Standing in line at Potbelly’s deli, I hear “Excuse me, but.. I was just wondering what you do to your hair?” About sixteen inches of curly, usually frizzy, untamed, natural madness and somehow women ask me this a few times every week. Sometimes her hair looks just like mine, sometimes it’s heavily processed and looks like it wants to be treated like mine, and once in awhile she has thin, straight, blonde hair and a little girl by her side whose outgrowing pigtails. My hair product advertises itself like this:
“Finally, a curl-defining system for “us”. Whether you’re black, white, asian, latin, mediterranean, or any glorious combination of the above.”
The responses I get from the women who stop to converse about my hair varies:
“Power to you for wearing your hair natural, but I’m just not going to go there..”
“I have a black daughter. Ponytails and braids only get me up to a certain age. And.. I’m lost.”
“I know how much work that is and I know you know how much work this is.”
The conversations surrounding hair, hair products, hair treatments, and fake hair tell a pretty interesting narrative of solidarity amongst women of color. What “to do” with and to our hair is often an obsession. It is kind of interesting, ironic and not too surprising that the first Black woman millionaire, Madame C.J. Walker, was a specialist in beauty products, including hair products.My own relationship to my hair has evolved over time. I use to try to tame it, hide it, bundle it up snugly on the back of my head and pretend it wasn’t there. But now I let it do its own thing. I don’t worry about it. I kind of enjoy it being wild and loose. If nothing else it is a good conversation starter with other women who feel a connection and a familiarity.
The bond over naturality when it comes to ethnic hair goes further than an ability to establish a sense of haircare commiseration and comradery; it is often complimented with a we-haven’t-sold-out sense of superiority. For years, commentary from the margins and from Afrikana studies departments has deemed relaxed hair, the concept of silky straight, chemically-treated black hair as “good hair,” was a sellout, a blatant transaction of African roots for a more Eurocentric look. And for years, treated hair has still been the way to go in black communities.
A ‘natural’ look is making a comeback and this commentary is seeping from the margins into the more mainstream, bringing the questions of “To treat, or not to treat?” and “To weave, or not to weave?” into the damned if you do, damned if you don’t category.
Truth is, either statement should be empowering for black women. We have the privilege to go straight, go natural, go fro, go twists, go up-do, or whatever. Our sharecropping grandmothers, and house slave great grandmothers didn’t.