[As we continue our weeklong discusion of black hair, columnist Pia Guerrero suggested that I share this post that originally appeared on Adios Barbie.]
written by Diane Longwood
From the time we arrive kicking and screaming into the world, many Black people are ensnarled in debate about our hair. “Good” hair. Nappy hair. We’ve got names for every texture, and they ain’t always nice.
I know Black girls who are comfortable weighing 200 pounds, showing cellulite, and flaunting curves that would send other girls running to the gym. But ask those same sisters to leave the house without their hair done? That’s a different story. Few of us are truly at ease with the coarse hair texture that comes courtesy of our African roots. In the beauty spectrum, our natural hair isn’t even on the map. Given the option, most Black girls would gladly wake up with a full, flowing head of hair instead of the short, hard-to-grow variety that is often our birthright.
It doesn’t help that many mainstream magazines conveniently forget to represent the average Black woman. With a few notable exceptions (think: Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu), the Black beauties we see in the media either sport butt-length, Tyra tresses (some natural, some not), relaxed ‘dos that need frequent touch-ups, or expensive microbraids that require a round-the-clock team of trained stylists to maintain.
It’s enough to make every day a “bad hair day”—even for the strongest Black woman. Unless, of course, we ask ourselves a few questions.
In junior high, it became especially important that my hair was always done. I grew up in a neighborhood where Black girls who didn’t “maintain” their hair earned hurtful nicknames like “Buckwheat” and “nappyhead.” I watched commercials and met other Black people who told me, in so many words, that if my hair didn’t look good, I didn’t look good.
Because like many African Americans, I have a lot of Native American ancestry, my hair was shoulder-length and thick. At a time when insecurity was second nature, this was not a good thing. Everyone around me was hooked on hair. Uncles, cousins, grandparents, and immediate family would constantly tell me, “Never cut your hair!” and “A woman’s hair is her crowning glory.” I also knew males aplenty who preferred dating long-haired girls.
It became worse when girls divided over hair. When boys talked to me, girls at my school would say things like, “The only reason he likes her is because of that hair,” or the ever-famous, “It ain’t real—it looks like a wig, anyway.”
If that wasn’t enough, people would constantly compare my hair texture with my half Native American mother’s. While mine was brown and thick, hers was straight, black and shiny as patent leather. As soon as I introduced friends to my mom, they would ask the inevitable question: How come your hair ain’t like hers?
Eventually, I got tired of the pressure, and hacked several inches off my hair. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I felt free.
Then hair weaves and extensions came into style, and it was time when some men felt the need to put their two cents in and dog every woman who had one. This put girls in a tangled position. On the one hand, we were so forcefully taught that men prefer long, Caucasian-looking hair. We saw it in the women they chose to date. We saw it on television, in the movies, where all the “beautiful” sisters had—surprise—long hair.
How could these same men turn on the very women they had made feel unworthy because of their hair? It was the ultimate hypocrisy.
Men like hair, so women who don’t have much of their own go buy some. To be called fake sends the message: If you’re not born with it, you’re not worth it. This is reinforced when some Black people use now-common terms like “good hair” to describe hair with texture as far from African as possible.
In mainstream society, many companies will not even hire us unless we make our hair look like white folks’ hair. Honestly, I think many big companies would quietly send us packing for other reasons if we showed up in a business suit sporting dreads, an afro, or a natural—even though these are natural hairstyles that women can wear without spending money on weaves or perming our hair with potentially harmful chemicals.
Hopefully enough of us will stand up to these restrictions and silly standards, and stop letting hair rule our lives. Sure, we could easily spend all our spare time and money in a salon. But we could also spend it traveling, learning, and growing instead.
In the end, I’d like to hope that it’s not what’s on our heads that really counts as much as what’s in them.