Let me clarify this first…. Hair is just hair!
But for some strange reason society has taught us, or rather, put it on us that certain hair types are better than others.
Being a multicultural woman with African American roots (pun definitely intended) I have felt this acutely. I have never been fully comfortable wearing my Au naturel curly locks to a job interview because I never wanted my interviewers to see me as “unprofessional” or “untamed.” I would always straighten my hair or put it in a sleek ponytail because I felt that interviewers would then take me more seriously.
Observers often see natural curls of color as “unprofessional.” Society often tells women that our hair is integral to our beauty and that the best thing a woman can be is, well, beautiful. But as in all social codes, there’s a catch: You must have the “right” type of hair to be considered beautiful; there is a “hair hierarchy” to be held up, after all. And we all know how it goes: Straight, European hairstyles are on top, while curls of color are on the bottom.
Growing up, I was always praised for having “good” hair, which always struck me as strange. Sure, my loose ringlets were beautiful — but so were afros and braids and all the kinky-curly textures that black hair comes in. The hierarchy strikes again, now assigning value to black women based on their conformity to European beauty standards.
So, why are beautiful, natural African curls seen as unprofessional and untamed? Let me share a little bit of history with you.
During the ’60s, Caucasian, Jewish, and African Americans alike tolerated and loved curly hair. Everyone had curly afros; almost everyone in the US embraced the curly hair trend. It showed that you had spirit and a wild soul. However, once that time of Free Love was over, society began to portray women with large, curly hair as deranged or unruly, while stereotyping women with sleek hair as more serious. So, all the women who could, (everyone who didn’t have African American roots or natural tightly curled hair), changed their hair back to its natural state. This shift left African American women mostly alone, with their naturally curly hair, to face unfair prejudice.
Changing our Natural Hair Texture
While other women pointed and snickered at the African American women and other women of color who embraced their curly hair, these women felt ashamed and embarrassed that their hair wasn’t like everyone else’s. Many turned to a hot iron or “The Creamy Crack” – also known as a perm. While some people may not think I would need a hot comb or a perm because of my “mixed hair” texture (I would get kiddie perms because of my texture), I used these methods because my hair is curly and gets frizzy very easily, and I sought to obtain that bone- straight hairstyle.
Most African American girls would straighten their hair with a hot iron frequently to obtain and maintain that bone-straight hairstyle, thus taming curls and frizz. They would straighten their hair daily, slowly burning out their natural curls, and eventually suffering from split ends and heat-damaged hair. Unfortunately, the only way to treat heat-damaged hair is to cut it off.
And a perm, for those who don’t know, is a chemical treatment that straightens curly hair. Sounds simple enough, right?
If only it were that simple. Perms are made up of severe chemicals (the most active one is Ammonium thioglycolate, a colorless, clear liquid with a strong ammonia odor) that you should never, ever, ever put in your hair, much less your skin. You are advised to wear gloves if you’re applying a perm to avoid severe skin damage. These perms took over three hours to complete, and in addition, the entire time you can feel the chemicals burn into your head. There was nothing you could do but sit there and power through the pain. These treatments aren’t even permanent; every 2 – 3 months or so, women would have to redo the entire treatment because of their natural hair growing out.
Obviously, this treatment can be terrible for hair, so why would anyone EVER allow anything so toxic and damaging like this in their hair? Simple: To tame their curls, or to fit in to stop the snickering and the judgment they’ve faced because of their hair.
Many women of curls were/are desperate for that sleek, silky hair that has been so widely praised and adored. Instead of using perms, some women just end up wearing weaves or wigs to hide their hair.
Not just African American Women face these problems…
Even though my sole experience is living as a woman of color, there’s one thing I know for sure: women of all ethnic backgrounds are unsatisfied with their hair because we are all taught that we fall short of perfection somehow. Blondes may have more fun, but they’re also never mistaken for rocket scientists. Brunettes are more serious, academic, but they’re stereotyped as dull and doomed to have less fun than women with desirable yellow hair. So, what do Brunettes end up doing? Bleaching and dying their hair blonde and needing to touch up their dark roots often when their hair starts to grow out. Women with unconventional hair color (pink, lime green, blue, etc) are often seen as rebellious and alternative, while women with short hair are often advised to grow it out long. Women with curly hair wish it were more manageable and straight; women with straight hair envy the natural volume that comes with curls. The grass is always greener, I suppose.
So, let me say it again: Hair is just hair.
Hair can be a medium for self-expression. You can choose any style you want, because it’s your hair! Do you want to rock a Halle Berry haircut? Go on, girl.
You want to grow it out and dye it? Go right ahead. Do you want to rock out your natural curls? Show the world!
Do not be scared and embarrassed about the type of hair you have. Your hair is a part of you. Self-love means loving every bit of yourself and embracing who you are, including your hair.
Below are blogs and links that touch on society’s view of hair as well as people on the view of their hair struggles based on texture and/or race. These resources delve even more deeply into “European” standards of beauty. I urge you to read more about it:
– Society Sees Me Differently When I Straighten My Hair
– How I Stopped Caring About Society’s Beauty Standards (and Other Lessons from My Curly Hair)
– Cutting Remarks: How a woman’s hair length affects her brand
– What does your hair say about you? The message your style is sending
2 thoughts on “Judged By Our Follicles”
I sometimes wonder whether us as African American females truly believe that most of our hair problems have come from some form of assimilating to white culture and completely ignoring the bias of what the black culture has also engrained in us about our hair. For me personally, it was never jobs or even white america that convinced me that my hair wasn’t pretty enough or that it needed to be straightened. But it was a constant nagging from family members about how difficult maintaining my thick hair was. When I got old enough to do my hair I found myself being beaten down with phrases like ” do something about your hair.” or “You’re hair is going to breakoff.” I have never got the chance to actually experience my hair in all it’s glory because I always felt like I had to defend it. But now I’m in this place of learning how ignore criticism about my hair and stop worrying and feeling anger. I love my hair and I simply need to learn how to be more patient. Also understand that I can use my own unique methods to taking care of it. Hair can be annoying when the media tries to over saturate and provide only one type of hair texture. Even with curls that I consider to be “mixed girl” curls. Still kinky coily hair does not get the representation that it deserves. We need to push past that boundary. Our hair shouldn’t be a trend. It should be more unique to every single individual. Thank you for this post!
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I agree that sometimes our harshest critics are our parents, grandparents, and ourselves. I noticed that it is harder for the older generation to accept the “natural” look that we embrace with ourselves and kids as they do not believe it’s “tamed” when it’s healthier than other hairstyles and even admired by all types of people.
What is your hair journey and approach now?
-Awakening Your Roots-