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.)


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