Wigs, weaves, extensions and chemical relaxers are examples of how hair is socially, psychologically, and culturally significant to the black female experience
By Cheryl Thompson – The Star.com
As a black woman living in Canada, I often feel invisible when it comes to my natural hair. The television series da Kink In My Hair (which just wrapped up its first season on Global television) taps into a lot of the issues black women have with hair, but on the streets of Toronto, it’s a whole other story.
Some people might be offended by what I have to say, and others might think: “It’s just hair. Get a life.” Fair enough. But, since freeing myself from the dependency of chemically relaxing my hair every eight weeks, I feel it important to use my voice.
Too many black women can’t remember what it’s like to feel their natural hair. I know several, who have not felt their scalp since Bobby Brown was a member of New Edition. And I have sat in hair salons with women who spend more money on their hair than their education.
I also know a lot of black women who secretly want to go natural, but fear the reaction at work, what their family will say, even that their partner will leave them. If hair is just hair, you’d think going natural would be just as easy as processing your hair.
Then there are weaves, a process by which synthetic or real hair is sewn into one’s natural hair to give the appearance of long, flowing, straight hair. While many women, irrespective of race, wear weaves (they’re common in Hollywood), black women wear them to cover up, not merely enhance, their natural state.
Talk about hair is so woven into the black female experience that people often make jokes about who has “good hair” and who has “bad hair.” In the song “I Am Not My Hair,” India Aries sings, “Good hair means curls and waves/Bad hair means you look like a slave.” A lot of people might not have a clue as to what she’s talking about, but, as a black woman, I sure do.
One of the first things I learned as a child was that “bad hair” was not the same as having a bad hair day. It was a matter of texture. “Good hair” was the complete opposite of nappy, tightly coiled hair.
Admittedly, some black women have naturally long, straight hair, but most of us do not. As such, this is not about burning down the relaxer factory, or snatching a weave off someone’s head. It’s about uncovering the truth: when a black woman turns on her television, reads a magazine, or watches a movie, most of the images of black beauty she sees are fake, and her natural self becomes even more difficult to love.
Amid all these images, and all the time spent thinking about how to “fix” their hair problems, black women across North America face harsh realities that are not being discussed. A lot of black women are stuck in low-paying jobs, we’re barely seen on television and in film, and we’re often negatively depicted as hypersexual vixens in hip-hop.
In the book Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women, Noliwe Rooks says African Americans spend three times more than other consumer groups on their grooming needs.
Further, according to a 1997 American Health and Beauty Aids Institute survey, African Americans spend $225 million annually on hair weaving services and products. While these figures are from the ’90s, it is fair to assume that similar results would be found today, and would also be applicable in a Canadian context.
The biggest hurdle facing black people across the diaspora is a lack of history, especially when it comes to hair. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, by African American authors Ayana Bryd and Lori Tharps, is a good starting point. When you read books like this, you begin to understand why hair is socially, psychologically and culturally significant to the black female experience. While history is always a difficult subject for any oppressed people, you won’t ever know where you’re going unless you know where you’re coming from.
I’m old enough to remember when people sported afros. I never quite understood why they did it when I was younger but since then, I’ve read numerous books and seen countless movies chronicling the period. When black people went natural in droves, it wasn’t just about sticking it to The Man or a sign of cultural solidarity, it was also about self-love. The people who continued to straighten their hair were seen as turning their backs on their roots. Unfortunately, by the early 1980s, the Jheri Curl came along, and hair processing once again was the rule.
This history of hair alteration saddens me. Sure, all women have body image issues and anxiety about their looks. We’re too thin, too fat, not pretty enough or not feminine enough. Yet people rarely discuss how black women have been chemically altering the natural state of their hair for more than 100 years, and continue to spend money they sometimes don’t have to hook up a tight weave, just to be like everyone else.
In addition to hair, black women have a lot of other issues that are rarely discussed. For instance, according to the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, black women are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Similarly, in the U.S., according to DepressionIsReal.org, a 2007 study found that depression among black women is almost 50 per cent higher than among white women. And black women are twice as likely as black men to suffer depression.
And so, it’s not just about hair. It’s about a lack of cultural awareness and an internalized negative pathology. In order to transcend a troubled past, you have to engage in an open and honest dialogue, but that requires acknowledging there’s a problem. On one level, I can understand why black women do what they do to their hair (I used to do it too). Natural black hair can be very difficult to manage and sometimes you just want to try a new look. Having said that, there are lots of products, books, websites and hair salons that cater to natural styles, but it requires effort to find them.
The last thing I want to do is pass judgment or demand that all black women run out and grow an Angela Davis ‘fro or Alice Walker dread- locks.
However, part of the process of healing is seeing yourself for who you are, and most important, accepting who you are.
There’s no better time to take that journey than during Black History Month, which beings tomorrow.
Cheryl Thompson is a frequent contributor to Chart Magazine. She received her MA from Ryerson University’s communication & culture program last year.