A few years ago, Chris Rock produced a documentary called “Good Hair” which detailed black women’s and by extension, the black community’s obsession with hair alteration—which includes, the use of hair extensions, hair weaves and hair straightening creams etc. This, all done in a bid to gain the elusive status of having the so called—“Good Hair”. That being said, what is society’s definition of “Good Hair”? While this may differ from society to society and from person to person, the most popular understanding of the term reflects a western-centric view of beauty, where in a woman’s hair is long, full, silky and soft, thereby considered “aesthetically pleasing” to the eye.
Why the big fuss about black hair?
In answering this question, I decided to trace the history and by extension, the “meaning” of black hair in society. My literary journey took me back to 15th Century Africa where hairstyles were indicative of marital status, age, religion, identity, wealth and socioeconomic status. Later on during the slave era, hair more often reflected the sort of labour one was engaged with, as field labourers often hid their manes behind a scarf while “house slaves” had to wear wigs, similar to the hair styles of their masters, as a sign of acceptance by the household. Fast forward to the 1900’s, and the “hot-comb” was invented, to help black women manage their “kinky” locks. But the “hot” or “pressing” comb” was not without its problems, because once the straightened hair was exposed to moisture, it would return back to its original state. So in the 1960’s the chemical straightener or relaxer was invented. This new product managed the shortfalls of the pressing comb because its effects were more permanent and only required re-application every 2 to 3 months. But in the 1980’s weaves took center-stage and opened a whole new possibility for styling black hair.
So what then does this talk about black hair all mean?
For decades, black hair alteration has been embarked upon for societal acceptance, as straighter hair is often equated to “white aesthetic ideal”. Further to this, the media is awash (and by extension plays an important role in re-enforcing this perception), with images of women who adorn weaves and straight hair, being called beautiful and starring in leading roles. Better yet, when was the last time you saw a Miss World or Miss Universe with an Afro, dreadlocks or cornrows? In the more corporate settings, many women fear rejection or career stagnation if they opt to wear their hair in its natural state. Whether we like it or not, there is an implicit socio-political message being communicated which is that black hair is not “good enough” and has to be altered in order to gain societal approval. At a rudimentary level, hair alteration can be seen as just that—trying to change your looks but at a deeper level, hair alteration carries a strong socio-political message.
Why do black women choose to alter their hair?
Not all women choose to wear weaves for the reason given above. Many black women (hair alteration or not), feel very comfortable in their own skin, but choose to alter their hair because of a couple of reasons. In my opinion, the primary reason is for easier hair management, given the sometimes tough or “nappy” nature of black ethic hair. With the demands of modern living, juggling career and family life, the last thing you need is a daily battle with your hair (which sometimes seems to have a mind of its own) Second, it provides versatility in terms of styling options (don’t you love how you can rock up to the office with short locks one week and the next, have such long hair, leaving your non-black colleagues astounded as to how fast your hair can grow in a few weeks? Anyway I am sure most of them have caught up by now to the array of hair options open to black people). Third, hair alteration (and weaves in particular) is sometimes used as a means of protective styling, such that you can change your look without damaging your own natural hair. And four, I think (and I am sure others will agree as well) that altered hair is a lot neater to look at. I mean with altered hair, all the strands seem to be in perfect unison (which makes for a great selfie, if you know what I mean).
Back to the roots.
Despite the preponderance with hair alteration, there is a growing movement of black women who choose not to alter their hair but to instead rock their own natural locks. I call this the resurgence of the “fro”, taken from the word “Afro” which is symbolic of Africa. The movement is part of a broader society of black women across the world, connected through social networks, with the sole aim of encouraging women to wear their natural hair and use natural products that cause less hair damage. Within this movement, women have opted to re-grow their hair from scratch in order to rid it of previously infused chemicals. This often involves cutting off the hair right to the scalp or letting the hair grow out so as to cut off parts that have been altered by chemical products. While some of us (me included) may cringe at the thought of growing our hair from scratch, it is a movement that is quickly gaining momentum, (needless to say that wearing your hair natural has many benefits and almost no disadvantages). Many converts of the “fro” movement have reported fuller texture and better hair growth since going natural. Going natural often helps reverse years of hair damage such as; receding hairline and traction alopecia (hair loss)—caused by excessive braiding, or extensions that pull on the scalp. For these and many other reasons (some personal) black women across the globe have chosen to return back to their roots (so to speak) and embraced the “fro”.
As I write the concluding section of this piece, I am forced to reflect on my own hair journey and consider my past hair choices. I strongly believe that I will soon start a different hair journey, one that takes me back to the roots.
Photo courtesy of Helia dos Santos
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