Have you guys heard of the natural hair movement? The website I linked to is just one of many excellent resources on the subject. Basically, we’re talking about women of color reclaiming their identities through their natural hair. The movement is particularly popular and powerful in the African American community, but it’s meaningful for other WOC, too, including a South Asian woman like myself.
Since college, I’ve been faking White People Hair. That picture in the sidebar is a perfect illustration. My hair isn’t actually that silky or sleek. My actual, #naturalhair is much different. I have an absolute riot of super fine, super dark hair that manages to be frizzy, wavy, curly, and impossibly shiny all at once. It’s an absolute beast to manage, so for the past seven years, I’ve been using either a curling iron, straightener, or a hot air brush (my favorite for fat, silky waves) whenever I wash my hair. I basically WILL NOT go out in public unless my hair has been heat-styled in some way.
Let me share with you some more shots of my White People Hair:
Now, here’s where it gets a little scary: I was going out to dinner tonight. I decided that I’d rock my natural hair – or die trying. So I washed my hair – with the wrong shampoo and conditioner; they weren’t formulated for curly hair – and didn’t rinse out all of the conditioner. I was using Garnier Fructis, and the conditioner smells absolutely divine, so that’s a plus.
When I got out of the shower, I just wrung my hair dry instead of using a towel. I slicked on some Kinky-Curly Knot Today leave-in conditioner, a product that is actually meant for African American women, and finished off the ends with a little EcoStyler olive oil hair gel, another product meant for African American women. I’ve realized that my hair tends to respond more to these products than standard (read: White People) fare. They’re loaded with things like olive oil and shea butter and coconut oil – things that Indian women have also been using for hundreds upon hundreds of years to keep their hair lustrous and manageable. If I use the product sparingly and distribute evenly with a wide-tooth comb, it works perfectly.
Now, you might be wondering why I sound like this is all some sort of grand revelation. After all, I’m going to be twenty-six in August; surely I should know by now how to handle my natural hair, even if I’ve been heat-styling for the past seven years. As it turns out, I actually have no freaking clue how to handle my natural hair. At the time when most girls learn about how to do their hair to their best advantage – middle school, I figure, when hair and makeup start to register on our radars – I was wearing hijab. What did I care about what my hair looked like in public, if it was always covered with a silk or cotton veil?
Side note: this is what I look like in hijab (and a jilbab, not that you can see much of it). This is me shortly before leaving for Tarawih, the nightly prayers during Ramadan, at our masjid.
So I honestly had no clue how to deal with my natural hair, and it took a handful of African American beauty blogs to point me in the right direction.
Here’s the really scary part: When I decided to rock my natural hair and let it air-dry the way it should, with no heat-help, I realized that I had completely forgotten what my hair actually looked like.
I’m not so delusional that I think my hair actually looks like the heat-styled version. I’m not so delusional as to actually think I have the White People Hair I’ve been pretending to have. It’s not that I thought I actually had White People Hair; rather, I had just plain forgotten that my natural hair looked so pretty.
In my quest for perfect, manageable, sleek White People Hair, I had forgotten how gorgeous my hair actually is. It falls well past my shoulders in a riot of curls and waves. It’s dark and glossy and silky and totally touchable, and it bounces and shimmers and flutters. It’s the hair my foremothers were so proud of, an almost-black dark brown that seems to contain every color under the sun. It’s not as sleek and smooth as White People Hair, but that doesn’t make it any less lovely.
Here is a somewhat recent picture, taken two weeks ago, I think, of me with my natural hair. It doesn’t photograph well, which is weird, because it comes off looking scraggly and dull whereas in person, it’ll look perfectly shiny and bouncy. And sometimes it’s even curlier than this. It has a mind of its own.
Here is kind of a close-up, because I just found this pic lying around on my Tumblr.
I had actually forgotten that my hair looked like this, instead of the way it looked in all those pictures up above.
And isn’t that kind of sick? That I’d forgotten what my actual hair looked like? Maybe I hadn’t forgotten, really. Maybe I remembered it, and rejected it, because it didn’t fit into the European/Western ideal of what a woman’s hair should look like.
And again, isn’t that terrible? I’m constantly chafing about and under colonialist/imperialist perspectives and power structures, and here I am, imposing such an ideology on myself, to the point that I had rejected and almost fully erased an important, viable part of myself. And for what? Fake White People Hair?
The thing is, I know I’m not alone.
I know there are plenty of WOC (women of color) just like me. Some of you wear your natural hair proudly. Some of you go back and forth. Some of you relax your hair, or wear weaves. (Not judging; to each her own.) Whatever you do, you struggle, as I do, with the idea that your hair isn’t “Good Hair” because it isn’t White People Hair. It doesn’t fit into the European/Western conception of feminine beauty.
And really, African American women have it much worse. My natural hair is, generally, socially acceptable. I’m not going to raise any eyebrows if I show up in court, for example, with my hair in (slightly frizzy) curls. It’ll be fine. Professional African American women have impossible hurdles to jump through. I can’t tell you how many friends I have who will relax their hair, or wear weaves, or just shave it down to a flattering fuzz (to avoid this issue altogether), in order to be ‘accepted’ at work, all the while wishing they could wear their hair as it was meant to be worn, all the while feeling that they’re betraying a crucial part of themselves. I have other African American friends who wear their hair naturally (usually, they wear it short), and then get called in to meet with HR and get told that their hair “isn’t professional.”
And there’s no easy solution to this, is there? Because the whole issue is so deeply mired in complex social, political, cultural and historical ideologies.
(I’m not trying to speak about Black!hair issues. I’m not a Black woman. Black women can speak for themselves and don’t need me to do so on their behalf. I merely sought to relate some concerns my Black friends had about their hair and the workplace.)
So here’s to natural hair. No, this isn’t really a business casual post. But I wanted to talk about it anyway. And if anyone still reads this sadly defunct blog (what do I even blog about? The law, kind of? Fashion, still? Islam, sometimes? Why am I an intellectual trainwreck?), and is a WOC who has hair!issues at the workplace, I’d love to hear from you.
Do you wear your hair naturally?
Do you use weaves or heat treatments? (No judging, obviously – I’m not one to talk, with my heat-styling!)
Have you ever been formally reprimanded/talked to about it?
Have you gotten comments, generally, at the workplace about your hair?
How did you handle that situation?
White people, I love you, but you and your White People Hair need to sit down for this. :)
Yes, I understand that white people can have frizzy, untameable hair, too. I realize that you, as a white woman, can struggle with the same hair issues that I struggle with: how to make it fit a certain ideal of feminine beauty. But here’s the thing: you won’t be looked down on for not having Perfect White People Hair. You just won’t – not the way WOC are looked down upon for the same thing. The racial/ethnic connotations – NEGATIVE ONES – just aren’t there. Your skin color privileges you in that respect, even if your hair is as frizzy and riotous as mine. So have some lemonade, grab a generic Oreo or two from the table at the back of the room, and listen to the WOC share their stories.
Who am I kidding? No one reads this blog. I don’t even read this blog. I haven’t read, like, 80% of this post. I have no idea what I said above. I assume it was something about pie.
Since no one reads this blog, if you’re curious, check out the two or three links I shared above. The Natural Hair Movement site has some great pictures, videos and posts that show (almost exclusively) black women discussing their hair. The twitter tag is far more general, but you’re still getting honest, real-time thoughts about hair issues from WOC. Check out various WOC blogs – check out African American or South Asian beauty blogs and message boards. Hell, use Google Scholar to pull up some gender studies articles on the subject. Head over to Netflix and order “Good Hair,” the documentary that Chris Rock put together. (I realize many POC find that documentary problematic. Just because it’s problematic doesn’t mean it can’t still be part of the debate.) The discussions about WOC hair, led by WOC, are there, I promise you.
Think about the difference between White People Hair and Non-White People Hair. It matters. Consider, as a white person, what the Natural Hair movement really means, and what it seeks to reclaim. Understand the discourse, even if you aren’t allowed to speak as part of it.
And WOC, share your stories. I’m not plugging for comments: I mean, share your stories. Post in the tag on Twitter. Post on Tumblr. Blog about it. Contribute articles to magazines, to academic journals, to newspapers, or spoken segments to radio programs.
Because it’s not really just about hair anymore, is it?
Was it ever just about hair?