Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: Erin Aubrey Kaplan wrote an article about Michelle Obama for Salon magazine and it wasn't about the First Lady's ass

Erin Aubrey Kaplan is back on Salon writing about Michelle Obama and this time the article isn't about the First Lady's gluteus maximus, but her coiffure. Does it mean something that Obama wears her tresses chemically relaxed, rather than "natural?" Put another way, would Barack Obama be the president and his wife applauded as a style maven if she rocked locs or a TWA (teeny weeny afro)?

A hair change shouldn't be a radical notion; every beauty magazine I've ever read trumpets makeovers every month. But black images -- indeed, the very idea of beauty -- are still inherently political, mirrors of our national mood about race and ancient tensions between reality and what we prefer to see. Hair is a particularly good mirror. A reality check: In this alleged new era of racial enlightenment, how would we see Michelle if she switched to braids, twists, curls or dreads, if she looked more like the black person she is? We applaud the sparkling new role models in the White House. But do we expect the Obamas to define a new black mainstream or to hew to an idealized model created by a white mainstream that blacks internalized long ago?

Hair is a very complicated piece of that model, historically speaking, as brutal a demarcation of worthiness as skin color. Hair texture and skin color work in tandem: The darker you are, the harder you have to offset it with "good" hair in order to be considered attractive or acceptable. If Michelle weren't dark-skinned with classic black features, she might not be so wedded to super-straight locks. Of course, this is also about class and station -- most professional black women of a certain pay scale adopt the relaxed look as part of the overall look of success. And then there's convenience. A good friend of mine pointed out that processed hair is often more convenient than unprocessed black hair, which requires quite a bit of maintenance and time. But she also agreed that issues like practicality are virtually impossible to separate from the pressure on black women to have relaxed hair in the first place. Which is why I suspect that even a mild curl on Michelle, à la Oprah's lioness look, would make people nervous. It was no accident that last year's instantly infamous New Yorker cover that depicted the Obamas as White House terrorists featured Michelle with a huge Afro. Barack's turban was a bad joke; Michelle's big hair was a legitimate threat that could materialize at any moment.

One of my favorite inaugural moments was the Rev. Joe Lowery invoking that crude but accurate black folk saying about the hierarchy of skin color: If you're white, you're all right; if you're brown, stick around; if you're black, get back. A parallel saying for hair gradations would be something like: If you're straight, you're great; if you got curl, you got a pearl; if you're nappy, you're unhappy. Lowery was voicing that sentiment in order to bury it, but he was also admitting that it still has great power. Weaves and relaxers have become de rigueur for black women past the age of 13. The unprocessed black woman is assumed to be a vegan, a rebel, a Rasta, a nationalist, an artist, or some combination of the above. And for a black woman to wear her hair "out" -- that is, to wear it in its natural state with minimal moderations -- well, she must be so far out on the fringe that everyday presentation doesn't matter. Most likely she's an entertainer -- Erykah Badu, Diana Ross or Rufus-era Chaka Khan. But in the real world that Michelle Obama represents and that most of us inhabit, there is no black equivalent for the wash-and-wear "out" style that white women wear all the time, and have worn for 30 years. For them, it's become so routine that we now have all sorts of expensive products meant to create untamed, wind-tossed, day-at-the-beach hair. But natural, of course, is a loaded description. You really don't want to see me with beach hair. Read more...

I found Kaplan's article quite thoughtful, although I could have done without the spreading of the "natural hair is more difficult to care for" meme.). I liked it. It almost made me forgive the infamous booty article. But judging by the comments to the piece, I may be the only one who "got" what the writer was talking about. It's always a dangerous thing to wade into the "letters" section on Salon. Such progressive pomposity!

First, there is the requisite attempt to minimize the unique effect of European beauty standards on black women, which occurs whenever a subject like hair comes up in "mixed" company.


OK - I'm Caucasian. Left to its natural inclinations, my hair would be gray, hang completely straight, and fall in my face constantly. Every month I pay $$$ to have it colored, cut, and highlighted, and every day I wash it and dry it so that it looks presentable. I work everyday at an executive position, as did and does Michelle Obama. My point is that there are socially acceptable ways to look -- she presents herself in that manner. I don't wear my hair "naturally" and neither does she -- so what? We both wear our hair in a way that befits our position and what we feel looks attractive. She's African-American -- I doubt any of us will forget that (nor will she) regardless of how her hair is styled.


The pressure that black women feel to go to extreme lengths to obscure the nature of their hair from the cradle to the grave is not the same as a white woman deciding to get highlights to look smart for her professional job. It would be the same if kinky hair was coveted and white families vigilantly watched as a baby's hair grew in, hoping that the little might have "good" nappy hair. It would be the same if white women spent thousands annually and avoided everyday activities to obscure long, straight hair, deemed unattractive by the masses. It would be the same if the models in Vogue rocked big, kinky impenetrable 'fros or crinkled locs. It would be the same if an editor at Glamour magazine caught heat for telling a group of female attorneys that "ethnic" styles like bobs and ponytails are "political" and inappropriate in the workplace. It would be the same if a white woman could be fired for simply wearing her hair down. It would be the same if long, straight hair were considered unfeminine. It would be the same if, to stress her dangerous radicalness, Cindy McCain was featured on the cover of The New Yorker wearing her hair long, blonde and straight.

ALL women suffer under rigid and often sexist beauty standards, but there is a beauty hierarchy borne of racism that puts women with African physical features at the bottom. To not acknowledge that is offensive. Few women's physicalities match the ones that are sold to us as ideal, but it is hard to be further from that ideal that a black woman.

Then, you have those serious-minded Salon readers for whom an article about black women's hair is simply not important. Rarely is it said that the online magazine's constant articles about "mommy wars" among white, upper-middle-class women are frivolous. Clearly, there is a hierarchy of what personal things are important enough for public discussion, too.

And, lastly there are the "talking about hair is sooo not feminist" types. One rational commenter called jansary challenged those folks:

You can argue that Michelle's hair does not HAVE the effect on public opinion that Kaplin posits - but please don't say that Erin Kaplan is stupid or anti-feminist for writing this piece. It is certainly stupid, if not anti-feminist, to suggest that a discussion of typically "feminine" concerns, such as hair, cannot be part of an intelligent discourse about racial stereotypes and expectations, when in fact those "feminine concerns" are an major underlying FACTOR in how that woman's professionalism is perceived.

OF COURSE it shouldn't matter how Michelle Obama wears her hair - of COURSE she should be appreciated purely for her brains and accomplishments - but she isn't, and that is what we are discussing here. We are discussing Erin Kaplin's very astute hypothesis that if Michelle had worn braids, or cornrows, or a 'fro, or really ANY hairstyle that isn't a mockup of the hair that comes naturally to waspy white women, that she and her husband would have been perceived as "too black" or "too low class" or even "too stupid", and would not have been voted into the white house. Saying that her hair was not a factor in the campaign is like saying that race itself was not a factor! are you effing kidding me?! Anyone who thinks that Michelle has chosen this current hairstyle purely because she "likes" it, or that she hasn't given a thought to how she presents herself, is so naive that the naivety becomes offensive.


It is tiresome to be pressured to alter your natural self to be deemed acceptable. It is more tiresome when the mainstream most responsible for the pressure insists that it is all in your head.

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