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.
- 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. [↩]
- Here’s a handy list of list of popular stereotypes. [↩]
- See any episode of the Tyra Banks Show where she talks to black women who hate being black [↩]
- Look up Angelina Jolie, Kim Kardashian, and Jennifer Lopez and compare their pics to Little Kim’s over the years. [↩]