[Editor’s note: Last week, while folks here on Anti-Racist Parent were discussing Renee’s compelling post on Zahara Jolie-Pitt’s hair, some of us behind the scenes were talking about a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that also raised issues of beauty standards and norms surrounding black hair. Below, is another installment of a multi-part discussion of the piece and black hair politics.]
written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Deesha Philyaw; originally posted at Mamalicious
Today is Hair Day. I will wrangle two-year-old Peyton in order to remove the beads from her hair, unbraid it, wash it, rebraid it, and put the beads back on—all in the face of her protests, periodic snack and meal breaks, and the necessary Pull-up changes. I will pray for her to fall asleep, but she won’t until about the last 20 minutes or so. The whole process will take the better part of our day.
At my house, hair day has a long and troubled history. For years, despite countless beauty products, gadgets, and more patience than I ever knew I had, my older daughter Taylor (now 7) dreaded hair day. Hair Day meant hour upon hour of having me wash, blow dry, comb, part, braid—mess with—her hair, while she had to sit and hold her head just so. And it hurt.
I can hear the uninitiated asking, Why go through all of this trouble? Well, I don’t have much choice in the matter. In a culture that rarely includes my daughters in its beauty standard, I must counter that narrow standard with affirmation. I want my girls to look neat and feel positively about themselves, including their hair. Just as basic care for long hair by definition requires more time than caring for short hair, black hair that is not chemically treated requires a lot of TLC. I hope that in time my girls understand that all of the time and attention we give to their hair is borne of necessity and not vanity.
Entire books have been written on the care, feeding, and politics of black hair. I cannot do the topic justice in such a limited space, but I can summarize with this: Hair day is best taken with a nice glass of white wine (for me, not my daughters). The white wine takes the edge off of the squirming and the complaining. It soothes the generations-old legacy of whole days spent between mama’s knees or at the beauty salon, of harsh chemicals and happy Easter press ‘n curls. It tempers the whisper that says “black hair hurts,” and invites the reminder that black hair is beautiful.
In addition to employing a gentle hand on Hair Day, I have also shared with my girls picture books which celebrate their hair. I Love My Hair, Nappy Hair, and Wild, Wild Hair all feature little black girls, their lovely, versatile hair, and not-so-lovely Hair Days. All are appropriate for even the youngest children, though the rhythmic Nappy Hair offers most in the way of socio-political commentary. Its heroine gets teased about her hair, but a wise uncle reminds her that her hair survived the long journey from Africa and one curl of it “is the only perfect circle in nature.”
About a year ago, I proudly entered a new era of Hair Day history, reducing my Hair Day Drama by over 50%. Taylor decided to get her hair locked (dreadlocked) like mine, which means one trip to the hairdresser (Miss Dionne) every six weeks or so for maintenance. There are still some tender-scalp tears as Miss Dionne twists the locks, but these are short-lived. And in between visits, my only interaction with Taylor’s hair is to add colorful beads or recommend the occasional headband.
Even as I revel in this new era, friends frighten me with tales of their adolescent and pre-adolescent daughters who have become preoccupied with their hair and overall appearance (and boys!) seemingly overnight. I know some of this is a normal part of child development, but it brings back not-so-fond memories of my own teenage misery and fretting about how I looked, if boys would find me attractive, and if I “measured up.” I didn’t look anything like the Beautiful People on TV and in magazines. I needed someone to let me know I was pretty and likable, so that I could feel better about myself.
My hope for my daughters is that they would weather the storm of adolescence without such a relentless search for their self-worth in the eyes of others. I want them to be healthy in this regard, and “healthy” lies somewhere between the self-loathing some women and girls feel toward their bodies, and the obsession with bodily “perfection” based on unrealistic beauty standard popularized by our media-saturated culture. As parents, I believe we can counter the cultural lie that beauty comes only in size 0 packages with straight, blonde hair and fair skin, without overemphasizing beauty itself. At our house, we do this in part by reading books like I Love My Hair and discussing all that is wonderful about black hair.
It’s a delicate balance, but I want my girls to love what grows on top of their heads, but care even more about what’s inside them.