Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dear Jessica Berger Gross: From a happily kinky woman

...about your article on Salon:
"It doesn't have to be this way," Danielle said. "There's a conditioning treatment called Brazilian Blowout, and you're the perfect candidate." What she described was the kind of magic I'd longed for since I was in fifth grade, back when I first realized the popular girls had one thing in common: straight, long (usually blond) hair. My hair was shorter, darker and -- like me -- less well behaved. But the Brazilian Blowout (BB) would give my hair the weight and texture it needed, making my hair smooth, manageable and, yes, significantly more straight. Danielle had come across the treatment while doing hair in Los Angeles. "This is what all the Hollywood actresses do," she assured me. 
There is nothing wrong with short hair or dark hair. And the association of highly-textured hair with wild and inappropriate behavior is something those of us who chose to wear our hair naturally fight against every day. Some of us even find our jobs in jeopardy. Thanks, though, for giving credence to that bit of idiocy.
When I came home, I researched the Brazilian Blowout. Concerns about formaldehyde were easy to find, but my denial was powerful. I got high on the fumes of before-and-after photos. I found a posting on Nicole Richie's website in which she proclaimed, "You HAVE to get a Brazilian blowdry!" She could swim, leave the house without blow drying. She could live a freer and prettier life.
Because straight hair is totally prettier. Those of us, including most black women, who do not naturally have straight hair simply drew the short straw in the genetic lottery. We can never be naturally pretty with all our curls and kinks and NAPS. No surprise a biracial woman like Nicole Richie needs some chemical assistance. Oh, and, speaking of...You're taking advice from Nicole Richie!? The same Nicole Richie who was content to be sidekick to Paris Hilton. Yeah...
I realize it's odd, perhaps even embarrassing, that a grown, Vassar-educated woman would be taking advice from a starlet once best known as Paris Hilton's sidekick. But understand that a woman's connection with her appearance is not logical. It's a squishy thing born of years of self-consciousness, weird school-age run-ins and perceived wisdom about what the rest of the world finds attractive. Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" was a funny, bracing attempt by the comedian to understand the painful, elaborate processes undertaken by his wife and, by extension, millions of African-American women. But torture in the name of beauty doesn't belong to any race, or any generation. Corsets mangled rib cages, curlers were the albatross of the 1960s housewife. Anyone who thinks today's beauty standards are cruelty-free obviously hasn't worn heels.
But I had one more reservation: Jewish girl guilt. At my recent 20th high school reunion on Long Island, my friend Karen's hair was curly, short and adorably gamine. She wondered aloud why everyone else in the room suddenly had silky straight hair. Were all of us Jewish, Italian and otherwise "ethnic" ladies denying our heritage, trying to erase our otherness? Was I wrong not to rock my Jewfro?
Then again, if Michelle Obama can straighten her hair and be considered a feminist role model and African-American icon, then I can straighten mine without losing my feminist cred and being labeled a self-hating Jew. Report me to the women's studies department or the local rabbinate if you must: The Brazilian Blowout changed my life.

First. The bit of cultural tourism that was "Good Hair" does not offer an accurate, in-depth explanation of why most African American women straighten their hair. It was a light film by a comedian that didn't delve much into history or the larger society's Eurocentric beauty standard. (Hint: Is it surprising that black girls grow up with a pathological hatred of their hair when mainstream magazines like Salon run articles extolling how super-awesome and beautiful life is with straight tresses.)

Second. It is true that ALL women, regardless of race, suffer under rigid beauty standards. But, in this country, beauty and femininity = whiteness by default. (Women of color readers, raise your hand if you've ever been called "pretty...for a black orLatina girl.") The impact of standards that privilege features commonly thought of as "white" impacts girls and women of color uniquely. Most every woman falls short of the straight haired, light blond cultural idea, but white women with brown hair aren't coded as ugly or unprofessional and undesirable. But a few years ago, a Glamour beauty editor told a room full of female attorneys that black women with natural hair are just that. Trust. Michelle Obama and her daughters face a whole different set  of pressures  in the public eye. Consider the furor when Malia Obama wore twists on a trip abroad and Red Staters erupted with cries of "ghetto" and "ugly."

I know that Chris Rock convinced you that you totally "get" the whole black women and hair thing. You don't. So quit leveraging our experiences to justify your own.

Look, I don't begrudge you your choice. every woman has a right to do whatever she wishes with her hair for whatever reason. Lots of women I love and admire straighten their hair. Whatevs. My beef, Jessica, is that your article in a major online magazine trots out nearly every bias there is against curly hair. It is less attractive. It is hard to manage. It is unruly. Women with textured hair are less beautiful, less fabulous and have less exciting lives. That's a shitty thing to think. Especially when you consider that most all black women have textured hair--from wavy to kinky. And that all those biases are fiction born of sexism and racism. (And capitalism, to boot. That awesome retro chic stylist would make far less money from you if you thought your natural curls were just as pretty as straight hair.) Most of us give in to the beauty standard in some way. That's human. But your article seems to endorse and proselytize for it. And that makes life harder for lots of women, especially ones like me.


Related article on What Tami Said: Nappy love--Or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace the kinks

My hair is nappy. It is soft and cottony, a mass of varying textures. My hair is fun to play with. I like to pull at the spiral curls and feel them snap back into place. My hair defies the laws of gravity. It reaches energetically toward the sky. My hair is unique. In a fashion culture that genuflects to relaxed, flat-ironed tresses and stick-straight weaves, my fluffy, puffy, kinky mane stands out. It is revolutionary. My hair is natural. It is the way God made it. My hair is nappy. And it is beautiful. Read more...

Photo Credit: Good_1


irna79 said...

Nothing to add but WORD. To all this! Thanks, Tami.

Tina Portis said...

Well said!

LilySea said...

Thank you thank you!
I get so sick of white women saying, "oh, it's not a race thing, I hate MY hair too!" (I get this as a white mom of African American daughters trying to explain hair issues to white moms with white kids, too.) What IS it with white liberals who think it is a good idea to deny racialized difference???
Hair is totally a race thing. It has HUNDREDS of YEARS of history.
I take exception to Black men like Rock dissing Black women for doing whatever they want to with their own hair/bodies, but I also take exception to any reiteration of the white beauty standard that lies to my daughters by telling them they are not the prettiest girls in school BECAUSE of their incredible curls and naps, not in spite of them.
Here's to locs and braids and puffs and knots and afros and twists and cornrows and buzz cuts and all the beauty that is nappy!
My goal is to raise my girls to feel lucky for having such fabulous hair.

ContraWhit said...

My SIL does Brazilian blowouts and mentioned this at the Thanksgiving table...which became a mild issue. But at the end, she did understand--and agree!--with my points.

Kelly Hogaboom said...


The more I read it and the more I think on it, I believe any piece of beauty-performance apologist work dismissing stuff like a BB as an empowered choice, supports Whiteness and the Eurocentric beauty ideal. Women are free to do what they want but when a woman with beauty privilege (bio or paid for or whatever) writes a piece like this, she's usually incautious and completely reifies all sorts of harmful stuff.

LilySea said...

Besides, "Brazilian Blowout" sounds like something that happens after you eat a bad crab cake.

Chic Noir said...

Consider the furor when Malia Obama wore twists on a trip abroad and Red Staters erupted with cries of "ghetto" and "ugly."

there will always be people like this. We as blk people should not lose sleep over them. When we give them too much of our energy, we lose.

Chic Noir said...

BTW, the chemicals in those Brazilian blowout are horrible. Tami, Bantu, TCB and Hawaiian Silky ain't got nothing on them. Stylists have to use masks, yes masks and not of the paper variety when applying the chemicals. Some places also hair mandatory air vents. I think the NY Times had a story about Brazilian blowouts a few weeks ago. check it out.

and they make your hair fall out too.

ContraWhit said...

As to the phrase, "Brazilian blowout"--I first thought it had to do with a bikini wax and was rather horrified by the idea.

Lady C said...

I read the entire article, and it seems the author came to her senses by the end of it.

I also jumped over to the comment section at Salon. The people there couldn't have been more hateful.

I found it enlightening that a caucasian woman, though she is Jewish, had the same insecurities about her hair as do many AA women because of Eurocentric beauty standards.

Phoebe said...

To LilySea: Jewish hair politics, while not the same as black hair politics, aren't the same as the white-woman-with-bad-hair-day phenomenon. It is a race thing, even for some women typically (but not universally) classified as white.


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