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?
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
wound like small coils
in a retractable pen
have no patience
for hard plastic combs
with jagged seams
and sharp teeth
through the dense spirals
around my head.
Snapped, my naps snap back.
the tight texture tenses
against those little teeth.
And with vengeance,
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.
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?
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!
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?
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 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!
 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.
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.
Yesterday I asked many questions of myself:WHY did I so desire straight hair?Why, when my hair was falling out and I was spending a lot of money to attain a texture that just wasn’t what I was naturally blessed with?Was it because I wanted to be beautiful?Did I feel ugly in my natural state?What was driving my desire to have straight hair?Why did I look at a relaxer as a magic wand that would grant me beauty?
I can only speak for myself.I believe that I desired straight hair as a way to assert my femininity, to fit it, to feel good about myself.I relaxed my hair because it was a rite of passage for me, and, from looking around, the many other young black girls I knew who also got their hair relaxed around 12 or 13 years of age.I relaxed my hair because it was easier and more convenient.
Is there a deeper root to this?Was I striving for some beauty ideal that was impossible to attain with my natural hair?As hard as it is for me to admit, I believe that the decision to relax my hair was an attempt to escape who I was so that I could become a “better” me.The only problem is, that better me was not the real me.I was trying to conform to an image that I could never authentically attain.
I came across this fantastic audio from a 9/16/09 broadcast on WUNC 91.5 North Carolina Public Radio.The show was called “Haireotypes” and here is the show description from the website (http://wunc.org/tsot/archive/sot0916abc09.mp3/view):
“Whether yours is straight, kinky, thinning, or long gone, the long and short of it is, just about all of us have hang-ups about our hair. That’s because hair and personal identity go together like shampoo and conditioner. There are also plenty of cultural stereotypes about hair rooted in everything from color to texture. On today’s show, host Frank Stasio presents a layered conversation about society’s complex relationship with hair and the biases we harbor about others’ strands. Joining the program are Joan Jacobs Brumberg, professor emeritus at Cornell University and author of “The Body Project”; Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business; Neal Lester, professor of English at Arizona State University;; and Michelle Breyer, co-founder of . Plus, members of the cast of ‘s current production of “Hair” provide live musical interludes.
State of Things Producer Lindsay Foster Thomas kicked off the conversation this morning with a commentary on her effort to embrace her natural look”
Curious to hear your thoughts!
I had a relaxer from elementary school until graduate school, roughly 20 plus years.As a little girl, new growth threatened my sense that I had pretty hair but, as I got older, my relationship with my hair and the effect on my identity grew in complexity.I struggled with revealing my authentic self as it relates to my hair, meaning, I did whatever I could to conceal my new growth.
As a young woman, I remember many occasions when I would not go to an event because my edges were jacked up in my opinion.Or, I’d only go if I my gel, toothbrush and scarf would do the trick.This is when my hair was pulled back.Some of you may already know the routine:I’d wet my edges, take a toothbrush (one reserved especially for this purpose!), dip it into some clear gel and saturate my edges.Then, I’d tie a tight scarf around it and let it dry.When I removed the scarf, my edges would be shellacked in place and I’d be okay to go out.Or, if my hair was curled, I’d take a curling iron and, basically, press the edges.I remember the knot in my stomach, the anxiety rising when I just didn’t like the way that my hair was looking, yet I knew that my relaxer appointment was a week away.
Research has found that long hair is an indication of femininity (Callaghan, 1994; Cunningham, 1995) so it’s no wonder that I strove to have long, straight tresses.But, what does it mean when your natural hair does not “meet” the standards of femininity?I think we see women chasing beauty and doing whatever they can to attain it.This may explain why women do things to their hair that are harmful (e.g., result in hair loss, permanent scalp damage, etc.).
I myself suffered from alopecia and clumps of my hair would fall out in the back left part of my head.I’d stop getting a relaxer for a while, moisturize my hair and go to stylists who could straighten my hair in healthier ways.Basically, I put myself in hair rehab so that my hair would strengthen and I’d be able to go back to relaxers.This may work for other women, but when I look back, I have to ask, WHY did I so desire straight hair?Why, when my hair was falling out and I was spending a lot of money to attain a texture that just wasn’t what I was naturally blessed with?Was it because I wanted to be beautiful?Did I feel ugly in my natural state?What was driving my desire to have straight hair?Why did I look at a relaxer as a magic wand that would grant me beauty?