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.
As if chemical relaxer burns, alopecia, and unnecessary poverty from the staggering cost of sew-ins and lace fronts wasn’t enough, our hair has found another way to potentially kill us.
U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, who is black and no stranger to black women’s hair concerns, issued a warning last month against the common excuse of skipping exercise to preserve a hairstyle. According to the New York Times, Dr. Benjamin’s remarks to Bronner Bros. International Hair Show attendees aligned with a 2008 study where a third of the women cited their hair as a reason they exercised less often.
“For shame,” I’d like to say, but I’m just as guilty — maybe even more so because my hair is chemically relaxed. I’m in no danger of the regression from straight to curly to kinky that happens when moisture strikes pressed natural hair. I can identify, however, with the sinking feeling brought on by rain when I’ve just dropped $50, $75 or $100 (or more) to get my hair done. And, in case you didn’t know, weaves and wigs aren’t exactly waterproof nor are they cheap. Given the investment, I absolutely think twice before willfully dismantling a style through sweat from a vigorous workout.
Biblically, our hair is our glory, our individual object of pride. When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus and then washes them with her hair, the symbolism of the act of sacrifice is as much about the cost of the oil as the fact that she willingly sullied her hair to honor the Lord. Then and now, regardless of whether we grow ’em or buy ’em, we hold our tresses in high regard. We capitalize on our locks’ ability to influence the jobs we’re offered, determine how we’re treated and even how we’re admired. Ignoring the historical and social context of black women’s hair makes it easy to ridicule the expense of it all and downplay its significance.
But our hair is not as significant as we make it, particularly if we allow it to compromise our bodies so dramatically. Our hair was meant as a covering, not a cross to bear.
Exercise isn’t just for overweight people, and those who don’t engage risk more than obesity but also hypertension, higher levels of bad cholesterol, poor sleep, and increased fatigue. Beyond that, if it’s our desire to positively participate in a movement of God with a broad impact on the world around us, physical health must trump physical beauty, even as the two coexist.
Whether well coiffed or not, we still exist for a greater purpose that we can’t be ready to fulfill if we’re falling apart. We can’t be spiritually strong if we’re physically worn down.
As good stewards of the bodies God gave us — that still belong to Him — we have a responsibility to maintain ourselves as much as possible to fulfill our individual callings. And if that means exercise at the price of a few bad hair days, then so be it. Just keep the flat iron ready for after the workout.
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.