Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The mask on the head

I was once walking along the street in London on my way to a party with two friends, one Armenian-American, the other British-Jewish, when they suddenly began a conversation in which I had nothing whatsoever to contribute: hair straightening products. Both my friends had frizzy hair and I, who have, fine, wavy hair had no idea of the various chemical assaults available on the market to force frizzy hair into a different definition. I learned that hair straightening was a life-long quest and lifelong torment. I have on occasion very mildly observed that I liked both of them with their hair au naturel but was met with such withering scorn that I stopped saying it. In the Sixties it was cool not only for black women and men to wear their hair in an Afro but the rest of us (particularly men, as bizarre as that now seems) ran out and got our own hair permed to imitate them - leading to that creepy phenomenon, blond dreadlocks.

But today black men tend to keep their hair very short (see Obama himself) and black women go to colossal expense and time to make their hair look as much like white women's as possible.

Writing in the comments, African-American Sable indicates what challenges Michelle Obama and her daughters are going to confront as they present themselves as First Family:

It may seem a silly prospect that something as benign as hair can carry such weight, but it can have great meaning among black women and how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. There is often the overriding notion that you must fit in and not call attention that you are different from other (white) women. I have worn my hair in many styles from relaxed straight to curly afro or braids with extensions. I can honestly say that when I wear my hair relaxed straight I feel (operative word here, feel) that I am more like everyone else and more likely to fit in. However, I also feel less like my authentic self. It's as if I'm wearing a mask and I resent that I have to change who I am to fit in. Not to mention the damage that relaxers cause to the hair and scalp. Several years ago I chose to cut my hair short and wear a curly afro. A very good friend of mine, who happens to be white, asked me what kind of statement I was trying to make. She said that my hair made me look militant, like I was trying to make a statement. I explained that it was much easier and much healthier for me to not change the natural texture of my hair. I was not attempting to make any type of statement only to simplify my life. BTW, it was a very neat and well groomed afro. My guess is that a lot of white women don't realize what a difficult and politically and career altering decision hair can be.

I think that most of us here agree that women in the public eye and political life have a considerably harder time than men, and yes, that does include Sarah Palin. It may seem trivial, on the weekend after such a momentous election, to talk about Michelle Obama's hair, but what happens in the White House over the next four, possibly eight, years will alter the perceptions of African-Americans forever.


miss cavendish said...

The satirical cover of the New Yorker (that failed to communicate its critique effectively?) depicted Michelle with an afro, if you recall, to represent her as "militant" and "threatening." (Please note that these above interpretations of relaxed hair are not my own!)

Linda Grant said...

So it did, thanks for reminding me of that.

Kuri said...

This is an interesting discussion and I agree that afros seem to be associated with a particular time (the Vietnam era) in a way that white hairstyles popular at that time aren't.

I was volunteering for a (white) candidate recently in Canada who, like myself, has a kind of messy, curly bob if it's not subjected to a flat iron. This is something I do to mine about half of the time, but Linda probably just wouldn't - not her style. I was amazed, however, at all the labels thrown onto her online the first time she ran, just because she had curly hair: "cat lady" (she doesn't have any cats, actually), "crazy activist" (active but far from crazy), etc. There seemed to be this general association of curly hair with a lack of emotional control, or otherwise lack of tidiness. I wonder how many of those associations are filtered through old racial tropes that we might not even be able to identify anymore.

Duchesse said...

I have a close friend who's black. For years she wore a wig, which always looked like one, in a smooth "white" style. I never told her it looked stiff and fake, but eventually she grew tired of an itchy scalp and wore her own hair in short braids. She looks fantastic, not just because she's a beauty, inside and out, but because her head and neck can move freely.

I, a white woman, have curly spoingy ringlets. I stopped smoothing it in the mid-70s. Get a lot of compliments. People who think curl is "crazy" are uptight- so who cares.

Deja Pseu said...

I think it's a shame that black women's hair, when styled more naturally is seen by some as a political statement. Personally, I love the braids, twists and short, short natural looks that some black women wear. I think they look confident and regal; maybe that is threatening to some people?

Anonymous said...

I think it's sad we still live in a world where we can't celebrate our differences.
Hair always is best when it's allowed to be what it wants to be - and if it wants to be an Afro, that's gorgeous!
But maybe, and this is a very small maybe, we always want the opposite of what we have: Women with curls want straight hair, straight haired ones want curls, tall women want to be smaller, smaller ones taller ...
Wouldn't it be nice if we could just be happy with what we have?

Rubi said...

I've got thick naturally curly hair which I decided to grow long a few years ago (at age 44) -- it's one of my chief glories, and I get a lot of comments on how pretty it is. To think I spent most of my youth trying to "tame" it -- which mostly just resulted in wide frizz!

BTW, the book that helped me love my hair comes highly recommended: "Curly Girl," by Lorraine Massey.

Rose said...

Michelle Obama needs to do what works best for her. Some women find it easier to deal with relaxed hair on a daily basis, some women find it easier to deal with curly hair, some women wear dreads or they braid their hair. I'm African American/racially-mixed: my hair curl is natural, ahem, the color is not. So many women (and men) go through different hairstyles during different periods in their lives depending on their daily job and responsibilities. I don't think that Michelle's hair will be going natural during the next 4 years.

Hair in the African American community can be such a hot button issue that I have decided that I'm going to personally refrain from harshly judging Michelle, Malia and Sasha's hair for the duration of the Obama presidency. I think that Michelle will be fine--she has her own sense of style, but the girls? This will be interesting to watch. :)

Anonymous said...

Rubi - I discovered that book when I lived in Florida. I used to drive for hours to an Israeli hairdresser in Boca Raton because he was the only person I could find who understood curly hair and didn't want to attack me with a hairdryer.

Afrobella said...

I thought your post was really interesting. I am a black woman who actually has a blog for women of color who embrace their natural hait texture - I applaud Michelle Obama's decision to keep her children's hair natural while they are young. It is up to Sasha and Malia if they want to start using chemical relaxers when they are old enough to make those decisions themselves.

It is a continual source of sadness for me that the way my hair naturally grows from my head is interpreted as "militant," "threatening," or "crazy." I have been asked often about the "statement I am trying to make" with my hair, and the only statement is -- this is who I am, this is the texture I was born to have. Love me or leave me.

Anonymous said...

"People who think curl is "crazy" are uptight- so who cares."

It's not that simple.

BTW, "Curly Girl" is a very good book. The Afrobella website is a good source for products, but the Obama girls usually have relaxed hair.

I think black women should wear their hair in a style consistent with their lifestyle (corporate life requires a more conservative style), budget, personality, and their hair (some women's hair can't take harsh relaxers).

I am tired of silly people who think they're more "authentic" because they wear their hair in a natural style. Some of those styles take several hours to do. That may be nonchemical, but it's hardly natural.

I'm African American and have gone without a relaxer for over a year. I like the length, but it's hard to do anything with it except pull it back. When I've had shoulder length curly styles, helped by a mild relaxer, I still thought it looked messy at times.

A local TV station did a half-baked "experiment" on curly hair. The white woman reporter presented herself before a panel of men. Not only did they hate her curly hair, they didn't recognize her as the same person when she appeared before them with straight hair. When she asked some young schoolchildren what they thought of her curly hair, they said it looked messy, as if she'd just gotten out of bed. ...
Where are they getting these attitudes?

Job recruiters said that curly hair showed she was "independent."

What bothered me was the complete absence of discussion of why curly hair had all these connotations.

Yes, kuri, the racist tropes are definitely there.

Anonymous said...

I believe I discussed this earlier, but last year a Glamour magazine editor got into a lot of hot water when she told a group of lawyers that natural styles should be avoided by black women in business. I think she said an Afro looked too "militant."

I think that corporate people do have to dress more conservatively and attempt to fit in -- they understand that it's not a "love me or leave me" world. Moreover, it is much harder for black people because of restrictive codes that work best for white men with straight hair, but how dare this blonde bimbo characterize an Afro that way? What was she doing giving style advice to lawyers in the first place?

Anonymous said...

More on this issue. And again, if curly hair on a white woman is borderline, think about the impact of typically black hair:

“I think it’s an important issue. We’re bordering the line of almost becoming a myth that if you have straight hair you are more professional or appear to be more professional, and that’s truly not the case,” said Ouidad, a pioneer in the pro-curly-hair movement since 1984, author of Curl Talk, and owner of the tony 57th street eponymous salon.

Ann O'Dyne said...

Hair products? I'm amazed Madonna has any hair left with what hers has been through.

Pale pale pale Nicole Kidman is the Supreme Example of Totally Controlled hair.

Contrast the photos of her when she is working (appearances, filming, advert campaigns) with the candid snaps in which she has clearly 'done' her own hair and it is straggly and curly.

Some of the worlds "most glamorous" women like Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson, Jemima Khan, are really just blessed with perfectly accidental 'good' hair.

Gerome Ragni and James Rado had great success with a musical about HAIR. We've all got it (or not).

Anonymous said...

I'm a white woman with thick, frizzy, curly hair. I was teased about it at school and throughout my life it has drawn a great deal of unsoliticted comment, alot of it negative. The widespread and increasing popularity of straightening irons and the super-straight styles of recent years have made me more self conscious than ever about my wild locks. When I go to a hair salon to buy shampoo or conditioner the sales assistants assume I want anti-frizz or straightening products. I've experimented with short styles, up dos and ponytails etc but reached the conclusion that the most flattering style based on my face and neck length etc is when my hair is worn shoulder length and loose. I keep my hair well trimmed and shiny and am trying to be a proud curly girl but am very aware that people make assumptions about my personality based on my hair. Also disappointing is the number of women in rest rooms who have confided their dirty little secret "I used to have hair like yours but then I bought some straighteners..." I sincerely hope curly/frizzy hair does not remain such a grooming no-no.

Anonymous said...

To Ann O'Dyne: I strongly disagree with the term "GOOD HAIR". I a ma black woman that knows and believes my nappy thick hair is good hair. Having straight hair doesn't mean you're hair is good. I have worn my hair naturally for 15 years, and I love the texture. I am beautiful for loving what God gave me.