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Like many black women, I straighten my hair. Recently, I’ve started asking myself why.
KNOTTY GIRL: Straightening my African roots

There is nothing that stirs up more passion among African women than hair. Like many black women, I straighten my hair. Recently, I’ve started asking myself why, begun exploring the “root” of the problem and wondering why I think my nappy hair is bad hair.

Before I “fix” my hair I have to muster up a lot of outer and inner strength. “Fixing” my hair is a process; it is not a wash and go. It’s not even a wash, blow dry and go. It is time consuming, expensive and physically draining. I remember one day I had had it. I no longer had the energy or wanted to waste anymore time and money on my hair. I threw my straightening iron on the bathroom floor and cried. I sobbed. I could not understand why God had given me such rebellious hair. I wanted good hair, straight hair, white women’s hair. Nappy hair is rebellious and unmanageable. Commercials tell me I should not give into the bad hair “because I’m worth it”, and makeover shows promise my issues can be resolved with some make up, new clothes, and a professional cut and dye job. 

In North America, hair is extremely important. Hair is an important aspect of how people define themselves and how people define others. Virginia Rutter in her book, Celebrating girls, discusses how hair is a way for mothers to bond with their daughters and a way for us to express our identity. But there was no celebrating when my mother did my hair. The memories I have are that of my mother combing my hair in a dispassionate manner. Nappy hair is kinky and painful to comb. As a child, and even now, my mother holds me down and forces me to silently submit. Her frustration becomes my frustration and visa versa.

This only creates an even deeper loathing for my hair and an object for my mother’s disapproval. Why sit and go through the pain in the first place? Why not go bald and forget about it?

Faced with the problem of their hair, many black women choose to be bald or wear their hair very short. In a culture where hair is used to symbolize more than gender and beauty, this is unappealing to many women. For women who involuntarily become bald, it is seen as unhealthy which reinforces the notion that women should be perfect. Shaving the hair of women was, and still is used as punishment for defiance or sin. The choice to be (almost) bald projects an image of resistance.
The truth is, the beauty industry can not profit off baldness, so they portray long hair as desirable and sexy, and sell self confidence in a shampoo bottle. Hair care companies have been profiting off black women for years as part of a colonial project of assimilation and preying upon black women’s need to find acceptance. We have been sold beauty in the image of white women.

Better hair means a better life. Straight hair is associated with success and social capital. Black woman with straight hair have “good hair” because they have more social capital. On the other hand, women with natural or kinky hair have “bad hair” because they have less social capital. You are more likely to see a black woman with straight hair in business or a position of power. Models and actors of color have their hair fashioned the way white women do. Although there are singers who wear their hair natural, most of the chart toppers have straight hair. Opting for extensions is one way that I have attempted to achieve the standards of beauty and thus make an effort to keep up with the competition that society has placed on women.

Women are under social pressure to be beautiful and pretty for display. The image of beauty is constructed to feed a sexual fantasy. For women hair is associated with sexual power. This sexual power is deemed acceptable because it is silent and has been minimized.

I have come to believe that women’s hair is a metaphor used to describe the standards that men have designed for women. A woman, like her hair, must be easily tamed and manipulated. Women who have tamed hair have “good hair”. A woman, like her hair, conforms to someone else’s standards and these standards are incredibly contradictory. It should always be different because sameness is boring, but not too different that you can’t recognize yourself. It must be healthy and should not convey any flaws. We should always be improving our hair no matter how healthy and perfect it already is. You should be able to put it behind you when you don’t want to deal with it or have it flow next to you or behind you when you want to display it. It should never take center stage. But it always is center stage. 

If these are the standards, which they are, then it is no wonder that a full, lush head of hair is considered attractive in North America. However, for black women it is literally impossible to achieve this standard of beauty because it has become embodied in a thin, blond, blue eyed, young girl. Because of the lack of white features that black women have, we are not considered beautiful according to North American standards.

All of these standards make it difficult to love my hair in its natural state. However, I have now come to realize that it is not my hair that I hate; it is the stigma behind it. My hair is not “bad” if it is not like a white women’s hair. All my life I’ve been given the impression that my hair was the key to my happiness and success. I feel that anyone who can be themselves, in a world that is constantly pressuring us to be different, has achieved the greatest success. I have now chosen to keep my hair very short and natural. This is less of a political statement and more of a stepping stone to love my African roots.   

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