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Hair, Blackness, and Beauty

Hair, Blackness, and Beauty

I need to wash and twist my hair. I do not feel like twisting it, but it needs washing and if I wash it I have to twist it since it refuses to even think about locing and thus water = losing its shape. So, as I’m sitting here doing everything but my hair, my mind is wandering over how my perception of beauty has changed since I went natural. I admit I used to be one of those black women that thought natural hair looked a mess. Then I started growing up and really paying attention to what well maintained natural styles looked like on friends and neighbors. And over time I start wishing I could wear a twist out or puffs. And then hormones (combined with yet more breakage) made me cut off all the relaxed hair. Those of you reading my LJ back in 2005 probably remember me posting about the Big Chop. What I don’t think I mentioned (though I might have) is that I had no idea how to do my hair. None. Because I always went to a beauty salon as a kid, Jesse’s Place where my hair was pressed bone straight, braided, or relaxed regularly for years. Not once that I can remember was my hair allowed to just be the way it grew out of my head. My grandmother took me to the salon every two weeks like clockwork. She meant well, but she had a whole lot of internalized race issues that meant I didn’t see myself with natural hair until I was 17, it was damaged again and I started trying to rebel against that “Natural is not good enough” aesthetic.

Even before the perm that burned1 at 3 the few pics I’ve seen of me as a toddler make it clear that my family always did something to straighten it. So at 17 when I first tried to go natural I had no idea how to take care of my hair, and I eventually caved under the pressure and got it relaxed again. Post chop (after the initial shock) I started learning how to deal with it. And for a long time I wasn’t entirely sold on natural. Mostly I was convinced that I had consigned myself to looking unfortunate for some months. Then it got long enough for me to want to do things to it. And the more I learned, the more I liked having natural hair. Because all of sudden doing my hair didn’t have to involve any pain. None. And some of you are probably thinking “Why the hell do black women do that if it hurts?” and there’s a whole list of answers to that question from preference, to not being burned by relaxers, to internalized racism. And this isn’t a “You’re not black enough if you straighten your hair” post. Because let’s be real, if blackness were that easily defined we wouldn’t be discussing the diaspora every time someone insisted that “All black people experience X”. No, this post is about a new definition of beauty and moving away from the idea that there is only one aesthetic.

Now that I’m old enough to see the trap in “You’re pretty for a black girl” I can also see the trap in trying to define beauty for all races by the ideals of one race. So, I’m going to continue to ignore beauty ideals that center around women with skin and hair nothing like mine. Funnily enough the more I do that, the more I find myself being amused when I get the “Pretty for a black girl” routine. Hearing those words used to hurt, because of course the message for young black women is a whole lot of “No one wants you unless you change X and Y and Z” interspersed with “You’re all sluts and on welfare” because that’s what happens when you’re sitting at the intersection of Racism and Misogyny2 from birth. And some of us buy into it3 but when you know that the end result of adhering to the mindset is bad plastic surgery and ugly contacts while women of other races are lauded for the same features4 you’re trying to change? You start to get over it. Because if someone can’t appreciate my hair, my lips, my butt, and my color? That’s not my problem. I appreciate them. My spouse appreciates them. And those messages hanging on the corner of Racism and Misogyny? Well, I’ve got gasoline and a match. I’m learning to think that my hair is amazing (even when I don’t want to do it) and that black girls are just plain pretty.

Footnotes

  1. A super perm containing lye was used and I wound up in the hospital with chemical burns and no hair on the bottom half of my head. []
  2. Here’s a handy list of list of popular stereotypes. []
  3. See any episode of the Tyra Banks Show where she talks to black women who hate being black []
  4. Look up Angelina Jolie, Kim Kardashian, and Jennifer Lopez and compare their pics to Little Kim’s over the years. []

16 comments to Hair, Blackness, and Beauty

  • Ann

    So many who choose to go natural have no idea what or how. And with pressure from family and every other ignorant person with a mouth, it can be very frustrating. But you’re right; eventually you can’t give a damn what anyone else thinks.

  • For my church’s youth day, I was chosen to be the kid/teen to do the sermon. it was mostly about how the little things that we do are influenced by our culture and how to rebel as a Christian. I included questioning preconceived notions of what is beautiful and how that relates to whether we are treating people as people and therefore doing what people see as being “Christian”. I recently cut my perm out (after reading Malcolm X and seeing a few friends do the same.) and now my hair is in a short style and even though im only 19 i feel like all those years in a perm damaged my hair beyond retribution

    • Give your hair time to recover. It will. A few years after I stopped perming my hair, it was as thick and strong as it was pre-perm.

      Also check out natural beauty blogs for tips on how to care for your hair. You might be using methods that were great for your permed hair, but harsh to your natural hair.

    • Delux

      Also good, light scalp massage!

    • new hair is new hair, it’s not going to be affected by past perms. It may take a while, but you’ll definitely see the difference.

  • Halfrican

    Thanks for writing this. I remember trying to gel and comb my hair to try and make it look like the cool white kids in my class when I was young. Man, I looked like a fool! Now I just let it grow and let it go, and I love it.
    Do any of you know somewhere I can get information about caring for my hair? As a biracial man, I’m having a little trouble finding much. My hair is definitely more black than white, so that’s not the problem. It just seems like most of the info out there is directed primarily at women. Do any of you know any natural beauty blogs or similar things that are a little more directed towards men?

  • ChloeMireille

    Karnythia, your hair story sounds just like mine, minus the lye relaxer at 3.

    I was hot combed from 4 to 10, had a jheri curl from 10-12, hot combed again until 14, and went back to a relaxer after that. Then I went to college, and went natural for the first time at 20 with no f***ing clue with what I was doing. (My fro was wicked, though.) That lasted for about a year, and I went back to a relaxer until I went natural again 3 years ago at a more well-informed 26.

    As a Black woman, my hair is a political statement every day, whether I actively engage it or not. When I made the Big Chop, I was “acceptably natural” because if you have nappy hair and not curly/coily hair, Society says your only choices are a TWA, locs, or a weave. My loose hair after a certain length is deemed “unkempt”, “sloppy”, “unstyled”, “unprofessional”, and “wild”, at which point I’m supposed to cut it, loc it, or cover it up.

    My hair is never just my hair, and it constantly gnaws at my autonomist beliefs. I want to have the right to wake up tomorrow and say, “I want to relax my hair because I’m tired of spending half my Saturday detangling my hair.” I want to be able to turn around a year or two later and say, “I’m going natural because I miss being able to walk in the rain without freaking out about my hair.” I want to make these kind of decisions without feeling like I have to represent every Black woman on the planet on a daily basis, or that other women have to work overtime because “I gave in to the Patriarchy” by straightening my hair.

    In an ideal world, I wouldn’t owe anybody an explanation for what I do (or don’t do)with my hair, nor would they ask for one. The problem is that this isn’t an ideal world.

  • Oh, my goodness AGB, You actually were burned to the point of being hospitalized?!!!Wow, I thought my story was bad. My mother put a “vigarol” in my hair at the age of 8. All of my hair fell out, and I walked around until the age of 14 with about 1 to 2 inches of hair. In an all black community, and being “light skinned” it caused everyone to notice and until I learned to care of it, I was called “that baldheaded girl” and ugly. Fortunately, I learned how to care for my hair and when it reverted to a ‘fro, because I accepted being this ugly baldheaded girl, It didn’t matter if it was nappy or not. Years passed and I didn’t start relaxing until age 26, after entering the professional world. Yet, I did feel somewhat pressured to maintain a certain aesthetic. Now, that I am in Italy, I have grown my hair out, fairly long and learned so many things from people here who have my type of hair, and various websites. Now that I have a daughter of my own, there is no way that I would change her hair or put chemicals in it. We have definitely come a long way.

  • Chloe,

    “I want to relax my hair because I’m tired of spending half my Saturday detangling my hair”

    The trick is extra virgin olive oil……

  • Melinda Bishop

    This is what I’ve been feeling all my life.

    Yes, I’m biracial. Yes, I have white skin and fine features. But I’m still a WOC living in a racist society.

    Unlike most biracial women, I don’t have the so-called “good” hair. My hair is extremely thick and wonderfully nappy in its natural state. It is down to the middle of my back. It is a bundle of loose curls when wet, and then it becomes a frizz ball. I’ve been relaxing my hair since I was 12 years old.

    Since childhood, I’ve noticed that not all women are created equal. As a kid with brown eyes and long puffy hair, I learned that in this world a girl could only be beautiful if she was white…especially if she had the coveted spun-silk blonde hair and sky blue eyes. Somebody like me? Nope! My hair broke combs and had to be plaited into two thick ropelike braids.

    Little white girls and Hispanic girls were cooed at by adults who thought they were gorgeous. While I stood alone, with no one affirming my worth. I read “The Bluest Eye”. Despite looking nothing like its character, Pecola Breedlove, I found myself identifying with her. She obviously had internalized a white ideal of beauty and so did I. I literally had an obsession with blue eyes and straight hair.

    What made it difficult was the fact that I felt disconnected from mostly everyone around me. Most black people viewed me with contempt because I was simply too “white”. Some white people were openly racist, while others either ignored me or didn’t want to acknowledge a real problem with how this society works. They were content to let things be the same. Hispanic people in my hometown are mostly very hostile to anyone who does not speak Spanish or have straight hair.

    I was told once by an acquaintance that another biracial girl we both knew was “prettier” than me because she had “better” hair. Now, this girl had loose curls. I don’t. What bothered me is the implication that her hair was superior to mine because it wasn’t as kinky. By extention, I took this to mean that African hair was being equated with ugliness. What hurt even more was that a BLACK MAN made this comment. Mind you, he wasn’t cute at all but he obviously liked her. I don’t know why he felt the need to belittle my hair texture when he had the same type of hair I had.

    Hair is a big deal to all women, but especially to WOC. This is one of the ways that female beauty is judged and critiqued. I’m petite. I’m very feminine, quiet, shy, reserved, and ladylike. I love lipstick and high heels. I’m into beauty and style. I love frilly lingerie. After years of SEVERE low self-esteem I believe that I’m beautiful both inside and out. Unfortunately, most people seem to view WOC through this one-dimensional lens. We can never be truly beautiful or special in a world that hates us. My white husband is only starting to realize the vicious battles with my hair as it relates to my self-esteem.

    There are times when (shamefully) I do feel inferior and unfeminine because of how other people see my hair. There are times when I wonder if deep down, he wish he had somebody with “perfect” hair instead of me. But then I remember…there is nothing shameful about being of African descent and the uniquely beautiful hair that comes with it. And with tears in my eyes, I smile.

    • Melinda, I think the worse part about the experience you mentioned was having someone compare you to someone else, as if because the two of you were mixed, there was some type of competition. It sounds like a backhanded compliment this white man in Kentucky rendered. He said, “you’re beautiful but my niece looks better than you.” I found it strange, and still don’t know what to think of someone who thinks as such. Yet, your comment was different because in my eyes it was worse because it was rendered by a man of color. My heart goes out to you. If it helps, my husband is Italian and whereas, I suffered with a similar apprehension about his seeing my hair, “au naturale”. Surprisingly, on a trip to visit him, prior to our marriage, the humid days of Italy hit my head, and it went kizzy lol. I was just about to make a dash for the shower to wet it, when he ran his hand through and said, “this hair is sacred, no cuttah, no cuttah” Sometimes, we see things totally different from the way others see it.

  • Zahra

    @ Melinda Bishop

    Wow. Yours is very powerful story. Thank you for sharing, and more power to you in your struggles.

  • Melinda Bishop

    Hi, Ms. Day…

    Thanks. It really is hurtful, isn’t it? I have long flowing hair but according to most people, it isn’t the “right” type because my curls aren’t loose enough.

    The guy who made that comment was actually my ex-boyfriend’s best friend at the time. I believe that the only reason he liked that girl was because she was mixed and had hair that curled into little ringlets. My skin was about 60 shades lighter than hers but I was ridiculed for having so-called “bad” hair. Unfortunately, there are a lot of self-hate issues with Black folks. This was not the first time another person of color made comments like this. I have experienced HORRIBLE racism because of my hair texture and the way I look.

    I completely agree with you. I wonder about people who feel the need to disrespect others. The white guy who made that comparison between you and his niece was just plain weird. Who says stuff like that?

    The very first time my husband noticed my hair in its naturally curly state after being washed, he told me that he preferred it “smooth”.

    I explained, while feeling a bit hurt, that my hair was not straight like his. I spend time and money to “fix” it just so people won’t discriminate against me. But they do anyway because it never seems to be “acceptable” or “presentable” enough.

    I understood that unlike the black men I’ve been around, his comment wasn’t intentionally hurtful. Yet it did hurt because I’m the only WOC he has ever been with. I do not wish to be compared with ANY woman, because I can only be me.

    His ex-fiancee, a white-identified Latina, had straight hair. Obviously he never had these discussions with her. I made it clear that if he loved me, then he should also love my hair. I will NOT continue to be around anyone who belittles me anymore. My hair reflects my African heritage, just as my white skin reflects my European heritage.

    My hair pisses me off sometimes. But there are times when I love it. It is my crown. It is beautiful.

    • Chizoba

      I understood that unlike the black men I’ve been around, his comment wasn’t intentionally hurtful.>>>

      I find it interesting that you framed the white guy’s negativity towards your hair as ignorance, but the black guy’s negativity as intentional malice. Black and White men are socialized by the SAME society. They are taught the same ignorance and apply it the same. They are both ignorant, but the Black guy has not developed an opposition stance to resist that stupidity-and it’s unfortunate because we NEED BM to do that. And as men who don’t have to deal with hair issues like women, that BM may never learn. I have to confess, I often struggle with Biracial identified people because of their willingness to excuse away the behavior/ignorance of whites, but pathologize the behavior of Blacks. Are we not of the same society and are we not indoctrinated by the same standards?

  • That’s really awesome. It does suck though because the standard beauty advice for women is “wear styles that complement your hair type” ie curly/straight, thin/thick, fine/coarse, and if Vogue or Cosmo ever recommended we wear our hair in a way that would make it freaking FALL OUT and BURN OUR SCALP there would be an outrage.

    Also I think that healthy, well taken care of, natural twists (I knew a girl who had her hair like this, in a bob shape that went down to just past her chin in front, and it was so hot) looks so much better than the chemically straightened hair with so much product it looks like helmet hair plastered to the head.

  • [...] is from Karnythia’s post on The Angry Black Woman about Hair, Blackness, and Beauty. She’s right.  Accepting natural hair on yourself or others is all “moving away from [...]