The “Good Hair” Struggle

(**WARNING: EPIC post**)

“Oh my oprah show so good today!” read the text message my friend sent me last Wednesday. “It’s about hair!”

Little did I know exactly what she was talking about, until I got home that evening and spoke with my mother, who saw the same show.

I’m not a regular Oprah viewer, mainly because I’m running around at work. But on that particular episode, she spoke with Chris Rock, who’s been making the rounds as of late, promoting his soon-to-be-released documentary, Good Hair.

The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago – which was when I first heard about it and took notice.

But the fact Oprah dedicated an entire hour last week discussing women’s hair – and primarily, black women’s hair – piqued my interest even further.

And, while searching online to watch the episode for myself, I surfed smack into the trailer for the film:

I have since managed to watch the Oprah episode online, and so many thoughts are running through my head. Where to start?

Well … the thing is, there are people out there who don’t see what the big deal is. It’s just hair. From a biological/clinical standpoint, the stuff we as women make such a fuss over is the dead part that sits on our heads – not the thousands of live follicles embedded in our scalps.

But for women – and to a degree, black women (not all, but a fair number) – it IS a big deal. It’s about as deeply embedded as those follicles. It’s been about feeling good about ourselves and feeling beautiful, not ugly, as history has dictated to us over the ages. But that quest for outer beauty has driven a number of us to spend hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars doing it.

It’s also driven us to these standards that not only don’t fit, but that we continually inflict on each other – the idea that “good hair” is long and wavy, even straight, not short and tightly curled.

Regarding the program: I’m glad to have watched it. Some of the stuff they discussed wasn’t new to me. But the value-added parts of the program included talking to someone who’d recently cut off her hair in favour of a natural style and has taken a lot of flak for it (singer Beyonce Knowles’ younger sister Solange – also a singer), and a segment dedicated to what some white women do with their hair. (Hey, most of the audience was white. If you’re going call women out on their beauty secrets, might as well do it across the board.)

It was also surprising for me to hear my own mother – who’s worn her hair in a natural style for close to four decades – tell me she had absolutely no CLUE how lucrative this industry is … nor about the number of things black women – not just in the United States, but here in Canada and other countries abroad – do to their hair every day.

About the documentary: the subject matter, again, isn’t completely foreign to me. I’ve heard it discussed, albeit in smaller circles, and I’ve seen another documentary about black hair, done on a smaller scale about eight or so years ago. (The focus was slightly different, though.)

But I’m glad that Chris Rock decided to venture out and do this for a North American audience. I’m especially impressed that he’d do so, both as a black man, and as a father of two young daughters, who wanted to understand EXACTLY what they will probably do to their hair when they’re older.

Watching the trailer and the Oprah episode has had me thinking about my own experiences in dealing with my hair.

I remember as a kid, having my hair plaited every morning before school by my mother (whom I’m sure HATED it), right up until the time I was 12 years old.

While visiting relatives in Jamaica the summer before seventh grade, I made my transformation little kid to bigger kid with a visit to a local hairdresser and an introduction to permanent relaxer – the “creamy crack” referred to in the documentary trailer.

For a while, THAT was a ritual, too. Between grades 8 and 12 – I kept the EXACT same hairstyle, with what little hair I had crammed into a scrunchie, and a slightly limp curl at the front.

(To this day, the only time I could even attempt to guess what year I’d taken my high school picture depends on which side the curl was sitting in the photo.)

Then, when the bother of spending hours maintaining my straight hair was getting to me, I decided to cut my hair shorter.

In my university days, I dabbled in a little something called “Wave Nouveau” – not quite a perm, but not quite a Jheri curl, either.

By the end of school, I’d had enough and cut it all off.

The years between then and now have been a blur. I’ve grown it out, put it in braids, straightened it out (not chemically, but using a hot comb and flat-iron – in itself, NOT healthy to do regularly) and back again.

I remember that one REALLY bad braid job I’d gotten done at a place in Yorkville, that had the tracks of hair dislocating themselves from my head after just a week. I looked like I was wearing the hair of a poodle I’d just scalped.

And that other time, when I’d pressed my hair straight twice in one month, and was stuck for weeks at a time with clumps of DEAD STRAIGHT hair that I’d have to tuck into my curly ‘fro.

Which brings me to the present. As you can see in my “About” picture, I’m wearing braids. The hair is not all mine – it’s synthetic, mainly because human hair is (a) more expensive and (b) not something I could bring myself to wear.

I alternate between wearing a long style and doing the same version with my natural (considerably shorter) hair.

But for the past few months, I’ve thought about going back to the shorter style I’d worn nine years ago.

As it is, I’m LAZY when it comes to my personal beauty regime – I don’t really HAVE one. And as things get busier, it would be so much easier to maintain.

But so many thoughts have been swirling, making me say to myself, Not just yet.

Committing to a short hairstyle. It may only be hair, and it will grow back. But it’ll take a LONG TIME. And while having short hair will require less effort, looking feminine in other ways – wearing dangly earrings, more make-up, etc. – will require more.

Looking exactly like my mother. I love my mother. But HEAVEN forbid someone should say, “Your daughter looks JUST like you.” OH, the FACE she makes.

The perception it’s political. Politics has NOTHING to do with it. As far as I’m concerned, I made my “political” statement long ago when I decided never to go back to chemical relaxers. Now, it’s about convenience and what’ll make me look cute.

Dealing with people at work. I’ll be spotted from a mile away. Then there’s having to deal with certain white co-workers, who may not be sure how to deal with a look that’s so … different. I remember having a short hair cut one summer … and one woman I worked with (whom I don’t particularly like) acknowledged the change by calling it a “fresh style for summer.” I’m sure she was being nice. But part of me has always thought it was the fact she was secretly finding a way to visually cope  and was saying to herself, OH MY GOD SHE HAS NO HAIR

Travelling could be troublesome. By now, Canadians have heard about the case of Suuad Hagi Mohamud, the Canadian woman stuck in Kenya for three months because officials didn’t think she looked like her passport photo. My hair is “long” in my passport photo. Try being the customs officer looking at Long-Haired Me in a photo and then looking up at Short-Haired Me. If you’re enough of a prick, you could have a field day. To avoid trouble, I may have to go through the rigamarole of changing passports or other important pieces of ID, just so my appearance matches.

The people – and men – I may attract because of my short hair. I mean, amongst my friends and such, it’ll be this cool thing for the first while. But how many men actually like women with short hair? On Oprah’s show, Chris Rock said men DO NOT CARE about that sort of thing. Hmmm. REALLY? All the guys I know seem to like women with hair longer than four inches. Not that I’ve had the greatest track record with guys.  But my fear is that the pool (which isn’t huge to begin with) will shrink because I’ll be written off for not having a long, flowing mane.

I realize my hair doesn’t define ME as a person. And I know that making such a drastic change should be done for me. Not for my friends, my co-workers, potential suitors, or anyone else.

But I’m human. And I think about these things.

That’s not to say I’m never cutting my hair. I’m pretty sure I’ll do it in the next year. But for myself and lots of women, the mental commitment is the hardest part – not actually going to the salon or barbershop.

As my epic post draws to a close, I only ask two things:

(1) Love me for me, not what is or isn’t on my head. For a lot of my friends, they’ll probably respond by saying, “Well, DUH.” But still. And, oh yeah – unless you’re one of the special people in my life that gets a free pass to do this – please ASK before you put your hands in my hair. It’s kinda in the same vein as the rubbing-a-pregnant-woman’s-belly thing.

(2) If you get a chance, consider seeing this documentary. I’d bet you’d be enlightened. Chris Rock said he didn’t just make this for the black community, but for EVERYONE, so they can understand. And hey, what brings people together better than understanding?

5 thoughts on “The “Good Hair” Struggle

  1. I love it when the women talk about weaves and say that they pay big money to get hair “as natural as possible”.

    WTF? 🙂

    You HAVE natural hair!

    Man, the whole weave thing is bizarre. There’s a gal here at work who has one and it blows my mind to think it’s not her natural hair.

    The talk in the trailer about sex reminded me of one of my favourite stand-up routines featuring Bernie Mac.

    Fast forward about 4 minutes in (-7:25) to catch the bit about black women and their hairdos.

    To think your hair style would interfere with SEX? Well, what the heck did you get it done for, then? 😛

    A woman with a weave may look good from a distance, but I can’t imagine finding her appealing up close and personal or as a long term partner knowing that she goes through that to deny her natural hair. Fake boobs look good, too…in a swimsuit.

  2. dicampbell says:

    And see, Phil – that’s EXACTLY the dilemma.

    Not every person – or every man, for that matter – is probably as accepting as you are about natural hair styles. If they were, no one’d be having this discussion. I wouldn’t be reading blogs where people like Solange Knowles are being referred to in reader comments as “bald” – even though her head is completely covered with hair, albeit short-cropped.

    Women like myself wouldn’t be having the internal debates over whether or not to chop a foot of hair off because of what guys – or even other women – would think. They’d just do it.

    And they wouldn’t be getting hairstyles they won’t let their boyfriends or husbands – much less complete strangers – touch.

    And, as you probably know, hair’s just one of the things women try to change to “fit” in.

    I remember watching this news story once about how women (and men) are using skin-lightening creams in India. (Well, in this case it was women). And the reporter asked this one man on the street about whether he liked women with darker skin. And he had the absolute nerve to say that he didn’t because it made them “look greasy”. Which was pretty ironic, considering he was dark-skinned himself.

    Depending on the region of the world, it’s always something. Skin tone, eyelids, hair – whatever. And it’s making other people SOOO rich.

  3. Kristy says:

    I saw this episode of Oprah with Tanya while in a hotel room in Salt Lake City. (Or maybe it was Wyoming. The trip is a bit of a blur.)

    It reminded me of how she and I asked a million questions about your hair while we were in a Tim Horton’s before we went bowling!

    I thought Solange Knowles’ hair looked great, and I couldn’t believe it when she said she was spending $50 000 a year on her HAIR.

  4. dicampbell says:

    Unlike a number of women, I don’t mind if people ask. I try to be totally upfront. I’ve even had black women ask me if the braids are real? LOL.

    And I actually thought *I* was bad when it came to spending money on hair. But $50,000?! I don’t have to tell you what I’D do if I had $50,000 …

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