Friday, September 08, 2006

On Hair

(Digression: Guess What I'm doing? My doc gave me today off and told me to take it easy for the weekend, so I'm in front of the computer, wrapped up in my favorite, old blue-with-dolphins comforter. And I just rolled out of bed 10 minutes ago. Don't hate!)

On with the topic at hand. A few days ago (okay, it's been more, but I'm catching up), Terrence posted about colorism in black communities and how/why a majority of our children interviewed prefer white dolls over black ones and think that black somehow translates into bad. Where do they get this from, he wondered. I wonder. We all wonder. So, I'm taking a look at my own family. And what I'm discovering is that, even when relatives don't flat out say white is good and black is bad, children still get the message.

So, I'll begin with hair (color will come later). On the earliest professional photo I have, I have on a little blue dress and I am way too cute. But my hair is fighting with myriad little red rubberbands. When I asked my mom why she didn't just comb it out and leave it alone, she promptly dismissed that notion with, "I wasn't gon' leave it wild like that!" Wild, of course, meaning natural. You see, much to my mother's consternation, I was born with what she thinks of as the "bad hair gene." She started pressing it when I was three and by the time I was seven or so, I already had regular beauty shop appointments.

Her efforts in between my every-two-weeks appointments were amazing. She pinned it up every night and every morning before I got in the tub (water was the bane of my pressed hair's existence). She made sure we had huge umbrellas everywhere. I wasn't to "play too hard and sweat [my] hair out." And on Saturday nights, before I could watch Mid-South Wrestling, she had to "touch up" my kitchen and edges. So, we sat beside our gas stove, she slathered heavy grease on my scalp, and proceeded to burn the hell out of my forehead and neck.

But, my hair was straight though. And that's what counted. That is the lesson I took from my childhood--never mind the burns and all day beauty shop trips--the end result was more than worth it.

Which is pretty much how I still treat my hair experiences. I have my hair relaxed every four weeks and would like to cut it to 3 and a half but my stylist says hell no. (Like,I'm scheduled for a relaxer on Tuesday, but if I showed y'all my kitchen today, there are black people who would disown me.) But I want it as straight as it can be. Even if that means sitting in the beauty shop for 5 and a half hours (as I did a few weeks ago) on a weekday when I have so much I can be doing.

And then, there are the nemeses of my hair's existence (well, co-nemeses, because I'm still not big on water), my sister and my best-friend Texas. My parents are so proud of my sister's hair. No matter what she does, it is always long (which is very important in some communities, trust me), thick, and black. Always shiny and lustrous. When it's time for a relaxer, she gets a gentle puff, where as mine rolls back like the Red Sea at the feet of Moses. And, as my mom gushes, she still has that soft curly "baby hair" at her temples and edges. People always compare us and--you guessed it--Elle always loses. We used to go to the beauty shop same day, come out and people exclaim all over hers. And you know what I get? "Yours is nice, too." When she's not around, then my hair is gorgeous and healthy and people love the highlights. But the moment she appears with that damn curtain of hair...

And best friend Texas. She has the mythical black hair that she only relaxes two or three times a year and, that most cherished of all things, when she wets it, it curls into long beautiful spirals. She is biracial, but damn!

But of course, that is from the point of view of the nappy-headed one. They willl tell you that they struggle with being black and having hair issues, too. My sister has always had sensitive, dry skin and eczema so the relaxers really do a number on her some times. In fact, she has to replenish the oils in her hair frequently where as I'm a little-oil-sheen-and-go type of chick. And my best friend spent a lot of time searching for better conditioners, frizz controllers, a stylist who understood her hair type, etc.

But, in the end, we all have straight hair. I'm just not sure we're happy about it.


Ann said...


Great post.

"So, we sat beside our gas stove, she slathered heavy grease on my scalp, and proceeded to burn the hell out of my forehead and neck.

But, my hair was straight though. And that's what counted. That is the lesson I took from my childhood--never mind the burns and all day beauty shop trips--the end result was more than worth it."

Yes, I remember those lazy, hazy days when---who am I kidding?

Let's start over.

I remember those burnt to a crisp days when my mother "ran" the straightening comb through my hair, too. She did not burn me very often. Now, older Sis, well, that was a whole different kettle of fish. Sis did not like to have to cook me and my younger sister's hair, so she would rush through it, burning the hell out of me and my sister.

As I got older, and went through the James Brown/"Say It Loud, I'm Black and Im Proud"/"Black is Beautiful"/"To Be Young, Gifted, and Black" stage, I learned to love my hair in its natural beautiful state.

Like I said over at Rachel's, we black people have the most unique hair type in the world. Why, oh why, on Earth, be ashammed of it? Yes, I realize living in America is a constant battle to maintain not only your sanity as a black person, but most especially, your personhood as a black person.

It ain't easy for a lot of black people out there to prevail against the dominant society's idea of what constitutes beauty.

But, it is worth it in the end to accept, and love, the beauty, the cottony softness, the "gravity-defying" uniqueness that is black women's hair.

kactus said...

thanks for this elle.

I go through some shit with my daughter's hair, and she has that so-called "good hair" too. Even so, I'm constantly getting pressured to get it permed or braided or something, anything, to make it less "wild and nappy." From the time she was tiny and little spirals started sticking out of her head, total strangers felt like they had the right to tell me to "perm that mess" cuz, ya know, how was I, the white mama, gonna know how to deal with it?

Having witnessed first-hand my friends' struggles with their hair and hair-image, I would never, never, never presume to tell a black woman how or what or when or anything about their hair.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...