WE’RE TALKING ABOUT HAIR?: Olympian Gabby Douglas was the first African American to win a gold medal in the all-around gymnastics category, but some people were more interested in her hairstyle. (Photo: Bob Daemmrich/Newscom)
What do Oprah Winfrey and Gabby Douglas have in common besides being hardworking African American females, and history-making ones to boot? Well, as you’ve probably heard by now, both came under fire last week because of issues with — wait for it — their hair.
It is no secret that within black culture hair is a pretty big deal — especially for women. Whether it’s one’s hairstyle or method of hair care, there is no shortage of opinions regarding the subject. Black women of all shades undoubtedly can say that at one point in their lives the status of their tresses has been a hot topic of conversation — and frustration.
Last week, when Oprah released a tease for the September issue of her O Magazine, where she graced the cover donning an all-new natural ’do, the chatter began immediately. In the article, O contributor Ruven Afanador said, “For the first time ever, Oprah’s appearing on the cover of O without blow-drying or straightening her hair.” Afanador writes that Winfrey enjoys wearing her hair naturally, because it makes her feel unencumbered.
But not everyone agreed that Oprah’s hair was legitimately “natural.” A controversy emerged in social media about what actually constitutes “natural,” because for some the remnant of any past chemical treatment means it’s not truly natural. Oprah needs to stop lying to herself, the detractors declared.
Soon after that, reports started circulating about criticisms of U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’s hair, that some black women didn’t like the ponytail or how she uses a gel to grease it back.
But why all the hubbub? What is it about black women’s hair that is deemed so worthy of scrutiny by other black women? It’s been said that a woman’s hair is her glory (1 Cor. 11:15), and if that is the case then why is the personal choice of her having a natural hairdo versus a relaxer so controversial?
Evan Miles, a writer for Journey Magazine, sought to unearth the societal implications associated with black hair and the roots to African American history and culture in his provocatively titled article,“Is a Black Woman’s Hair Her Glory or Gloom?”
Miles believes that for centuries, African Americans have been stripped of their heritage and forced to comply with a European cultural worldview that encouraged a new standard of beauty. According to him, “This meant taking the very essence of their being and denouncing it.” This is why Miles believes, perhaps more than ever, why black women are so adamant about regaining ownership of their hair and their own personal identities. According to him, black women’s various hairstyles “exude confidence” and self-beauty. He believes that it’s not only what is on the outside that matters, but also what lies deep within.
GOLDEN GIRL: Douglas waves to fans at the London Games following her gold-medal victory. “What’s wrong with my hair?” she said after hearing the criticism. “It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter.” (Photo: Brian Peterson/Newscom)
So if beauty is only skin deep, and what is inside your head is of more importance than what is on top, why is someone like Gabby Douglas included in this debate? After the social media storm debating Douglas’ choice in hairstyle surfaced last week, the 16-year-old gymnast remarked that she was confused by the commotion. “I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair?” she said. “I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ ”
And Gabby, of course, is right. Why is it so easy for us to lose focus when it comes to black hair?
Reading the many stories in the press this past week got me to thinking again about this complicated subject that is a black woman’s hair. In my quest for understanding, I began reflecting on my own personal journey with hair — the ups and downs, the highs and lows, and the path to self-discovery and self-esteem.
In my 26 years of life, my identity with relation to my hair has seen many twists and curls. Like many black women, I once sustained my silky strands by way of a relaxer. Four years ago, however, I decided to forgo that method to go “natural.” My hairstyles over the course of my lifetime have been a diverse extension of who I am and a direct correlation of my personality. Being natural for me has been less about a healthy head of hair or making a statement, and more about learning to redefine my own personal standard of beauty.
Granted it takes longer for me to achieve my desired look each morning, because of all the deep conditioning and blow-drying that I do, but I wouldn’t trade that diversity for the world. I love my hair and appreciate the fact that I can be different while being a reflection of God’s diverse creation. I’ve got an eccentric personality, and like my shoe or handbag collection my hairstyle is an extension of who I am as a person.
I feel like India.Arie said it best in her song “I Am Not My Hair,” when she sang:
“I am not my hair/ I am not this skin/ I am not your expectations/ I am not my hair I am not this skin/ I am a soul that lives within.” Our hair, India reminds us, does not define us. It does not make us a better person or friend, and it does not determine who we are at the end of the day.
God created us in his very image, and he does not make mistakes. Instead of questioning his handiwork, we ought to embrace our unique style and diversity. So if rocking a weave or slappin’ a perm in your hair or wearing your hair natural is what makes you happy at the end of the day, then by all means love yourself and do you!
I lay the flat iron down next to the sink, and when I lean in close, I see the gray is creeping up again. I wonder if I should do something about it, thinking of all the ways I’ve worn my hair through the years, how my hair tells the story of my life.
My earliest memories include collard greens and thick cut bacon and sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs — or my cousin’s or aunt’s legs — as she sat on the couch or on the glider on my grandmother’s porch and worked the comb through my hair.
Whoever got the honor of trying to get me to sit still that day would spread a glob of hair grease on the back of her hand. She’d part my hair and with her index finger, run a line of hair grease down that part, pulling my hair tight into cornrows, or just three braids. Or four. It was years before I knew the white girls didn’t use hair grease and that it was best to keep that information to myself.
Eventually, I started getting my hair pressed. I don’t know how that started or why, but I’d sit in a kitchen chair while my mom heated up the comb on the red-hot eye of the stove. At least an hour passed getting my hair to go from natural to straight while hair grease sizzled and smoke rose up to meet the ceiling before slipping out the window into the air outside. The first time I told a White girl I don’t wash my hair every day — or even every week, for that matter — I thought she’d fall right over. So I stopped telling people that, too.
One year on summer break from elementary school, I let my hair go. Wore it just the way God made it. And when my mother took me with her to visit at a nursing home, the woman in the corner asked my mother about her son. My mother doesn’t have a son. And my hair was soon forced back into compliance.
In middle school, my mother took me to Mrs. Spicer’s house, where a hair salon was set up in the basement. I guess Mom decided it would be easier on everyone to pay someone else to press my hair instead of fighting with the hot comb in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. So, twice a month after school, I’d get dropped off for the washing and the drying and the combing out and the pressing, and I was lucky if I got out of there without having my scalp burned at least once.
Eventually, we caved in to the chemicals that mark the point of almost-no-return, and relaxers became the order of the day. I would keep my hands away from my scalp on the day I knew I’d be getting a touch-up, a necessary precaution to keep the lye from burning my scalp. For years, I treated my hair this way because it was easier to wear my hair straight than to deal with the people who wanted to know things like, “Can I touch it?” or “Do you use a pick for that?” or “Does your hair even get wet when it’s like that?” or “Can you hide things in there?”
In my thirties, I let my hair go again. And it was good. It was very good, and I wore it like that for years. When I finally changed it, it was because I wanted to and not because of the questions or the fears. I just wanted Halle Berry’s haircut for a change.
I keep staring at my reflection and the gray that’s creeping back, and I think it might be time to let it go again and wear it just the way God made it.
This essay originally appeared at The High Calling, an online magazine about work, life, and God. It is reprinted here by permission.
Chris Rock’s new documentary probes the world of black hair to humorous effect, but also forces us to confront disturbing questions about our prescribed standards of beauty.
One of the big conversations in my household this year has revolved around the question of whether my 9-year-old daughter is ready to get her hair “permed.” Some girls at her school have already been initiated into the world of relaxed hair, so the peer pressure is in effect.
On the one hand my wife, who spends an inordinate amount of time combing and styling our little girl’s hair each week, would love to reduce the strain and pain (on both her and my daughter) of braiding and curling and ponytailing. On the other hand, she’s not yet ready to subject our daughter to the extreme measures involved in chemically straightening black hair. Who would’ve imagined that there’s so much drama involved in styling a little girl’s tresses?
Well, Chris Rock did.
Rock’s new documentary, Good Hair (PG-13), opens Friday in limited release and nationwide on Oct. 23, but it’s already got lots of folks buzzing about this most sacred of topics in the black community.
Critics have praised Rock’s mixture of satire, history, and social commentary. And his funny but insightful look at the $9 billion black hair industry covers a lot of territory. Indeed, there are few things more central to the daily experience of a black woman. A good-looking ‘do plays a pivotal role in both her personal and professional happiness.
Yet an ominous theme undergirds the entire enterprise. Why do so many women spend so much time and so much money trying to attain what’s essentially a “white” look? That question is at the heart of Good Hair, and with Rock as our irreverent yet sympathetic tour guide, the film sets out to get some answers.
By roaming the exhibit floor of the massive Bronner Bros. Hair Show and talking to everyone from Maya Angelou to Raven Symoné, Rock presents a subculture that is at once familiar but nonetheless foreign. How is it, again, that some women are willing to pay thousands of dollars for weaves (some actually putting their hair on layaway) to create the illusion of long tresses? Or how is it that so many are willing to apply harsh sodium hydroxide creams to their heads to straighten kinky hair? (Rock demonstrates how the chemical can literally eat through chicken flesh and disintegrate aluminum cans.)
What Rock discovers in his cinematic expedition is a gold mine of endless humor (Al Sharpton even gets some screen time — need I say more?). But it’s also a source of great poignancy. That lingering issue of who determines the standard of true beauty pervades the movie like a stubborn ghost, haunting every corner of a black woman’s existence. Even our churches — or, perhaps, especially our churches — are full of lofty hairdo expectations for black women.
Still, in Good Hair, Rock is able to take all these contradictions and discomfitting realities and allow us to laugh at them — and at ourselves. He also may have inadvertently helped settle that little dilemma in my household: If I have any say in the matter, my 9-year-old will have to wait until she’s voting age before getting that soda-can-eating paste applied to her head.
Chris Rock’s new documentary on black hair has got me waxing all nostalgic.
Growing up I didn’t go to the barbershop much. We had a barber’s chair in our basement–eventually it was in my room–and my dad had the tradition of cutting all of his sons’ hair. Albeit most of my haircuts took place as I sat in that elevated chair, the cultural reality of black hair was very profound in my life. (more…)