Sunday, 9 November 2008
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.