Hair As Identity Menu


Is kinky hair “hard” and straight hair “easy peasy”? by Tina Opie

Question for you:  Is Black hair “hard”?  Not hard as in the opposite of soft, but hard as in difficult.  One day a White female acquaintance and I were talking about our children, the process of getting them dressed up for holiday pictures, styling their hair.  She looked at me, shook her head and said in a commiserating voice, “Your hair is just so…hard”.  Whoa. She went on to say that her hair was easy-peasy, just wash and go, pull it back and she’s done.  Perhaps this was a politically incorrect response but I asked, “But, isn’t that boring?  I can do a wash and go too, but I can also straighten, twist, twistout, pull back, bantu knot, cornrow, etc.  In essence, I can rock seven hairstyles in seven days if I so choose.”  My acquaintance didn’t have a verbal response but her facial expression suggested mixed emotions:  on one hand, she’d never thought of that before; on the other hand, she may have thought I was being overly optimistic about my kinky hair.

A few things have gelled for me as I reflect on this conversation.  First, my acquaintance was merely parroting messages she’d likely heard about knotty, nappy, kinky, unmanageable hair (still upset about the title of the Washington Post article about my hair…folks, I DID NOT pick that title!) that Black women “deal” with and the long, silky gorgeous hair that White women are “blessed” with (please hear the irony in my voice).  Everything from Disney to Mattel to Elle to Lucky to Glamour underscores that message (although, more and more women with sufficiently multicultural textured hair are being lauded as beautiful…I still don’t see many kinky-haired women in all of our natural-haired glory).  What will it take to change that message?  Will there ever come a day where the unique beauty of kinky hair is appreciated as much as that of straight hair?


Second, an internal truth:  I used to think that my hair was hard. Yes, there, I’ve said it.  One of the reasons why I wore a relaxer for decades was because I didn’t want to or know how to “deal” with my thick kinky hair.  Even after I got my last relaxer in 1997/8, I still chose styles like twists or cornrows that “tamed” my hair, only allowing the hairdresser to loose it from its kinky cage and re-tame it every four to six weeks.  That was followed by ten years of beautiful locs…again, a style I chose because it didn’t make sense to pay someone to twist and re-twist my hair every four to six weeks when I could wear locs and have the same beautiful look.  I loved my locs but at some point (roughly two years ago), a nagging sense that I’d been avoiding myself, my kinky-haired self that is, began to plague me.  I know that some people think it’s only hair but if that were true, why would I avoid it.  Wouldn’t I treat it like my ears, or nails or something?  Just let it be?  Hair is identity-rich, revealing so much about how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us.  That, THAT was what pulled and tugged at me.  What did I see in my kinky hair that was so troubling that I felt a need to “tame” it, even while donning natural styles?

If you could change your hair texture to straight would you?  To kinky, would you?

  • csimpson

    I love this article! I confess I wear my hair the same way everyday. Once I had a 2nd grade student look at me & ask “how do you not have webs in your hair?” I love seeing the different styles my students come in with. What impresses me the most is the time dedicated to do your hair. So while it maybe “easy-peasy” yes it gets boring.

  • Tina Opie

    Hi! I miss seeing you in NY! Thanks so much for your comment and for reading the site! Be grateful for that “easy-peasiness”; work what you’re working with! 🙂 Happy, happy NEW YEAR! 🙂

  • Laquita

    Interesting article. My though it that, no matter how one wears her/his hair, it is an adjustment at the beginning to style the hair in any particular way. I wouldn’t say that any particular grade of hair is easy or hard, just different.

  • Tina Opie

    Happy New Year! Thanks so much for commenting! I agree that hair grade / texture shouldn’t matter much, it very much has to do with knowledge. However, it seems that assumptions are made about kinky textured hair (it’s so difficult!) and I think it’s great that we’re exploring this and discussing the tradeoffs of different hair textures. Thanks again. Come back often! 🙂

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The Disunited Nations (a.k.a My Hair)… by Petra E. Lewis

Kevin Ryan Headshot - Color

No one will mistake me for anything other than Black—my skin is a swirl of dark caramel and milk chocolate. My hair? That’s another story. One wonders, like the manna the Israelites picked up from the ground: What is it?

My ancestry is complicated, a thing of borne witness, handed down stories, and myth. The result: A head of hair that is beautiful, maddening, and complex—frequently all three at once. The vast majority of my ancestry is diasporally African (a mixture of Islanders from the Caribbean). My father’s mother, who we all called Mama (accentuating each of the “a”s in our pronunciation), died before my siblings were born. However, I saw her many times as a kid when I visited Trinidad.

Mama was a mixed woman, with curly, mid-shoulder-length hair—which meant it was far longer stretched out. Mama’s mother had emigrated from St. Vincent to Trinidad, and my father said that the father of Mama’s mother was one of two Scottish brothers, the Frasers (far more to that story, but that’s all I’ll say for now). Mama’s surname was French—Serrette—and her father was said to be the owner of a plantation, more than likely a cocoa plantation.  And it appears that, like Mama’s mother, her father was also mixed, from a family of very light-skinned creoles. Hence the handed down stories and myth I spoke about: What is true, and what is not—and where is Henry Louis Gates, Jr. when you need him?

On my mother’s side, her grandfather, Appa, was said to be a dougla—the name we give in Trinidad to people who are a mixture of Black and East Indian. My mom and all her siblings said Appa, a tall, curly-haired dandy, was the spitting image of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.  I took a genealogy test once that said that I have Asian in my background. However, it’s entirely possible that Appa phenotypically looked like a dougla, but was mixed with something else.

When it comes to describing my hair, I have taken to giving my ancestors their own signifiers: three avatars who I call Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip. There are days when it’s all love between those three: Sitting together on the verandah, laughing, playing dominoes, and lazily sipping on chai. Then there are days when my head becomes the site of a global war, as Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip claw and skirmish for territory, jockeying to become the victor who plants his flag in my scalp.

Even on my best hair days, the mixture of textures throughout my head marks each avatar’s dominance—or submission. The curls at the very front of my hair are my favorite section. I guess you can refer to them as: We are the World, where Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip seem to get along best. That part of my hair can sometimes be the most fragile, but the ringlets are perfect, long lasting, and very low maintenance.  Sanjay and Kunta coexist beautifully in a wide section right near each of my ears: thick, springy, perfect ringlets, with a smaller curl pattern that are prone to breakage when not handled properly.  The sides of my hair, towards the middle, is a love fest: Kunta and Chip as BFFs—more so on the right of my hair than the left; on the left, there are times when one of them seems to have taken offense at something, and thrown a tantrum.

Then you get to the end of the sides of my hair, rounding the corners to the back, where Sanjay and Kunta seemingly begin to raise their voices: the beginning of a brawl. The hair in that section doesn’t ringlet as much as it is a strange, thick bushy texture more akin to waves—and very prone to dryness.  The back topmost part of my hair—I guess you can call that the “crown”—is the section I call: Sanjay and Kunta are fighting.  Yes, Sanjay and Kunta are fighting. Full stop—as this posture of strife is a permanent state of affairs.  It’s also a weird, thick wavy something—and I’m pretty sure Chip sat that one out.

For a large swathe of the very back of my head, the trio seems to have called a truce—back to drinking chai, dominoes, and back slapping. The lower rung of my hair hangs in a veil of beautiful baby curls: Kunta and Sanjay finally BFFs. But just below that, wait for it… the section I call WW WTF!!! (Or World War What the Freak, as we’d like to keep this family friendly).

As most Black women know, the kitchen area of our hair is the one that most denotes us as African women.  Sometimes it curls and clumps into little balls; sometimes it’s kinky and springy—yet smooth, lying relatively flat; and sometimes it’s straight.

Depending on a number of factors (a topic for another post) that section of my hair can be either of the three—or a combination. My theory on WW WTF: I think Chip tried to jump into the mix, but Sanjay pummeled him—then (eyes narrowed, breathing heavily), Sanjay turned to square off once and for all with Kunta.  But Kunta wasn’t having it….  And so they fight, on, and on, and on…. Stretched, that section of my hair reaches shoulder length. Unstretched, extreme shrinkage keeps it clinging to the base of my neck, appearing as though it is less than an inch. It’s grown so long in the last year, it only recently occurred to me that what I really need to do is stretch it out and pin it up.

This post is the beginning of many on my head of hair: a beautiful, maddening, and complex thing, a gift from the mysterious, mixed-up, variety pack I call my ancestors. There are days when Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip are polite to a fault (“No, no, you go first kind sir. I insist.” “No, no, I’ll have none of it—I insist, dear old chap: you….”). Those days are glorious: My hair is everything I want it to be, I am brimming with confidence, and all is right in the world. Then there are days when an ugly, bitter war has broken out, flags are planted, and WW WTF is in particularly rare and embarrassing form, and I feel the very confidence drain from my body, as I try to get the rogue, mutinous sections of my hair to yield—knowing full well they’ll ignore me and any pressing business or social engagements that I may have…

Oh, yes, I can tell you stories…. I know you have some, too. What have your own experiences been with your hair in its various states (be it natural or chemically treated)? I would love to hear about your individual journeys. I know you each have so much to say.

Till next time: Love, Peace, and Hair Grease, my friends y amigas….


Petra E. Lewis is a writer, author, entrepreneur, Tastemaker, and Synergist who lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The first novel in her trilogy, The Sons and Daughters of Ham, Book I: A Requiem debuts February 2014, .

  • Sandi Webster

    Petra, I so understand the hair thing and sympathize. I, too, come from an “unidentifiable” Jamaican ancestral tree that plays out in my hair. I was constantly frustrated with my “thicker than most” hair until I cut it off in sixth grade (whupping followed!) – I’ve not had long hair since. My grandmother would take all day to “chiney bump” my hair and then I would wake up the next day with wet hair after sleeping on a wet pillow. Right after that, I started to use a pressing comb to straighten my hair – all in the hopes of gaining consistency and decrease maintenance. It gave me a lot of flexibility between my natural states until one bout at the beach when I was 28 made me convert to a perm. A perm is my ancestral hair equalizer the same way my short haircut is time equalizer, meaning it makes everything look and feel the same and I can be out of my house in 15 minutes because I simply need a brush. Not to mention, I think I look simply fab this way.

  • Petra Lewis

    Hi Sandi: Thanks for this. And, yes–you do look fabulous! Didn’t realize that you had had it for this long (no pun intended : ). Can’t imagine you in anything but short hair!

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Beijing’s First African Hair Salon

Hello everyone,

I’ve blogged about how African / Black hair is big business but you might not think there’d be much of a market for it in China.  Well, this BBC story “Chinese embrace Beijing’s first African hair salon” suggests that that may be changing.  Here’s a screen shot of the video:

African hair salon in Beijing

Given African immigration to China for job opportunities (hundreds of thousands according to the BBC website), there is a growing need for African hair salons.   The interesting thing is that, at least in this video clip, a lot of the clients appear to be Chinese little girls (this screen shot captures the little girl’s grimace.  Brings back memories:  I remember those days!).  What an amazing example of cross-cultural exchange!

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Pantene’s campaign “Truly Relaxed & Truly Natural”

Hello everyone,

My blogging has been spotty and I hope you’ll agree that it’s been with good reason!  I am working really hard to get tenure at my college so I’ve had my head down teaching, grading and conducting research.  However, I just completed a major milestone (whew hew, graded a TON of papers) and one of the first things I wanted to do was blog and reconnect with you all.

While I was grading and watching the BET Honors show, I happened to see two Pantene commercials that comprised a campaign entitled “Truly Relaxed & Truly Natural”.  Here is a picture of the campaign.

The first commercial starred Chrisette Michele donning her beautiful, golden-hued, faded afro.  The second commercial starred ballerina Misty Copeland sporting her relaxed hair.  Did you see the commercials?  I find it interesting that Pantene is addressing the fact that women of color are returning to their natural hair but that it’s our choice whether or not we do so.  I’m a proud kinky afro wearer.  However, I don’t think you lose your Black card if you opt to get a relaxer.  I do, however, think it’s important that we ask ourselves WHY we make our hair choices.  In a similar vein, I don’t think you lose your identity card if you choose to alter visible signals that you belong to a particular identity group.  Said differently, we may or may not choose to reveal our identity but that shouldn’t mean that we are somehow deemed less embracing of that identity.  Or, should it?  What are your thoughts on this?  What are your thoughts on WHY women make particular hair choices (i.e., to wear natural hair or not)?  Back to Pantene, what do you think of the campaign?

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Balding More Common than One Might Think

The Savin Scale, used to measure hair loss and overall thinning.


Hello everyone,

In a recent post, I talked about what I have in common with a 13-year old balding boy.  I’ve realized that baldness is not as uncommon as one might think.  According to WebMD, by age 30 roughly 50% of men will begin to have thinning hair.  Further, WebMD adds that women comprise 40% of people suffering from temporary or permanent hair loss .  The Mayo Clinic, under its article on hair loss, lists common causes of hair loss as hormones, medical conditions (thyroid problems, alopecia areata, scalp infections, and other skin disorders).    Over the next few posts, I’ll be exploring more about baldness sharing research and interviews.  Stay tuned!  Please email me at if you’d like to share your story.  Thanks!



  • shgordon1

    Male pattern balding? The dermatologist told me it was female pattern balding….. Of course that was back when they were trying to make me into a Hypo Chondric instead of diagnosing my Hypo Thyroid you know me and can call my in Ttown ….. Sue

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A balding 13-year old boy and me

Harold movie poster

Good day everyone!  I recently watched a movie on Netflix called “Harold”.  Here is a description of the movie on NetFlix:

“Fitting in at his new high school is tough for Harold (Spencer Breslin), especially since he suffers from early male-pattern baldness. With mean classmates making his life miserable, Harold tries to turn his luck around by taking the advice of a caring janitor (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Co-starring Ally Sheedy, Nikki Blonsky and Chris Parnell, this delightful comedy cleverly depicts the harsh realities of being an outsider.”

Ohhhh how I felt for Harold.  I couldn’t relate to everything because, fortunately, I was not the recipient of bullying.   It was so interesting to me that the whole premise of the movie was how a child would be tormented for his bald pate, how his hair could make him an outsider.  I can relate to feeling like an outsider Harold.  I have been there.  On numerous occasions, I’ve shared how I felt almost like a water-aversive alien because of my hair; afraid of rain, pools, humidity, even a crazy fool with a water hose.  Thanks be to God, I’ve learned (am learning) to accept my hair in all of its glory (even in its smashed, half frizzy state as I type this).  No, I’m not equating kinky / coily hair to male pattern baldness. But, what I am doing is recognizing that we all have identity battles, as we work hard to figure out how we fit in in this world.  May this year bring you self-discovery and self-acceptance as we strive to become the best people that we can be.  Hugs to you all.


If you or someone you know has experience with male pattern baldness, I’d love to hear more about your experience.  Please email me at to schedule a chat.  Thanks!

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! I’ve been on hiatus but I’ve been working on, conducting research on hair as identity and editing a ton of interviews I’ve conducted on the topic. Stay tuned as I share some interesting insights. 🙂

It has been a LONG time since I’ve written a blog post and, during that time, three key things have happened!  First, I’ve been working on  I hope that you like it.  It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get it to its current state and I love the progress we’ve made.  Of course, things can always be better so please share your comments on what you like and don’t like about the updated site.  A special shout out to for helping me find a designer for my new logo.  Specifically, Rudi4911 was amazing and did a great job creating a logo that captures how hair is both a physical and psychological reflection of our identity.

Second, I’ve been conducting research on hair as identity and I’ll be sharing various study results on the website.  Results?  Well, let’s just say that we have our work cut out for us as we work to create a society where all hair types are embraced in professional settings.  I have some ideas on how to bring this about and I’ll be sure to share my thoughts and research insights.

Third, I’ve been developing content for the website by interviewing various personalities on how hair reflects identity.  For example, I’ve spoken with human resources professionals, hair stylists, judges, students, administrative professionals and people I met on the street.  I am NOT a video editing expert and it is taking me FOREVER to get the interviews the way that I want them.  Rather than wait any longer, I decided to upload what I have and work on it from there.  One thing I’ve learned about entrepreneurship is that action is required!  Happy New Year and I look forward to reconnecting with many of you.  J


  • Erica addison

    Tina, I’m so excited for you! I can’t wait to find out what is really going on in the natural hair community. Transitioning is tough and I need all the help and encouragement possible! Thanks for all your help.

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Nice Hair! by AdamCohn

This photo was taken by Adam Cohn in Accra, Ghana.  The image is so engaging and it looks like we’re getting a glimpse into Ghanaian life.  I cannot quite tell how the hairstyle is done but it looks like it might be a double strand twist out (see Nikki Mae’s YouTube tutorial for step-by-step instructions:


I am also taken by the vibrant hue of the woman’s hair (I wish I knew her name!).  I haven’t yet colored my natural hair but, I must say, I love her hair color on her!  What do you think?

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Hindu Ascent by Stuck in Customs

This picture by Stuck in Customs (aka Trey Ratcliff) is so peaceful.  The beautiful lighting makes it almost look like the person is ascending into the heavenly realm.  Here is the picture’s description on Flikr:

“A 94-year-old woman ascends the final stairs in the 272-step ascent in the Batu Caves, a pilgrimage site in Malaysia for over 800,000 Hindus per year.

Her hair is 3 meters long (about 9 feet). She has never cut it her entire life. It is so long, she has to fold it back and forth a few times and wrap it to keep it from dragging behind.”

The picture comes from Trey’s daily photo blog found at  Trey, thank you for such beautiful work!  So inspiring!

I am in awe  of the picture and the story behind the picture.  To think that a 94-year-old woman has never cut her hair.  Just one more way to know that hair matters.

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