Growing up my parents never told me my hair was anything special, in fact I hated my hair. Four braids each as big as two corn dogs, were hardly the portrait of beauty in my six year old mind. However, no family event, or reunion with an old friend, goes without the “did you cut your hair” remark.” While initially hurtful and troublesome, this remark cast the initial breadcrumb to my exploration of the preoccupation with long, thick hair on black women.
My childhood contained unsolicited remarks like but not limited to:
“If I hadn’t cut my hair it would be longer than yours”
“You know my hair is longer than yours right?”
“You’re mixed with something and don’t know it because look at your hair.”
These comments indirectly revealed a fascination with hair by my classmates, but as I grew older the persistence of these comments were unwavering. Perhaps more significantly, these comments revealed an anxiety of black woman towards their peers who had longer hair. The presence of a black woman with “longer” hair evoked envy in black women who lacked this trait, seeing long hair as means of escaping the totality of the black experience. Due to the belief of blacks being inferior, the presence of what is seen as a superior trait- makes those who don’t have these traits falsely place blacks with “superior” qualities on a level above themselves.
This anxiety is not limited to those of the black diaspora. Those outside the black diaspora, often conceptually restrict blacks to a state of inferiority. Due to the presumed nature of their origin, many outside the black diaspora anticipate blacks to be gravely inferior in all areas, especially with regard to beauty. Thus a black woman with traits not attributed to the black diaspora is damaging to self esteem largely constructed on fallacious aesthetic superiority. Women of the majority and other minority factions have largely been conditioned to believe that beauty signifiers, hair especially, is a beauty that they were born with- making them innately more aesthetically appealing. Thus, to see a black woman with long hair (or any other “superior” traits) makes women outside the black diaspora see black women as something they haven’t been conditioned to see them as, competition.
Those outside of black femininity have been conditioned by the world around them to see themselves above the black woman. This internalization of standards of beauty designed to exclude the black woman, has resulted in the obsession of hair within the black community. The black diaspora is largely plagued by the implementation of westernized standards. These westernized standards parallel whiteness to greatness. From intellect to beauty the high regard of whites, have allowed them to only see competition with one another. Thus a black woman with fairer skin, longer hair, looser curls, is typically regarded as more beautiful. The presence and praise of these traits has little to do with these traits being of actual beauty and everything to do with positively reinforcing of white superiority.
I recall being issued countless competitive remarks from my black counterparts.
” if I hadn’t cut my hair it would have been longer than Catherine’s”
“You know your hair is not longer than mine”
I’ve even endured several length checks from those of the majority, showcasing an anxiety within white women towards a black woman who exudes traits believed to be synonymous with non black women. Length checks reflect an obsession of black and white women with what they see as a token of exceptionalism. In this instance exceptionalism speaks to an attribute of anomaly status or consisting of something deemed outside of your experience.
I am no Pocahontas or Rapunzel, but I am no Amber Rose either. The consistency of this query maintains a fascination within and without the black community. Moreover, it maintains a comfort level with black women having shorter hair. This query has little to do with the beauty of my hair, and more to do with the anxiety surrounding a black woman who encompases a beauty typically reserved for white women.
Hair as the Window to Your Ideology
It is said that you can tell a lot about a woman by her shoes. However, in the black community this transparency is believed to lie in the way a black woman wears her hair. For some, a black woman’s hair is not only a source of anxiety but an indication of her ideology.
Because my hair is typically worn blow dried and curled, some have assumed my hate for the curls underneath. As a graduate student, I recall being seated in a course when another black women commented that black women straighten their hair “to be more white.” This was a humiliating moment, on a political level rather than a personal one. While my colleague has a right to her opinion, a class full of white faces witnessed one black woman judge another for how she wears her hair.
I would argue that hair straightening has evolved past the desire of a women to “look white” and merely reflects a style of western influence (much like the language we speak), but not necessarily of western imitation.
I equate straightened locks with being a grown up. As a child, I was never allowed to wear my locks straightened. Perhaps for picture day my mother would loosen her grasp on how she thought a child was supposed to look, hand allow me to wear my locks lightly blow dried. However, my hair spent the majority of my childhood in braids. I made a pact with myself on my 16th birthday that when I was an adult I would never braid my hair. Thus my desire and commitment to wear a straightened style is cultivated by my desire to look like what a conceived to be the style of a grown up, not a white woman.
>Even given my anecdote I acknowledge that madam cj walker’s invention was to enable the physical assimilation for black women.
However I find it a tad bit overzealous to assume that all black women who wear their straight are ashamed of their natural texture. This statement implies that black women who wear Afros or other “natural” styles are proud of their heritage by default, and this simply isn’t true.
Many women, embraced the “natural” trend a few years ago. This movement was the way for some women to embrace their hair in its form of origin, while others simply did so because large numbers of those around them were cutting off their permed ends. For some the movement was a means to a heavier wallet, easing the financial burden of paying for perms, or buying weaves. Many women took the natural movement as a means to embrace their shorter hair, conceding a lifelong wish for dangling locks that would never come.
As with women who straighten their hair, women wear “natural” styles for very diverse reasons. There are plenty of natural sisters with anxiety towards their straight haired sisters who have a look they wish they had. There are plenty of “natural” sisters wishing on every star for a white man to save them from another generation of coiled locks. Thus, natural hair does not equal racial pride anymore than standing in a driveway makes you a car.
While I acknowledge that the division of black women by hair is a wound we must heal as a community, I will cast one stone of possible contradiction. At the risk of mimicking my offenders, I will say that I am politically embarrassed by my sisters who don blonde or purchased hair. Both practices, scream insecurity from the mountain tops of a society that has largely profited from black exploitation. Blonde hair screams the desire to not only adopt a European look, but the height of European beauty. Weaves have created a million dollar industry in which Asians and whites have appealed to the desire of blacks to have long hair. As a black woman, it doesn’t sit well with me that those outside the black diaspora, that often place themselves above blacks, are afforded profit from our exploitation. Some may argue that blacks are not the only faction that purchases hair. I say that whites and asians making a profit off their own communities is none of my concern, but I am personally offended at the millions they make from the black community.
Despite how women of the black diaspora choose to wear their hair- it is essential to use hair care as a means of connection rather that disconnection. The connection can be established through patronizing black business. Supporting black business can be done through supporting a black owned salon or simply purchasing black products. The power of the black dollar is a highly under-discussed yet significant aspect of economics in America. Money knows no prejudice, but those of the black community should aim to keep money within the black community. Through using the same products, or visiting the same salons we can go from “Did you cut your hair” to “What products do you use on your hair?” These queries work to foster the versatility of the black experience, rather than the diversity in which the black dollar is spent outside of the black community.
As women, discussions of clothes, curves and hair are inevitable. But the obsession with hair in the black community has taken money out of our pockets and into the hands of those who benefit daily from our subjugation. This fascination with hair has also cast a division within the black femininity. Whether #teamnatural, #teamstraightstyler, or #teamweave- how we chose to wear our hair doesn’t alleviate the burden of being a raced woman in America. Also, perhaps it is time that we as black women embrace the many facets in which we exude our blackness. There has never been a sole way to be black and any desire to do so minimizes the magnitude of the black female presence.