my mind before I could control the onslaught. Then, I wondered how the simple act of wearing a protective scarf had become endowed with such negative connotations. Hmm, was it because, shriek to self, white women don’t wear headscarves when they work out!!!? That is, was my aversion to headscarves because of my personal opinion or because of societal messaging that it was unacceptable because it was different from the norm? Isn’t wearing a head scarf while working out similar to wearing a swim cap when swimming (I won’t even get into the fact that I can’t find a swim cap that fits all of my dreadlocks! I need to invent that!)?
I am not saying that I would sport a head scarf to the mall, to work. Wait, I’ve seen beautiful head wraps at work so there are definitely different types of scarves. I’m realizing that my visceral response to head scarves is because they emphasize racial identity. In an environment where there are not a lot of people like me (according to the PhD Project, less than 5% of business professors are of color), I want to stand out because of my competence and sparkling personality (haha) NOT my choice of accessories. Woo-hah, self-discovery! I love when I’m writing and I gain insight into myself right on the spot. What are your thoughts about head scarves? Have you ever worn one to work? Do you wear them in public? Why or why not? How did people respond?
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Strong Hair

In an earlier blog, I wrote:“Looking back, I have to ask myself why I thought an afro was the antithesis of femininity.I admit that while I loved the freedom of my afro, I still felt like I HAD to wear nice makeup, and cute jewelry whenever I went out in public.In other words, my hair was not cute on its own merit; I now had to be accessorized in order to look feminine and pulled together.Ouch.This is painful to admit and see in writing.”

This is disturbing to read. It is so clear that I’d bought into the prevailing beauty standards about my hair and about me.I had yet to learn how to appreciate the strength of my hair.I found this poem by Sharon Harvey Rosenberg that beautifully depicts the strength and resilience of tightly coiled hair (http://www.endarkenment.com/hair/poetry/rosenberg/coilcomb.htm).I plan to read it to my children and my nieces tonight.I hope you can share with those you know too.

Coil vs. Combby Sharon Harvey Rosenberg

Tight curls

wound like small coils

in a retractable pen

have no patience

for hard plastic combs

with jagged seams

and sharp teeth

biting

through the dense spirals

spinning

around my head.

Snapped, my naps snap back.

Tugged,

the tight texture tenses

against those little teeth.

And with vengeance,

my hair

breaks combs

into plastic

pieces.

And the coils spring back.

Like the spring in my pen

held in knowing fingers,

twisting strands of lines.

Forming follicle phrases from:

Curls coiled in S's, O's and Z's

Spelling my hair free

in long hand.

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Sex Kitten and Psyche

Black women have had to overcome the idea that they were sexually promiscuous so, in Madame C.J. Walker’s times, they behaved and dressed in ways to negate that stereotype.This was viewed as a form of racial progress and meant that Blacks experienced a tension between respectability and sexuality in advertisement. In other words, while the Black beauty industry promoted the notion that Black women were beautiful, it did not convey overly sexualized images of Black women; rather, Black women were often presented as respectable, upright citizens.


Black women have had to overcome the idea that they were sexually promiscuous so, in Madame C.J. Walker’s times, they behaved and dressed in ways to negate that stereotype.This was viewed as a form of racial progress and meant that Blacks experienced a tension between respectability and sexuality in advertisement. In other words, while the Black beauty industry promoted the notion that Black women were beautiful, it did not convey overly sexualized images of Black women; rather, Black women were often presented as respectable, upright citizens.For example, Madame CJ Walkers Wonderful Hair Grower ad showed a “Prominent Minister’s Wife” as a model in the advertisement.There has been a dramatic change:nowadays, sex sells.This presents a convergence of issues where Black women (heck, all types of women!) are often portrayed in hypersexual ways.When this is combined with the societal view that beauty equals long, straight hair, you end up with a flood of Black sex kitten imagery complete with long mane. This magazine cover drives home the point. What does such imagery do to a woman’s psyche?

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The Call to Beauty

I continue to wonder how women in general, and Black women in particular, became so beholden to the beauty industry.Black women were attracted to the Black beauty industry of the early twentieth century for at least two key reasons.First, the Black beauty industry promoted the message that Black women were beautiful.This message refuted larger societal notions that Blacks were bestial, unclean “people” little better than animals.Participating in and using the products promoted by the black beauty industry wasn’t just about developing pretty creatures to look at, such actions helped to convey the humanity of Black people.Second, Black women could gain wealth by participating in the beauty industry.Madam C.J. Walker is an exemplar of the self-made woman entrepreneur (http://www.madamcjwalker.com/bios/madam-c-j-walker/).

One of Madam Walker’s advertisements illustrates the call to participate and encourages participants to view her beauty company as a “haven of hope for millions”.I wonder what Ms. Walker would think about the messages directed at Black women today.

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My Royal Wedding: Say No to the Fro

Today Prince William and Kate Middleton were married.Why in the world am I bringing this up in a blog about hair?A wedding is a perfect opportunity to examine notions of beauty and femininity.I was married on July 22, 2000.I remember all of the planning.Yes, the venue was important and we had to have a wonderful union and fantastic reception.However, if I’m honest, a top priority for me was to look phenomenal.I wanted to look slammin’!I wanted Fred to take one look at me and melt.Leading up to the wedding, I was wearing an afro.I am ashamed to say that I decided that there was no way in the world I was going to walk down the aisle with an afro.What was I going to do Velcro the veil into my fro?One of my girlfriends, the same girlfriend who took me to the Baltimore barbershop for the Big Chop (see my earlier blog), told me about a wonderful stylist, Janellia, who could give me a natural looking weave.Exactly what do I mean? Well, she used hair that looked naturally curly so I would end up with a curly afro.The night before my wedding, Janellia met me at my apartment and, after I washed and conditioned my hair, she began the process of weaving the curly extensions into my hair.When she was done, I was ecstatic.In my mind, I looked like an African goddess.

Looking back, I have to ask myself why I thought an afro was the antithesis of femininity. I admit that while I loved the freedom of my afro, I still felt like I HAD to wear nice makeup, and cute jewelry whenever I went out in public.In other words, my hair was not cute on its own merit; I now had to be accessorized in order to look feminine and pulled together.Ouch.This is painful to admit and see in writing.Point blank, I wanted long, curly hair when I walked down the aisle.I didn’t “feel” like a bride unless I had it.

Do you have any similar stories about special events and hair?Maybe not your wedding, but a concert or a business meeting?A first date?I’d love to hear your stories!

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My Hair Broke a Professional Down

Given all of the hair self-reflection I’ve done over the past few weeks since I started this blog, it’s no surprise that I had a dream about my hair last night.I dreamt that I cut off my dreadlocks and went back to wearing a TWA.This time around, I used products that allowed me to enjoy the natural curl of my hair as my afro grew.I was loving life.Then, I went to some misty outdoor event and, POOF, my style shrunk.I woke up thinking, “Is this a sign?”I’ve gone back and forth about whether I should cut off my hair and start over.Honestly, part of the reason I locked my hair was that the maintenance of my two strand twists just got to be too much.In fact, my hair made someone cry.No joke.

My husband and I used to live in Atlanta and I got my locs maintenanced by a fabulous stylist at Nseya Salon and Spa (when I looked for it, just found out that it closed!Oh no!).Nseya was an upscale salon that used fabulous products and provided great customer service.One time, my stylist was on vacation and I made an appointment with another person.BIG MISTAKE!The new stylist took one look at my hair and excused herself.I could see her talking to the owner through the glass exterior window.She was visibly shaken and…wait a minute, is she crying?“What in the world is going on?” I wondered.In a few minutes, the owner came over to me and said something to the effect of the stylist didn’t specialize in my type of hair and that they’d be contacting my regular stylist to come in.WHAT!?I couldn’t believe it.My naps had broken the stylist down.That was too funny to me.And a little embarrassing.You mean my hair could make a professional cry?Wow!Anyway, my regular stylist came in (bless you wherever you are) and hooked my hair up.

I’d always loved locs and thought that they were gorgeous.I felt that locs would be a way to keep my hair natural and minimize the salon stay.That is what happened, but sometimes I still wonder what my hair would look like in all of its puffed out, afro glory.

I’d love to hear your stories.Why do you pick the hair styles that you wear?Creative exploration?Convenience?Habit?

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Hallelujah I’m Free: Liberation from the Relaxer Cage

I continued to relax my hair until the winter of 1998.A lot went into my decision to embrace my natural hair.I’ve mentioned the health issues I had (i.e., bald sections on my head).I also began a lot of introspection trying to unearth why I was still relaxing my hair.I realized that since first getting my hair relaxed, I perceived two main hair options:1) get a relaxer or 2) have nappy hair.I know, that sounds ignorant.It really does, but that’s what I felt.I felt that the relaxer was saving me from having nappy, difficult hair.WOW!I couldn’t believe that I felt so negatively about my hair, and by extension (no pun intended), I felt negatively about myself.

I’ve heard people say that hair doesn’t matter.I don’t see how it cannot matter.Hair is public.Hair is judged. We know that people look at our hair and develop impressions of us.Plus, if hair didn’t matter, we wouldn’t have spent $1.5 billion in 2009[1] to press, comb, relax, brush, pull, tighten, weave, gel…ANYTHING to hold down and control those immortal naps.Yes, I said immortal.Because they keep coming back, the natural texture of my hair never changed no matter what I did to it.At that point, I realized, WAIT!This is what God has blessed me with.He blessed me with a certain texture of hair, shouldn’t I at least take the time to learn about it, how to style it, how to nourish it, how to LOVE it?If altering my hair is not such a big deal, why didn’t I also choose to alter my eye color?Wear blue contacts, green contacts (it was a fad back in the 90s but has passed)?Heck, get the color permanently changed?Or, alter my skin color?Skin lightening is big business (see earlier post) why not alter my skin color?

I think the reason I chose not to tinker with my eye color or skin color was because it seemed too artificial…like I was changing a key part of my identity.Ahhh, but hair, it is malleable, it can take on different forms.I could dye it, cut it, relax it, wet it, etc and it would still be there (well, except for the bald patches).But, I realized that the fact that I chose to alter my hair was affected by societal norms.I mean, if we lived in a society where people walked around barefoot all of the time and painted the pads of their feet, there would likely be debate about the best color, texture, brand and style of foot painting!

Society determines the value affixed to different standards of beauty.I realized that I did not have to buy into those standards.Hallelujah, I realized, I’m in the process of being liberated from societal notions of what is and is not beautiful.I claim that I’m beautiful and I’m walking in it!


[1] Note that the vast majority of the market is comprised of chemically based hair care products targeted to African-American consumers (Packaged Facts, 2010).However, the same report estimates that while it has been historically reported that approximately 80% of Black women relax their hair, the number may be more like 31% according to data from Experian Simmons.Also promising is that a Packaged Facts survey done in February 2009 revealed that 18% of Black adults, 17% of Hispanic adults, and 12% of White adults are trying natural and or organic products.I hope that this means healthier option but the jury is still out.

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Coming to the End of the Road: Bald Spots and Still Relaxing

At a certain point in my life, I was still getting relaxers but questioning myself about why I was subjecting myself to the process.As I’ve mentioned before, hair is linked to femininity and attractiveness.I remember I was at a local DC club (Zei Club in Zei Alley…yes, I’m showing my age as I’ve heard the club has long since been gone).I had just gotten my hair relaxed that morning but it had come out too straight so I put on a cute hat.I met a handsome guy and after talking, dancing, and exchanging numbers he reached up uninvited and pulled my hat off of my head.He then said something to express his relief that I didn’t have a knotty head of hair.I was stunned.I mean, “REALLY!?REALLY?!”The nerve!Anyone who knows me (especially my guy friends I grew up with), is probably waiting for me to say that I clocked him in the head right on the spot.I didn’t.Instead, I was relieved that I’d gotten my hair relaxed because if he’d seen my hair, oh, 14 hours earlier, he’d likely have ripped up my phone number and walked away.

Perhaps I continued to get relaxers because I thought that I’d be unattractive to Black men if they saw me in my natural state?I’m NOT saying that all Black men want women with straight hair.I am saying that in the mid-1990s when I was dating, it seemed like the “in look” was long straight hair.Hits like “Bump and Grind”, “That’s the Way Love Goes”, “Weak” and “Whoomp There it Is” filled the air waves and the women dancing in the videos had weaves down their backs.It was only a matter of time before I noticed more and more women wearing similar styles.My girlfriends and I lamented the fact that we were single despite being attractive, educated, kind people.It felt like there were eight Black women for every one Black man because almost every woman I knew was single while every guy I knew had two, three or even ten “girlfriends”.When I reflect back and think about the high demand for men and the sense that my natural hair might put me out of the “running” (not to mention perceived convenience, style, family input, etc.), it is understandable why I continued to get relaxers.Not making excuses, just trying to understand my thinking at the time.

Yet, my hair continued to fall out.This was a time when I was grateful for thick, thick hair because I just had to style my hair in a certain way and the alopecia bald spot was covered.After a while though, the insanity of the situation made me rethink my relationship with my hair.Heck, my relationship with ME.

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