Natural Hair & Care

Under attack June 27, 2010

It’s been a very long time since I have written and this has been mostly because I have been so overwhelmed by subtle and destructive messages about our natural hair that I have simply chosen to remain silent. I’ve chosen not to say anything in the hopes that someone else around me would complicate comments about good hair and beauty. Since no one seems to be saying anything and these comments seem to be crushing my spirit and challenging my generally strong sense of self, I have to write.

I’ve made many changes in my personal life since I’ve last written for this blog. The biggest change is that I’ve moved back home from a predominantly white city. I think that I was naively nostalgic for a home that did not actually exist. Having lived among people who did not look like me for quite some time, I imagined going home and being celebrated, accepted, affirmed and embraced and while there were many things about me that were affirmed, there were also many things that were not–namely, my hair. See, I am a passionate proponent of natural hair in every form. I think that my/our hair has the most beautiful and arrogant texture that I have ever seen. I have written poems and stories with our hair as the central character. I have even included hair in a term paper at school. I am our hair’s biggest fan. Sometimes, I think I am our hair’s only fan.

In one exchange with my grandmother, who is 81, I realized that I had imagined what I was looking for at home. She reminded me of what home was really about. Sitting at the kitchen table she turned to me and calmly asked me if I was ever going to perm my hair. That was really one of the more innocent exchanges because I said no and the conversation was over. I think that I was really hurt  by a comment that came much later. See, I started seeing someone, who is from a fairly conservative background. I know they are conservative because we actually share the same background. I’m the maverick. So my grandmother asked if this new young man had made any comments about my hair. She asked me if he liked it. I looked at her for a long time before answering and calmly explained to her that he did not seem to have any problems with it but the question depressed me. Is my hair something that people should have a problem with because it is natural? Is it something that has to be approved? Why is my hair the topic of discussion? Why is it so crazy for me to actively choose not to process my hair?

As you know, it is recital and graduation season. My young cousin had a dance recital the other day. The dance recital alone deserves its own blog entry! Waiting outside of the auditorium before the event started, my sister and I searched for our four year old cousin’s tiny face and eventually concluded that we could not find her. In every picture, these young girls were adorned with ornate crowns of weave that made them indistinguishable. In act after act, young girls bounced around with shiny ponytails that were not their own and I could not help but think about the message behind this very strange choice. Had the parents and the dance director come to an agreement about what is appropriate for a recital? Does our own hair not make the cut? Eventually, I did find my cousin. She was there, under a very large weave.

I think that I decided that I would start writing again and being a voice for natural hair and beauty last night. I was at a friend’s house. His niece is graduating on Monday. She tried on her very beautiful dress and shoes and paraded around the house while we eyed her proudly. I asked her if she would be carrying a bag and she laughed at me and said, “I’m not going to carry a bag, this is graduation!”. However, when I asked her how she was going to do her hair she very flatly explained that she was going to wear a weave. It was ludicrous for her to think about carrying a matching bag but very normal for her to wear a weave. I was astonished and speechless. When are we going to really see the ridiculousness of our attachment to hair that is simply not our own, in any sense.

Anyway, this is getting long so I will stop here. What messages have you been receiving about natural hair?


I got African in my family October 27, 2009

Filed under: natural,natural hair care,perms — R.D. @ 11:40 am

Celebrating that good hair with a video from the sons of malcolm( A wonderful video on Happily Natural Day in Virginia.


Sodium Hydroxide and You October 25, 2009

Filed under: hair products,natural,natural hair care,perms — R.D. @ 5:28 pm

FYI, Sodium Hydroxide is an active ingredient in lye relaxers.

From a recent g-chat conversation:

Annie: dude, you know that chemical in straightening product — sodium hydroxide?
me: yah
Annie: do you know that it can be used to dissolve bodies?!
me: WHAT? please send a link
Annie: from wiki:
“This is a process that was used with farm animals at one time. This process involves the placing of a carcass into a sealed chamber, which then puts the carcass in a mixture of sodium hydroxide and water, which breaks chemical bonds keeping the body intact. This eventually turns the body into a coffee-like liquid, and the only solid that remains are bone hulls which could be crushed between one’s fingertips. It is also of note that sodium hydroxide is frequently used in the process of decomposing roadkill dumped in landfills by animal disposal contractors”

it is used to dissolve ROADKILL
“Sodium hydroxide has also been used by criminals to dispose of their victims’ bodies”
me: things that make you go hmmmm.

Welcome to the dollhouse*

Filed under: Barbie,Black dolls,Malia,natural,natural hair care,Sasha — R.D. @ 5:12 pm

Welcome to the dollhouse

The line the new black Barbies won’t cross

*By Francie Latour  |  October 25, 2009

In every black family, there are two kinds of daughters: daughters who have good hair and daughters who don’t. For much of my childhood, knowing this was as painful as raking a comb through my own locks, whose strands fell into the “don’t” category: stubbornly short, easily broken, at war with the detanglers designed to tame them. And, like most black hair in its natural state, densely coiled and woolly. In the words of my aunties: coarse, bushy, difficult. In the words of history: nappy, picaninny, slave-girl.

It’s no coincidence that the first black American self-made millionaire, Madame C. J. Walker, made her money turning that kind of hair into straight, shiny, behaving hair. That was 100 years ago, and black women everywhere have been on the same, self-denying quest ever since. Years ago, a cousin of mine perfectly articulated the power of hair over the psyches of black girls. When I told her about a new college boyfriend, who was white, she said, “You’re so lucky. If you stay together and get married one day, your daughters will have the best hair.” I acted shocked, but I was intimately familiar with the longing and loathing that prompted those words.

Now I’m a mother of three with a 2-year-old daughter of my own. (Yes, she’s biracial and has smooth curls, but I swear that’s a coincidence.) When it comes to cultural clashes over girls, beauty, blackness, and hair, I worry and pay attention. The latest controversy? The arrival of the new “So In Style” Barbie dolls, brought to you by Mattel. Created by an African-American mom and launched in stores last month, Grace, Kara, and Trichelle are black, and they’re the new BFFs in Barbie-land. Like their fair-skinned friends, they have long, silky hair that is either bone-straight or loosely wavy.

Don’t answer yet, there’s more. To keep Barbie’s new friends in style, Mattel offers a hair-straightening kit, with which girls can fantasize about a ritual of black womanhood most of us would gladly avoid if we could: regular, two-hour sessions at the hair salon to have our woolly manes straightened with harsh chemical straighteners. When that news hit the blogosphere, black mothers, scholars, and childhood experts everywhere got loud, many of them condemning Mattel for reinforcing white standards of beauty. Can’t Barbie rock braids or an Afro just once? they cried. The controversy erupted up just as “Good Hair,” comedian Chris Rock’s new documentary about America’s $9 billion black beauty industry, hits theaters this weekend.

For those of you unfamiliar with the complexities of black hair care, straightening is a process in which a stylist sections your hair and applies a cream that starts out cool but becomes unbearably hot. The cream contains sodium hydroxide, commonly found in drain and oven cleaners, and so corrosive that stylists have to use rubber gloves. When you absolutely can’t stand the heat anymore, the stylist rinses it out. Straight hair, and sometimes scabs, result. The longer the cream stays in, the more you burn, but the straighter your hair gets; walk into a black salon and the most common thing you’ll see is a woman gripping the armrests of a chair to manage her pain. In other words, hair-straightening is no ride in Ken’s convertible or trip to your dreamhouse closet. (I’m not sure if Mattel was giving an ironic wink to the sisters out there, but like the real version of hair-straightening, “So In Style” hair kits are also wildly overpriced, costing more than a pair of the actual dolls.)

On the one hand, it seems that Mattel has finally awoken to the Sasha-and-Malia demographic of middle- and upper-class black America: The girls of “So In Style” have wider noses, fuller lips, and a spectrum of realistic skin tones. But one look at these dolls suggests that even in our so-called post-racial world, there are some places America’s culture-makers still aren’t willing to go. Among them, apparently, is the hair black girls are born with.

But is it really fair to expect a toy conglomerate to be at the vanguard of ideas about race and beauty? For that, we would presumably look to real black women leaders. And when we look up to them, what we find is more straight hair. Actually, straight hair with blinding sheen and cascading, otherworldly flow. Beyonce, Tyra, and Oprah all have it. Ditto for black women leaders in politics and business.

These are not dolls; these are the living, breathing role models of black America. But they all understand that straight hair is the key to unlocking mainstream success. It’s the unspoken, elephant-in-the-room euphemism that remains as true today as it was during slavery: Straight hair is “good hair” because straight hair is white hair. And when blacks were slaves, straight hair could literally mean survival: Slaves who looked less African were treated better, often lifted from the fields to housework, which meant food, warmth, and maybe even education. Over time, straight hair became synonymous with nonthreatening hair. And that is the black Barbie formula Mattel has counted on going way back.

Mattel birthed the Barbie doll in 1959, a period when the notion of a black friend, real or pretend, was unthinkable for many white Americans. It was the same year a white journalist named John Howard Griffin took extreme measures to darken his skin and write about his travels through the deep South passing as a black man. The stories of the intense hatred he experienced were eventually published in the landmark book “Black Like Me.” It’s safe to say that when an entire race is struggling for recognition as human beings, nobody quibbles over whether a toy reflects their daughters’ self-image.

I recently learned, to my amazement, that the first-ever brown-skinned Barbie Mattel dared to put on shelves bears my name. “Colored Francie” made a short-lived appearance in 1967, her dark-ish complexion painted onto a doll with the same features as her white counterpart, including a glistening mane of straight hair. Other versions came later, including the defining “Christie” in 1968 and the nameless “Black Barbie” in 1980. In 1997, Mattel took a turn that left some blacks outraged and others speechless when it teamed up with Nabisco to launch “Oreo Fun Barbie.” The African-American version (also short-lived, it turns out) was strangely blue-black, which I’ll chalk up to an effort to coordinate with the cookie’s electric-blue packaging.

When “Black Barbie” arrived on the scene in 1980, I was 9, well within Mattel’s target audience. But I never owned her or any other Barbie. I think it had something to do with the dolls I saw at my friends’ houses. Whether the dolls were white or any other color, I got a creepy, not so-stylish feeling: Barbie wasn’t black like me, or any other black girl or woman I knew. The makers of Grace, Kara, and Trichelle say the new dolls give black girls a truer mirror of themselves. But when I look at them, all these years later, that same feeling comes over me.

Here’s what I remember about the black girls I knew: They had Mickey Mouse afro puffs tied in giant gumball barrettes or tight cornrow braids, or hair that was bound by nothing at all. For a little while, they had no idea what the word “nappy” meant, until one day they knew exactly what it meant. The black girls I knew marked their entry into womanhood reluctantly, with a first trip to the hair salon that often lived up to their worst fears. Caught in an in-between time when they were too old to sit for their mothers and too young to know what to do themselves, they climbed into swivel chairs and waited for the smell and then the feeling of chemicals that seared their scalps, leaving clumps of hair and Afro-puff innocence to be swept from the salon floor. As time goes on and products improve, many make peace with their unnatural states. Others find their way back to the beginning with locked, coiffed, or otherwise regal crowns. What I call Toni Morrison hair.

I haven’t heard of anything in the works for a Toni Morrison doll. But I’m not waiting for one, either. Because here’s the thing about black girls and hair: Dolls and straightening kits can scar, but so can people. And we do. It’s easy to fill the blogosphere with Barbie commentary, and much more difficult to confront the messages we hand down ourselves. When we complain about how tough our daughters’ hair is to comb, when we run our fingers through their cousins’ smooth tresses and smile, when we drag them to the swivel chair before they are ready, we tell them how important it is to try to be something besides who they are. Those messages predate Barbie. They were shaped by blacks’ need to survive in a white world, but how the messages began matters less than taking responsibility for them now.

I still straighten my hair, although I often wet it and let it dry naturally, making it weirdly wavy. For a long time, I believed that while straightening didn’t make my hair “good,” it made it better. Then one day, a boyfriend (and now husband) perfectly articulated something that was totally new. He described a stray coil of my hair as “helicoptering” across his computer keyboard. I thought: My hair helicopters. My hair helicopters. And it occurred to me that a word of poetry could rewrite painful history. Straight hair may make black women more acceptable in the workplace or the White House. But straight hair can’t helicopter.

Was I magically healed? Did I go off to my happily-ever-after dreamhouse, never to question my hair (or beauty) again? Well, no. That’s for fairy tales. But for several moments, then and afterward, I felt detangled. It was the kind of hair balm you can’t get from a bottle.

Francie Latour is an associate editor at Wellesley magazine and a former Globe reporter.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company


Zahara and Black Women October 20, 2009

zahara_paxThere has been a lot of buzz about the October 9th Newsweek article published by Allison Samuels. I am actually getting ready to grease my own hair and get ready to go to class but I had to add my voice to the discussion. From the comments posted to the article and the space devoted by many blogs to responding to the article, it is clear that many Black women feel that Jolie’s handling of Zahara’s hair is a sign of disregard for something that is so important to the Black community: hair. Contrary to what India.Arie believes, we are our hair. Our sense of self is inextricably linked with what we choose to do with our hair, how we talk about our hair and what we tell our daughters about their hair.

Some have said that Zahara may resent Jolie when she grows up, look back on her baby pictures with sadness and be made to feel the sting of her difference when she enters schools. But are we talking about Zahara or ourselves? Others have said that Zahara’s mom could take cues from the hair of Madonna’s newly adopted African daughter or Sasha and Malia because she is a little black girl being judged by “mainstream standards”. However, what are these mainstream standards? I don’t find many white Americans responding in anger to these blogs. Who is imposing and reifying standards of beauty for Black women? From the looks of the blogroll, it looks like we have so fully bought into “mainstream” standards of beauty that we cannot even begin to think of other ways that a little black girl might be–beautiful.

Allison Samuels finishes the article with this statement:

“But there will come a day when this beautiful little African girl will understand what it means to be an African-American woman in this society and realize unlike her younger sister, hers is not a wash-and-go world.”

I am not so sure anymore of where our definition of “what it means to be an African-American woman in this society” comes from. I do believe that there are many different ways to be black and beautiful and that we need to really think about what Zahara means for us and why her hair is making us so angry.

I have to go to class.


Tyra’s “Real” Hair September 3, 2009

Filed under: celebrity,natural,natural hair care,weaves — R.D. @ 9:31 am

TyTy's Real Hair

This September 8th, Tyra Banks will be unveiling her “real” hair on her talk show. Her twitter posts show how she has been preparing for and thinking about her debut–the presentation of her natural hair to the world:

  • reminder: i’m savin the real tresses for sept 8th on my talk show. i can’t wait for u to see it! free at last!!!7:22 PM Aug 29th from web
  • tomorrow, i’m gonna be posting a sneak TEASE pic of my real hair on TWITTER!!! TyTy7:04 PM Aug 24th from web
  • – Here’s me rockin my REAL hair, had 2 blur it so its still a surprise on Sept 8! Who else is sportin their rea

I’m excited for Tyra–I really am– but her decision making process, as reflected on twitter is a testimony to the politics surrounding highly-textured black hair. The words that she uses in the first post from Aug 29th are most revealing. She says that she is “free at last!!!” However, while she is free, she is also bound by conventional standards of beauty, which will definitely factor into how audience members (regardless of skin color or hair texture) and viewers at home react and respond to her hair. When she does finally post a pic of her natural tresses on twitter, it is a blurred picture. While it is probably a simple picture from her phone that is doctored with some app on her computer, this picture speaks volumes about the relationship, or lack their of, that the world has with Black hair and  the relationship that many Black women have to their own hair. Our hair is often a grey and blurry area for many of us. How should we feel about it? Is it just hair? What is the big deal? Are we more beautiful if our hair is straight? Would we offend our co-workers less if we adhered to “corpororate” styles? Why doesn’t our hair fit into the ‘norm’ for corporate styles? In blurring her hair, Tyra unknowingly makes a powerful statement about the important role that our hair plays in our identity and how people perceive us. Many of us, with chemicals, have also been blurring and softening the curly tendrils on our head, only giving people sneak peaks when we feel comfortable. I have to disagree with India Arie. We are our hair and always will be.


Why Michelle Obama’s Hair Matters

Filed under: celebrity,fashion,natural hair care,Obamas — R.D. @ 8:57 am
By JENEE DESMOND-HARRIS Jenee Desmond-harris Wed Sep 2, 5:15 pm ET

When the First Lady attended a country-music event in July without a single strand of hair falling below her jawline, the blogosphere exploded with outbursts ranging from adoration to vitriol. Things settled down only when her deputy press secretary clarified that there had been no First Haircut. In the aftermath, a didactic post on proclaimed that anyone “familiar with the amazing versatility of black hair” would have known that the new summer look was simply “pinned up.” (See pictures of Michelle Obama’s hairstyles.)

Many Americans have dismissed this hair hubbub as simply more media-driven noise – like the chatter about Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses, J. Crew cardigans, stocking-free legs or, for that matter, recent (shocking!) decision to wear shorts in the Arizona heat. But for African-American women like me, hair is something else altogether – singular in its capacity to command interest and carry cultural baggage. The obsession with Michelle’s hair took hold long before Inaugural Ball gowns were imagined, private-school choices scrutinized or organic gardens harvested. It’s not that she’s done anything outrageous. The new updo wasn’t really all that dramatic a departure from variations we’ve seen on her before (the “flip-out,” the “flip-under,” the long-ago abandoned “helmet”). Still, her hair is the catalyst for a conversation that begins with style but quickly transcends outward appearance and ultimately transcends Michelle herself – a symbol for African-American women’s status in terms of beauty, acceptance and power. (See pictures of Michelle Obama’s style evolution.)

The hair buzz heated up right after the Democratic National Convention. Websites dedicated to black hair posted and reposted a Philadelphia Inquirer article addressing what was presented as an urgent question: Were the silky strands that moved so gracefully with each tip of her head during her Denver speech straightened with chemicals or with heat alone? How exactly did she metamorphose what we know was once tightly coiled hair?

The choice many black women make to alter their hair’s natural texture has undeniable historical and psychological underpinnings. It has been attributed to everything from a history of oppression and assimilation to media-influenced notions of beauty and simple personal aesthetics. But one thing is certain. For the many who wear straightened styles like Michelle’s, the decision is deliberate, and the maintenance is significant. A stylist hypothesized in the Inquirer article about the steps taken to attain her look, and a firestorm of online comments followed, including these two:

“Chemicals, hot comb, round brush and dryer … same effect, different methods. I could see it being a big deal or inspirational if she were natural and wore it in natural styles.”

“Girl, ain’t no braids, twists, afros, etc. getting into the White House just yet … LOL.”

This could have been read as a lighthearted exchange about beauty and style. But it actually reflects a serious and clamorous debate. A growing community on sites like urges black women to reject curl-relaxing methods, calling them “taking the easy road” and “conforming” to white aesthetics. Meanwhile, talk-show host Tyra Banks just announced via Twitter that she will abandon her weave and don “no fake hair at all!” for her show’s season premiere. Mixed in with the supportive response to the former supermodel’s decision was skepticism about whether she could be attractive with what she describes as her “out and free” look.

See pictures of Michelle Obama’s Jason Wu dress.

See pictures of Sasha and Malia Obama at the Inauguration.

For black women, hair has classification power (witness the connection Don Imus made between hair and sexual promiscuity when he referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos”). Just as blond has implicit associations with sex appeal and smarts (or lack thereof), black-hair descriptors convey thick layers of meaning but are even more loaded. From long and straight to short and kinky – and, of course, good and bad – these terms become shorthand for desirability, worthiness and even worldview. (See pictures of Michelle Obama’s fashion diplomacy.)

The notion of natural black hair as being subversive or threatening is not new. When the New Yorker set out last summer to satirize Michelle as a militant, country-hating black radical, it was no coincidence that the illustrator portrayed her with an Afro. The cartoon was calling attention to all the ridiculous pre-election fearmongering. But the stereotypes it drew from may be one reason that 56% of respondents to a poll on say the U.S. is not ready for a “First Lady with kinky hair.”

Some black women note that Michelle’s choice to wear her hair straightened affirms unfair expectations about what looks professional. On a reader empathized with Michelle’s playing it safe in the White House and outlined her own approach: “Whenever I start a new job I always wear my hair straight for the first three months until I get health care. Then gradually the curly-do comes out.” Another echoed the practice: “I wait about four to six months before I put the [mousse] in and wear it curly … I have to pace myself because it usually turns into a big to-do in the office.” (See the 50 best websites of 2009.)

The amount of money black women spend on hair will be explored in Chris Rock‘s upcoming comedic documentary Good Hair. “Their hair costs more than anything they wear,” he said. Which helps explain the recent news out of Indiana University that black women often sacrifice workouts to maintain their hairstyles.

One might think having a black First Lady who is widely praised as sophisticated and stylish would represent a happy ending to the story of black female beauty and acceptance. Alas, our hair still simultaneously bonds and divides us. “There is no hair choice you can make that is simple,” says Melissa Harris Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton. “Any choice carries tremendous personal and political valence.”

Even though I’m biracial and should theoretically have half a share of hair angst, I’ve sacrificed endless Saturdays to the salon. It is unfathomable that I might ever leave my apartment with my hair in its truly natural state, unmoderated by heat or products. I once broke down at the airport when my gel was confiscated for exceeding the 3-oz. limit. (See 50 essential travel tips.)

I’m neither high maintenance nor superficial: I’m a black woman. My focus on hair feels like a birthright. It is my membership in an exclusive, historical club, with privileges, responsibilities, infighting and bylaws that are rewritten every decade.

Not once when I’ve seen an image of our First Lady has it been lost on me that she is also a member. I don’t see just an easy, bouncy do. I see the fruits of a time-consuming effort to convey a carefully calculated image. In the next-day ponytail, I see a familiar defeat.

A black family at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue signifies a shattered political barrier, but our reactions to Michelle are evidence that it takes more than an election to untangle some of the unique dilemmas black women face. Thanks to her, our issues are front and center. It feels a lot like when nonblack friends and colleagues ask those dreaded questions that force us to reflect and explain: whether we can comb through our hair, if we wash our braids or locks and the most complicated of all – why it all has to be such a big deal.