Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The tyranny of natural hair

Spotted this video over on Post Bourgie (Thanks @underbellie!). In the accompanying post, Brokey McPoverty makes an excellent point about the expectations created by models used by many marketers of natural hair products. Check out this page at Miss Jessie's that encourages "silkeners" to get kink-free curls. The subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) message is that soft, uniform curls are pretty; naps and kinks not so much.

I think it is the rare black woman who doesn't grow up learning that "that Florida Evans shit" (as woman describes) ain't cute. It is hard to let go of that, even if one makes the decision to stop relaxing. It is still there for me--even after five years of being natural. I still prefer the twist outs that stretch and tame my hair to my wash-and-gos that result in shrunken curls and much frizz. It's a journey. And I am much better at embracing what I was born with than I was when I first did the "big chop."

But as I've written here before (and not just about natural hair), consumerism goes hand-in-hand with insecurity. There is no money to be made in us all feeling good about ourselves. If all women rejected the notion that light, straight and silky hair is the ideal, then who would fill the salons on Saturday afternoon? And who would buy all those relaxers and dyes and softeners? [I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with coloring or straightening. I'm talking about the notion that uncolored, unstraightened hair is ugly. Ex. coloring for fun or a change = good; coloring because dark hair is deficient = bad]

Companies have gotten wise to the growing number of black women who are ditching the relaxers and so they have to find another way to make money from us. The key is leveraging our insecurity over kink vs. curl. When I first cut off my relaxed hair, there was no natural hair section at Target. When my hair was the length of the woman's in the video, caring for it was super easy. I "washed" it with conditioner in the morning. Fingered some leave-in through and DONE.

Now I note there are all kinds of lotions and potions that one "needs" to wear natural hair. The woman in the video isn't lying. Drop in on a natural hair forum and you might think caring for natural hair is like nuclear physics. Gotta figure out your hair type...4c...4a...3c...To co-wash or not to co-wash?...Use this brush not that one...Buy this expensive product and that one, too...Let this thing sit on your hair for 30 minutes, followed by this thing and that thing for just the right curl...And a lot of this is done because we are supposed to look like the neatly curly women on the "after" side of that Miss Jessie's page. Except most of us naturally don't. So, we're not flat ironing every morning or sitting all day Saturday at the salon, but we're spending just as much time trying to make our naps conform. And so we trade one tyranny for another.

Yes, it takes time to learn to handle a texture that you've kept hidden from childhood. But eventually and ultimately, caring for healthy, natural black hair should be easy. It can be easy and simple. But the beauty industrial complex is determined not to make it so. And many of us in the natural hair community are buying into they're selling. And in doing so, we do a disservice to women like the one above.

P.S. I have to give a shout out to Oyin Handmade, a conscious, black-owned haircare company that I think gets it right. Gotta love a company that greets you with "Hello, beautiful." 


Renee said...

I think that I deal with the issue by keeping my own hair natural hair very short now that I no longer have dread locks. It is easy to work with, wash, and go basically. I have to admit that I am scared to let it grow out because it seems like way to much work. If I decide I want longer hair again I am simply going to let my dread locks come back.

Tami said...


I am seriously thinking of cutting my hair off again. The TWA was so easy to care for and...if I do say so myself...cute :). Also, I gave myself a really raggedy trim a few weeks ago. Can't decide whether to cut it all off or just wait for it to grow a little and even things up.

msladydeborah said...

Who defines who we are and what beauty is? To this day, I still find it difficult to embrace many of the images of Black femals beauty that are pandered in the public.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That image starts within and works its way out.

The sista on the video just turned me off. I am not drawn to anyone who uses a lot of negative words to describe theirselves. And it is that very description and how it is verbalized that says a lot about what she does not know about natural hair or herself pride.

Your hair is a matter of personal choice. The myth that your natural head of hair is a wash and go thing is not true. It is also about a mentality.

We went natural as an open expression of our beauty. That is why we put down our hot combs (Yes, I am that old) relaxers and let our hair be itself. It was also a form of political statement about who we are as a race of people. It is unique to us and either you know how to work it, or you're not of the mind to learn.

Anonymous said...

I've been natural for 14 years now and when I went natural there was nothing on the market for me. I keep it cut closely cropped for a few years but I found that as long as my hair was sufficiently moisturized I was okay. Back then I used a moisture rich Pantene shampoo and conditioner. There was no relaxed and natural. Guess what? I still use Pantene and never bothered purchasing the products for geared to natural hair. The other thing I used and still use is sta-sof-fro. Yes, old school and still marketed to men and it's cheap! I have tried to watch the videos on youtube and they haven't really enlightened me in the ways of managing my hair.

Everyone goes natural for whatever reason. I majored in chemistry and during a discussion of cosmetics I had an epiphany and cut my hair. It seems that being natural is now in fashion and there is a new obsession with concealing the naps--by emphasizing how you too can have curls! I know many women who have naturals and have a multitude of products on hand that "supposedly" makes the hair behave a certain way. It's like they are on a quest for a good hair elixir.

I am sure I may be in the natural minority when I say that I loved the truth in her commentary. In fact, I laughed a lot. I just learned the term "Protective Styles" this year. I do this but it was as she said it's because I don't feel like being bothered. Coming from Georgia and now living in Ireland, the fear of pneumonia should I leave the house with a wet head pretty much relegates me to these protective styles. I have a lot of Florida Evans days and I rock it cause I always thought Florida was fly, she looked like my grandmother...


purplekeychain said...

This post is so timely. I was in Target the other day and saw Miss Jessie's selling for $60... rip off. You are absolutely right, the new "trend" for black women and men to embrace their natural *blackness* is being commodified. I think back to when Ambi and Palmers were strickly sold to black women to lighten their skin -- and now there's either a lighter-toned sister or darker-toned white woman advertising it. I have been ranting, for the past 2 years, about how being black in the media is only acceptable if you are obviously bi-racial or are darker-toned with a certain hair-type.

I went natural again last year, and finding out the right style and products for my hair has been one of the hardest things in my life. I tried searching the haircare forums, and there are only a handful that embrace NAPS vs. curls. All that damn science that you mention - 4a, 4b and the rest of Andre Walker's bullshit - has just created yet another hierarchy for black women where the closer your attributes are to European, the better. His classification system never took into account MY hair type (lovingly referred to as CNapp by some, or 4C which most claim doesn't exist) - so no matter where you look on most of the forums, I don't even exist.

I would love to have a natural wavy texture to my hair to make it easier to STYLE, but I don't -- and part of embracing my hair and myself as a black woman in this culture is acceptance of ALL of my parts. It makes me think of Fat Acceptance, and how being thinner is about AESTHETICS, not health.

That media, and other black folks, tell me I'm not good enough to be "natural" because my hair doesn't hold a stupid S pattern when wet is infuriating. I spent the past year putting all kinds of crap in my hair to keep is soft and curly, and only recently decided that I like it looking wild and crazy and nappy and HEALTHY instead.

Anyway, I'm not a religious person, but when I read this post, all I could think of as a response was:


Kelly Hogaboom said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this Tami, and I also liked the post at PostBourgie. And I found the video pretty funny too at times although like msladydeborah it is in final estimation sad (for me) to see a woman use so many negative words to describe herself or her attributes... however so many women do it, internally or externally.

I've visited natural hair forums and seen the potions you describe and the classifications (some similar classifications exist on long hair sites too). Echoing your comments on commercialism and consumption, it seems there's a culture such that one is encouraged to spend a lot of money on one's hair, whichever route you go. I'm guessing one side effect is having hair be a status and beauty status marker much like one's car.

I hope this isn't a derail, but I've always been humbled and amazed by what black women can do with their hair, their own, natural, or no, their proficiency with wigs and weaves. I'd venture to say most white and non-black women have no clue. I appreciate being able to listen and learn a bit but the conversation also stuns me. My hair grows out of my head and knots in the back. I put it up with a million pins because I don't know how to do anything else, at all. I can't even braid my daughter's long slippery locks. I can't do anything with hair. It makes me feel ashamed and less of a woman sometimes.

Thanks for this post.

Tami said...

Purple--I think you're dead on with your comparing this to a lot of the messages we hear about weight, which are often reinforcements of mainstream beauty standards disguised as helpfulness or concern with health. A lot of natural hair products and regimens are really just the same old hair hierarchy played out in a different way.

Kelly--I wonder if that idea...of hair care tied to femininity...relates to natural women being encouraged to make caring for their hair as elaborate a process as wearing relaxed hair. Y'know, like, it just won't DO for a woman to just go to the barber and rock a no-muss little afro. We have to indulge in all these time-consuming treatments because women should spend lots of time beautifying themselves. Know what I mean?

Kelly Hogaboom said...

I think you are right. The part that confuses me is how beauty performance is disguised as *empowerment*. I'll be out and about feeling fine and then suddenly see myself (and my meager hair and clothes and adornments and lack of makeup) not as a woman beautiful in her own right and without fixin's, but as unsophisticated prole. I imagine this issue is going to differ depending the community and culture one is in but it seems to be a massive presence in Eurocentric mainstream.

The whole thing leaves me reticent to lavish compliments on women who are pulling off a (what I mentally find myself calling it) "high class" look, who are put together, look stunning. They are beautiful and do impressive things with their hair and makeup and fashion but does my compliments and admiration help or hurt?

For some reason this reminds me of Michelle Alison's piece, "Dear Fat Nutritionist – You’re pretty good looking (for a girl.)"

navelgazingbajan said...

I am in my early thirties and am a life long natural. My hair has never been "wash-and-go." I've spent hours on my hair in one sitting just so I wouldn't have to deal with it much later in the week. Natural hair styling still requires work but work of a different sort than if your hair is chemically processed.

Most of what I know about my own hair is by virtue of having to deal with it myself. When the online natural hair forums started to proliferate, I ventured in for a brief time. Even as someone who has always been natural the forums were overwhelming at times. I still to this day can't tell you whether my hair is 3a, 4c, or whatever. I also don't keep up with all of the various products out there. I can only imagine how intimidating this might be to someone who's thinking about transitioning from relaxed to natural hair.

Also, even though I've never had a relaxer in my life, I still had to and still am going through a process of accepting my hair. Right now I wear my hair locked, but before I did I had to wrangle with the notion of "acceptable" natural hair. See, even though I was resisting social dictates by keeping my hair natural, I still felt pressure to only choose styles that kept most criticism at bay.

tashsparkles said...

First, I think you've got the wrong idea about the woman in the video. She's been wearing her hair natural for over a decade, but is frustrated that so many of the 'natural hair divas' don't have true afro textured hair, so their advice is meaningless to her.

Second, I found Kimmaytube on YouTube. She has an entire series of videos on natural hair care, and if I were to follow her steps, I swear it would take over an hour to wash and condition my hair. Sorry, I just don't have that amount of time.

Third, I guess we all need to be focusing on WHY people are going natural. Is it to reconnect? Is it to lead a more simple life? Is it to get rid of harmful chemicals?

For me, I've decided to go natural because I'm not comfortable with the chemicals anymore. While I don't have the aforementioned 2 hrs for cleansing, I still want my hair to look its best. If properly conditioning my hair makes it look and feel better, I'm not opposed to spending a little time on my hair.

Why don't we give white women a hard time for all that they do to their hair? I know very few white women who wash and go, yet I'm supposed to do that because I've gone natural? That's not fair.

Lady C said...

Tami, I read somewhere that Miss Jessie's "stuff" is a texturizer. So, if anyone is seriously feeling her hair is lacking because her hair doesn't look like the picture on the box is right.

Though I go to a lot of blogs and videos concerned with natural hair, I don't get caught up in buying and trying out a lot of new products. I know what works for me, and I know what doesn't. If I don't, after 25 or more years of wearing my hair natural, then I need to call it a day.

I don't understand the woman in the video. How can she look herself in the mirror after that tirade? Self loathing is a powerful thing. I've never thought that Florida Evans hair was ugly. I even remember Cicely Tyson's TWA in the early 60's. She was gorgeous, and I wanted her hair.

aquababie said...

i've been natural 13 years. i think the reason i've never had an issue with my hair like the woman in the video is because i never had expectations. there weren't websites where you're bombarded with hair types or a plethora of hair products when i first let my relaxer go. i'm never been a product junkie either, so i'm not forever searching for that magic bullet to make my hair behave.

in my 13 years, i've had a TWA, mid sized fro, dreadlocks and now i'm back to rocking the almost baldie. however i've worn my hair, i've always been proud of it and loved it.

Tami said...

Tasha-I don't think there is anything wrong with experimenting with products and spending lots of time on your hair...if you want to. That's the rub. I think there is something wrong with companies trying to convince black women that they have to spend lots of time and money of special products to care for their natural hair.

I think that we talk a lot about black women and hair vs. white women and hair because black and white women have very different histories re: beauty and femininity in this country. We face different obstacles. It is our hair that is demonized even among our own people. The majority of black women not white women change their hair texture as a matter of course to look acceptable. Black women not white women are sometimes prohibited from wearing their natural hair in the workplace. I think that is something worth talking about.

That said, I see a similar, but maybe not as oppressive dynamic in play with white women and blondness. I'm not the right blogger to explore that though. I've really been waiting for someone to tackle it. From the outside, the pressure to be blond looks similar, but I can't say for sure.


Thanks for this post and the tip on Oyin Handmade. I went on the site and it looks good. Will try...

horoscope said...

it's very generious to share this informations with us

Once upon a time said...

"consumerism goes hand-in-hand with insecurity.." Most definitely. That's not to say that you shouldn't care for yourself or beautify yourself, but again the choice should come from one's own will not because of some corporate marketing panel's clever ruse.

Monaia said...

When I first saw this video last week I it made me sad. I think that her hair in the video doesn't look bad. All it needs is to be shaped. I regularly wear my hair that way.

I'm glad you brought up this topic because since finding the online natural hair community Ive been upset with this obsession with defining your curls. I actually had to take a break from the community because it was warping my ideas about her texture and the beauty of my own hair. This is my second time being natural and the first time around I didn't know about the online natural hair community which is probably why I never figured out how to keep me hair from being so dry. lol. But the first time around I never felt bad about my hair texture or felt that someone else's hair was better than mine because it has perfect spirals. Now I find myself evaluating and judging every natural's hair and experiencing curl envy. I think curls have their time and place but it shouldn't be above kinks.

To quote Marcus Gravey "Don’t remove the
Kinks from your hair!
Remove them from
Your brain!"

Oh and one more thing. Since when did a wash n go mean curls. During the summer I wash n go all the time and for me that equals a shrunken afro.

The Original Wombman said...

I saw this video a few days ago and in one sense, I understood what she was saying but on the other, I was rather saddened by it.

I'm far too busy these days so I wear my natural hair very short so that I don't have to be bothered with figuring out some kind of daily routine/product regimen. It's very overwhelming all the "stuff" that's now available from commercial products to products you can make in your kitchen. I don't have the desire nor the budget for it. But if I were actively trying to achieve a certain look, I can see how I could get to my wit's end very quickly.

But what struck me mostly from watching this video is this. This woman is supposed to be a long time natural and I just found it so saddening that she was still fighting with her hair instead of working with it. She still has not accepted that her hair is not anyone else's hair. It's hers. It won't do some things. It will do others. It's almost like having a 3 year old child in a way . . . you can have as much hope and expectation as you want. At the end of the day, the child's ability determines how much they can or will actually do. You kind of have to know the child and work with that child.

I get that in the initial stages of going natural, there will be a period of experimentation trying to find the perfect routine to achieve the "perfect" curl or style. But I would just hope that after almost a decade, one would come to realize that the "perfect" curl is the kind that I grow out of my own head. Period.

Kelly Virella said...

Great post! I've been natural for 17 years and just discovered that others were obsessively pursuing "good" natural hair about two years ago (I was clueless because I don't read beauty magazines, as a rule (they inspire inferiority complexes)). There's nothing wrong with styling your natural or styling it with Miss Jessi's for that matter. (I use and love Curly Buttercreme -- it's the best moisturizer for my hair) But at the end of the day, those of us with kinky hair have to stand our ground and defend our god-given right to be just the way we are. Our critics don't want to hear it, but the message is still the same: only a person brainwashed by white supremacy would find kinky hair unacceptable.

Kelly Virella


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