From time to time I wash my hair and wear it the way it is: a mass of free-flowing black curls. This is my hair’s unfettered and so-called “nappy” state. Many black women would never do this, instead opting to undergo oppressive straightening techniques. Why do black women believe these painful methods are paths to beauty? A glimpse into my past may explain it.
One quiet afternoon at the public library, a group of black boys leered as I passed with my natural hairstyle.
“Damn!” one boy exclaimed, amazed.
I continued until I reached a seat, giving little attention to the ignorant exclamation, “Ay, he wanna holla’ atchu!”
It was a complete joke. The boy wanted to set up his friend with the nappy-headed girl so they could laugh about it later.
“No, thanks,” I replied, to which they sneered, “She nappy!” and then, “She need a perm!”
Years before those comments would have sent me home in tears, begging my mother to press my hair. But this time I was filled with pity for their ignorance. The unrecognized self-hatred within my black counterparts caused me to yell, “If it don’t look white, it’s nappy, huh?”
Today, I still wonder how my outburst must have sounded: ignorant, provoking, insane?
According to historic evidence, my words were not misplaced. I was simply responding to a society that has always enforced my physical worthlessness. In nineteenth-century America, black hair was a big deal. House slaves soaked up the physical features of the owners through daily association, and were made to feel that their thick and kinky manes were physical aberrations. Masters told their slaves to cover their heads with scarves, thus enforcing the ideology that their natural hair was unacceptable.
Today’s black woman still feels the need to absorb ideals set forth in the nineteenth century. One of the most obvious and painful forms is the perm. This white, creamy substance, reeking of rotten eggs, is spread on the scalp until she can no longer stand the burning. Today’s perm is a considerable improvement from former methods involving potatoes, sizzling hog fat, and potash. (Potash is derived from the words “pot” and “ash” where wood ashes were cleaned of leeches, and then the leeches were dried to form caustic and poisonous potassium chloride, which straightens the hair.) The modern perm is reputed to be safer but one of its active ingredients is sodium hydroxide, which is found in products like Mr. Clean. These agents inflict destruction to the black woman’s hair.
The chemicals in the perm straighten the hair by stripping it of natural moisturizers so that the curl no longer forms. While on the scalp, the elements are absorbed through the skin into the tissues and blood stream. According to a study conducted by the Cancer Surveillance Program at the University of California School of Medicine, there is a high level of blood cancer among those working in hair salons who use chemical relaxers on a daily basis.
Only desperation can cause this drastic method to continue to be commonplace. As a child I was instructed that a perm was a guaranteed path to beauty. My mother would sit with the reeking chemicals on her head as I admired her, hoping that one day I would be capable of sustaining sanity for more than a mere ten minutes. I am not the only one with this attitude. I have witnessed grown women in my former salon, knees bent, tears gushing from their eyes, as the fiery cream eats at their strands.
But a perm isn’t the only route to hair self-hatred, since many black women don’t stop there. There are plenty of hair dyes catering to black women that are used gratuitously. For popular evidence of this craze, look at black pop stars young and old, such as Lil Kim, Tina Turner, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, and Christina Milian. All have one thing in common: unnaturally blond hair. These women are supposed to be strong icons of black sisterhood, and they have all graced the covers of popular black women’s magazines. But what are they actually perpetuating? That they have to look white to be successful. Both Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé have coveted Grammy Awards for their music, but neither was wildly popular until their “golden” transformations. If these are the role models for young black girls, where will it lead?
I have seen where it leads. There was a black girl in some of my classes who, when I first met her, had short black hair. However, as the year progressed, her hair went from blond to a shocking orange, the product of a peroxide mishap. Her hair, once healthy, was beginning to thin. Large portions of her scalp became visible. She started wearing weaves, but not just any weave. Hers was golden, coiled in tight, Shirley-Temple spirals with an unnatural bounce. And it was this girl adoring students voted to the Junior Homecoming Court. However in my eyes, she was a misled clown. Why would a young black woman subject herself to such physical deprecation?
Because the pressure exists. I too have a head of black hair, and as soon as I received the latest issue of Jet Magazine, I knew I had to do something to change my Afrocentric hair. On the cover was rising black actress Gabrielle Union, with a new set of blond highlights. So I went to the salon, sat in a chair, and allowed my strands to be assailed as two beauticians kept a watchful eye on the transition. I remember how their smiles developed and the approving words left their mouths as my hair went from standard black to golden glow.
“Oh, that’s pretty. Isn’t that pretty?”
They sounded like nineteenth-century black women who had just straightened their hair for the first time. Nothing has changed and many facets of black female beauty are still connected to white features.
That day at the library, I was not suffering from a bout of insanity, nor was I paranoid or bitter for responding that way. I walked from the building filled with notions of educating these black men about the beauty of the black female. If I don’t do it, who will? And if they, like thousands of young black women, do not recognize the value of a young black woman, who will?
By understanding the black woman’s historic struggle with concepts of beauty, I see my reaction to these boys was not misplaced. It was simply the cry of pride from gnerations of black women who were always told that they were worthless.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.