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Black Women and Our Hair

It gives me great pleasure to see websites and blogs that have evolved around helping black women explore, define, and nurture our relationships with our hair.  What has also evolved, or maybe become more mainstream, is a label – “The Natural Hair Movement” (NHM).  I am not offended by it,  I am offended, however, by the consequences of it’s development.  To an extent, in the name of the NHM, black women have been divided, judged, and trivialized over a journey that is very much individual and complex while being integral to the broad perceptions that black women, as a group, have of ourselves.

Any woman’s hair, as it is from the root, is something that she carries with her.  The color, the texture, and the thickness of it are all characteristics that she has to deal with in ways that are far from simple.  For black women, who to the masses, live at the bottom of the hair totem pole, the relationship with our hair can be tricky to maneuver.  Most of us grew up differentiating between good and bad hair, with being on either side having the potential to expose us to harsh experiences.  Most of us did not start out understanding that caring for our hair starts with understanding it’s nature.  Understanding the nature of one’s hair means no longer defining it as good or bad.  So each woman has her own individual path to understanding, though, any number of individual paths may intersect.

In the twenty years or so since my pre-teen self realized that my refusal to comb my hair would lead to really painful recourse at the teeth of my mother’s comb, I have been quite involved with my hair.  I went through stages of hating it.  I went through stages of loving it.  More recently, I accepted it, which has been a trying road.  Which shampoos are best?  What kind of conditioner do I need?  How often can I apply heat?  So Ace combs are bad, now?  I have asked a million questions regarding the needs of my hair.  I have spent loads of money and time.  To say the least, it’s been complicated.  It’s been personal.

But what was I saying about divided, judged and trivialized?  As NHM has experienced a major boom in terms of attention.  I have encountered negative “input” as well as positive.

“What count’s as natural hair?”  How many times have I seen that title to an article or blog post?  The need to define what “natural” is has black women weighing in on each other as if the hair of the individuals belongs to and is subject to the creed of the collective.  Yes, I know that hair care requires some definition i.e. virgin, relaxed, etc.  I am, however, considering how black women choose to qualify each other’s hair and, therefore, input.  Here comes those blessed “If…, then…” statements:

  • If your hair is chemically treated, then…
  • If your hair is not chemically treated but colored, then…
  • If your hair is not chemically treated but straightened, then…
  • If your hair is neither chemically treated nor straightened but under wig or weave, then…

Now, I wouldn’t feel the need to even address this point if I didn’t sense a backlash within ourselves that as a result of these evaluations.  Case in point, I was participating in a discussion in which I proudly proclaimed that I had been natural for my whole life minus a couple years and began to give some advice on products and overall care.  “You’re not natural, your hair is straightened,” chimed in another frown-faced woman adjacent to the conversation (read:  being nosy).  Without going into every conversation I’ve had or every comment I’ve read on a post or article, I think black women are being hard on each other and, ultimately, divisive when it comes to defining natural.  Somehow we are also examining who a woman is, her self-confidence, and her overall worth to the sisterhood based on whether she is a “legit natural”.   I don’t believe that this is necessary when considering what the overall goal should be: to help black women explore, define, and nurture our relationships with our hair.  We are trying to build communities for sharing our horror stories, our triumphs, our tools and our how-tos.  Whether or not someone can share or benefit should not be framed by their hair status.

“I like your hair when it’s straight.”  In conversations about the attractiveness, intelligence, confidence, and personality of black women, hair often comes up.  It is now a mainstream topic of discussion, particularly when it comes to dating.  “I want my woman to be natural, but straight.”  “My girl gotta have her hair laid all the time, especially if I’m paying.”  “Females with relaxed hair take better care of themselves, that’s that I want.”  I shudder.  (Note to self for future diatribe: calling women girls and females.)  It is tough to imagine that my hair could negate ALL of my other attributes, and, that if it doesn’t negate those attributes, someone is making an exception on my behalf.  What’s tougher is that from TV interviews to one-on-one conversations, I have encountered these shallow opinions.  Whether such evaluations were directed to me or another black women did not soften the blow.  I think that more than ever, those who are not black women have felt the need and found the space to weigh in on our hair, and we, as black women, have given those two-cents a major seat at the table.

“Why, all of a sudden, do black women care about what goes in their hair?”  Let me put my eyebrows down.  The women in my family have had a long-running concern with what goes in their hair.  As I mentioned before, black women deal with their hair all of their lives.  We don’t simply care about what we put in our hair, we care about how to care for and style our hair.  There is a difference.  I think the emergence of the NHM has to do with multiple factors:  social media, organic/natural foods gaining popularity, food as medicine movements, scientific studies suggesting a correlations between health and hair care.  I could go on.  Information is more available.  There is more variety in the products that are available considering the range of differences between one woman’s hair and the next.  Black woman are engaged in a more visible push-and-pull over possession of our image.  To call it sudden is to trivialize the internal battle within ourselves that we have all endured at some point over our hair, as well as, the battles within each other and the masses over our worth and value as it pertains to our hair.  We have struggled with our ability to know that we, along with our hair, are beautiful.

What has been called the Natural Hair Movement can more closely be defined as that average output of the cumulative.  While the influences that have fed into it’s development and propagation come from different sources, black women deal solely with the consequences of it’s existence.  One could say that it’s not that important.  I contend that it is.  What’s my chief argument?  The $20 billion US hair care industry?  That speaks volumes, but no.  It’s the connection that it has had with our sense of self.  For me, it’s the many times I fell asleep in mother’s lap as she braided my hair when I was a child.  It’s the fact that it held the sweat of child birth as my son and myself labored together though his arrival.  I have chopped it all off in need of a change.  I have closed my eyes and felt the wind blow through it out of need for solace.  There is a clear, distinct connection.

I continue to explore, define, and nurture my relationship with my hair.

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