Cabello: Reflections on Black Hair and Beauty

Monday, July 15, 2013

None have I known more sweetly feminine, more unswervingly loyal, more desperately earnest, and more instinctively pure in body and in soul than the daughters of my black mothers.

-W. E. B. Du Bois

I’ve noticed lately my inner and outer beauty becoming increasingly antagonistic. Just recently, as I styled my hair, my comb became tangled and stuck inside my teeny-tiny circumferences of thick, dark, coarse kinks. Like clockwork, my outer beauty pointed in the mirror, laughed, taunted, and called me “peazy head,” “beadabees,” “snap-back knots.” I got my looks in order, of course. My inner beauty, the commander-in-chief, ordered my outer beauty to buckle up, be nice, and keep quiet for the remainder of the day.

The act of hostility between my two selves is unfortunately nothing new. Why should I even be surprised? For more than a quarter-century of succumbing to the commander, outer beauty is exasperated—tired of spending time and money for the latest trendy hairstyles, tired of keeping up appearances all in the name of straight, silky hair. She’s sick to death of being processed with chemical perms, of being burned and scabbed over by hot combs and blow dryers, hidden under weaves, and pushed down by braids. Outer is tired of the binding ponytail chains, the strand repression, tired of the contradiction of being a synthetic au naturel.

I’ve experienced this inner and outer tug since I was a little girl, ever since I first realized that I was a good person despite not fitting into society’s qualifications for having “good hair.” Thus, as I grow older and become more aware of my aesthetics, I also become more conscious of the fight between how pretty I look and how pretty I feel. I’ve rationalized that I’m preparing in some obscure way for the daily battle of stares, judgments, and opinions from other people. Do we look pretty with our perms? Do we look nappy-headed with our afros? Do we look crazy with our weave? Are black women inherently and internally even being defined by hair, or is it all some self-internalized judgment? Indeed, hard questions to ask and even harder ones to get answered. Because the roots of black hair are complex and a very touchy subject, nearly to the point where 99 percent of African-American women will in no way, shape, or form even allow you to touch their hair, much less talk about it.

But I am not my hair.

I agree with historians, though, that the story of black people’s hair begins where everything began—in Africa. There, Africans and their hair were in perfect harmony with the environment. The dense spiraling curls demonstrated evolutionary genius, as the frizzy, kinky hair insulated the head from the brutal intensity of the sun’s rays. The hair textures themselves varied, from the deep ebony kinky curls of the Mandingos to the loosely curled, flowing locks of the Ashanti. There was heavy social significance to each delicate strand too. For instance, Nigerian housewives living in a polygamous society created certain hairstyles to taunt each of their co-wives, known as kohin-sorogun (“turn your back to the jealous rival wife”). If the Wolof men wore their hair in a particular braided hairdo that meant they were preparing for war and possible death and would thus tell their wives not to comb their hair because they could become widows. Royalty were expected to wear hats and headpieces.

But the aesthetics were just as important. West African women admired a fine head of long, thick hair. It demonstrated a life-force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity, and a green thumb for raising bountiful farms and healthy children. Women desired profuse hair, and it had to be clean, neat, and arranged in a specific style, typically a braided design. A particular style could attract a certain person or indicate a religious ritual. If a Nigerian woman’s hair wasn’t done, then it signaled something was wrong, that she was bereaved, depressed, or dirty. If a Mende woman’s hair wasn’t done, it meant that she was unkempt and messy, had loose morals, or was insane. The Wolof women liked their hair shiny and long, and rarely cut it’ rather, they arranged it in a particular style. For many African communities, the hair’s value and worth was heightened by spiritual qualities; often it was considered to be the most elevated point of the body, thus closest to the Divine. They believed that the hair was the closest thing to the heavens; communication from the gods and spirits were thought to pass through the hair to get to the soul.[1]

God knows I’ve personally yelled out to him (“Jesus Christ, that hurts!”) in one or two—or three—of my own hair experiences. Although it took me years, I, alas, had to come to grips with the fact that while I enjoy my hair in its most natural state (unprocessed, unweaved), I am sadly and hopelessly tender-headed. a condition in which the scalp is very sensitive to the combing, tugging, and pulling of the hair—and, boy, does it make you cry. It’s something I rarely admit to, and I’m not quite sure if I really should, as it carries a heavy taboo. But my friends, my siblings, and I simply realized that this denial of sensation in the head and neck, this disallowing of one’s physical pain or discomfort solely for the convenience of getting the comb through the hair, is a disingenuous and underexamined cultural construct. In girlhood, it prepared us for the merciless role of the much-vaunted yet antiheroic strongblackwoman, our most striking characteristics being gross displays of endurance and absence of personal agenda. We tried to find cultural value in direct proportion to personal sacrifice. In fact, it is said that most American women suffer for beauty and acceptance, though none as trumpeted as the strongblackwoman that wrestles with us, within and without.[2] Simply put, I began to realize that my hair in its most natural state often equals immense pain, and pain equals weakness, and I, the black woman, must always exude a manner of strength and beauty, especially an inner beauty. Therefore, if I sometimes sacrificed my outer beauty by succumbing or “selling out” to hair fixing, based on European aesthetics, then so be it. Likewise, if I looked to enhance my outer beauty based on European aesthetics so I could feel more beautiful, and thus stronger, on the inside, then so be it.

But I am not my hair.

[1] Ayana D. Byrd and Lori Tharps, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (New York: St. Martin’s, 2001).
[2] Juliette Harris and Pamela Johnson, Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).


Which is exactly what Mrs. Brooks told me every Saturday when she braided my hair into the “box braid” style, twenty braids parted in squares, with about fifty colorful beads and rubber bands (which once melted into my hair after I played softball outside with my school PE class), from the time I was age nine until age fourteen. My mother had grown tired of trying to style my hair into afro puffs, intricate cornrows, or Shirley Temple curls. She was so over our weekend ritual of heating a hot comb on the kitchen stove and having me weep for hours as she “pressed” my hair because I could smell the olive oil grease and feel the heat singe my scalp like the sticky-hot summer South Carolina sun. I begged insistently for a perm, but year after year, my mother adamantly refused and instead asked Mrs. Brooks, our next-door neighbor at the time, to braid the long, dark, kinky, somewhat dry, fragile hair that hung down my back. I still remember how someone would ask me a question and I would shake my head no and slap myself in the eye with one of my own beaded hair strands. My younger sister taunted me every chance she got, “You’re gonna kill yourself swinging those beads around like that!”

But Mrs. Brooks just kept on braiding, weaving my hair together like skinny ropes. “Don’t listen to your sister. Your hair is pretty like this, and even if it wasn’t, you’d still be pretty cuz you’re a sweet girl.” She constantly reminded me that I had inner and outer beauty. And there was something about her saying it over and over again that eventually started to make me at least try to believe it. I felt a certain sense of peace in knowing that no matter how my hair was styled, people wouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, judge my character by it—and I shouldn’t either.

And yet when my family moved away from our hometown (and thus away from Mrs. Brooks) and I transferred to a new high school in the middle of my ninth-grade year, the taunts and teases moved beyond the walls of my home and into the classroom hallways. My hair was long and thick, but it was super kinky and curly. Black girls constantly asked me: Why didn’t I have a perm? Or finger-waves? Or a bun? Or twists? Or a basket-weave? Or the Aaliyah-like long, straight hair with the swooped bang? Any-and-everything seemed to be in style except braids—and my hair was quickly earning me the status of social outcast. Without a perm or a weave, I couldn’t even come close to obtaining any of the desired looks:

The Rachel with that demanding layered bob, a classic little fringe in the front, and those killer highlights. Even though it was named after Jennifer Aniston’s TV character, black girls loved it too. The look was versatile, but my mom said I would have to be grown and out of her house before she’d let me perm my hair.

There was the Halle, though, with its mix of Hollywood glamour and bombshell appeal. So I asked my mother if I could cut my hair to get that short, layered, tapered, spiky-cut look. “I’d have to be cold and six feet under before I’d go and let you do something as stupid and crazy as that” was all she shot back at me.

Then there was the Lauryn Hill and the Erykah Badu, which was all about rocking your natural hair, and I thought, “Oh, how perfect!” Lauryn and Erykah were talented black singers and made ’locs, twists, afros, and knots glamorous. I wanted to emulate it, but it would require me to transition my hair into a kind of dreadlocks—and my mother absolutely dreaded the idea.

So my last hope was the TLC, named after the pop R&B group that made curls and ponytails seem crazy, sexy, and cool. They wore their hair in this unicorn look that, for me, was absolutely mesmerizing. You could sweep your hair up into a ponytail even if you had braids. But I wanted my hair out of braids and loose, a look best accomplished with long weave extensions, clips, and rubber bands. But a sky-high ponytail? My mother almost slapped me down when I asked for it.

Therefore, I found myself flipping through scores of black hair care magazines in high school, and later in college, until my fingers were ripped with paper cuts, trying to find some new, trendy style that would make me feel beautiful on the inside—and out. Curls, crimps, bangs, color, something, anything. In a sense I felt that no one cared about, or paid much attention to, the fact that I was a straight-A student with feelings and opinions on how I wanted to look. It was all about how everyone else thought I should look. It started with my mother and sisters, but I knew they were only preparing me for the real world: the terrifying opinions of other women, and dreadful hairstylists who cared about only their time and your money, and—perhaps scariest of all—men. I truly wanted to believe that Mrs. Brooks was not mistaken about hair and beauty, and that it was your personality that ultimately defined you. Yet in a way, I felt she could have been wrong. Maybe I was no different from the Nigerians or the Mendes: maybe I was just skin, bones, and hair, a colored object, trying to get to God. Maybe my outer beauty took shape and precedence over my inner self—because people were defining me by it. If my hair wasn’t “done” in a way fit for black society (the natural look), then I was assumed to be dirty, depressed, or crazy. And if my hair wasn’t “done” in a way fit for white society (the chemical, processed weave look), then I was assumed to be dirty, depressed, or crazy.

But I am not my hair.

Although the black hair care industry, and everyone who has an opinion on it, would have me believe differently. Target Market News reported that African American women spent $6.6 billion on hair care and personal grooming items in 2008, more than any other ethnic group.[3] Chris Rock obviously thought our battles to get “good hair” rather funny—his young daughter asked him why she did not have it, so he sought an answer and documented it in a comedy.[4] He had superstar black female celebrities (who can afford to style their hair any way they choose), salon owners, and black clients give their take in a big, happy hoopla. He says black women have spent as much as $9 billion a year on hair. Thus, he ever so lightheartedly exploits our inner-vs.-outer-beauty war, exposes us in the domestic and international public spotlight, and leaves us all pondering the rather embarrassing question whether we are still valuing a European look over an afrocentric look to make us feel pretty.

[3] Target Market News, 15th Annual Buying Power of Black America Report (Chicago: Target Market News, 2010).
[4] George Lucas, dir.,­­­­ Chris Rock’s Good Hair: Sit Back and Relax (HBO Films, 2009).


He scorched and doused our spirits with truths of conforming to weaves and relaxers (our “creamy crack”), questioned why white people do not understand black hair, and shamed us for often viewing our natural, tender-headed hair as undesirable. He even knocked some advertisements of our ancestors that paved the way for us to have “good hair”: How dare Madam C. J. Walker, born black in 1867 and commonly regarded as the first female self-made American millionaire, target hair care products toward black women with an enticement for long, wavy, smooth hair?[5] Didn’t she know black folk needed to look like black folk? Forget the fact that she started her company not to conform to a European look but because she was suffering from hair loss (she was a washerwoman going bald), and thus she developed and marketed a successful line of beauty and hair products for black women under the name Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. It still provides products today for black women with both processed and natural hair. Yet she is often dubbed the “de-kink queen” and blamed for pushing black women to look more “white” by creating straightening hot combs and perms, though she in fact did not: the hot comb was developed in France in 1845, and German hairdresser Charles Nessler developed the very first perm in 1905. Walker (whose parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove, were former slaves), no doubt was fighting her own inner and outer beauty war. Instead of praising her, our black men laugh at Walker, shun her memory, and overlook her accomplishments, much like they do many of us today. They want us to be naturally beautiful, but if we begin looking a tad too natural (like Harriet Tubman natural), then that is a problem. And if we even think about admitting to wearing weave or having a perm, to create their desired look of “natural beauty,” then that is a problem—a real funny problem.

I watched Good Hair feeling like a runaway slave one step away from a handful of lashings—as if the world were pulling and forcing me to untangle the roots of my soul and give a definitive reason for why I am who I am, and not really liking the answer.

But I am not my hair.

[5]A’Lelia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (New York: Scribner, 2001).


Although I have often attempted to please men in my life with my hair, I never found much comedy in it. Not surprising that director Regina Kimbell didn’t either, when she filed a lawsuit in October 2009 against Chris Rock Productions, HBO Films, and the documentary Good Hair. She charged that the film was an illegal infringement of her 2005 film My Nappy Roots: A Journey gthrough Black Hair-itage, which she claimed she screened for Rock in 2007.[6] Her film sought not to take a mocking joke of black women but rather to have us explore the politics and history of African American hair and how the European ideal of beauty influenced black hair through modern history, by detailing styling patterns, looking at cultural trends, and examining the business of black hair care products. Kimbell lost the suit, and the judge allowed Rock’s Good Hair to be produced and released.

I, too, was propelled to ask my black female counterparts what they thought of all this hair business, and more importantly, more seriously, why? Why are we utterly addicted to our “creamy crack” and obsessed with burning ourselves with Brazilian blowouts? Why are we lynching our spirits by sewing and gluing in packs upon packs of weave, imported from India and sold online or down the block by a Chinese or Korean vendor? Because—whew!—there’s the basic Remi (weave strands face the same way and come from the same person’s head); the Virgin Remi (weave strands have not been processed); the double-drawn Brazilian Remi (the hair is sewn onto the scalp at the same length); and the weft Malaysian Remi (the weave has extra strips of hair to attach to the scalp with micro-rings or glue). And that is just one brand of weave and doesn’t include weave wigs, called lace fronts. But why we will spend up to $2,500 for one pack of it (equating to just four hair tracks, enough to cover only half a scalp) to last less than a few months, all in the name of pretty? Who is winning from it all—our outer beauty? our inner beauty? Is it a beauty that both black and white society pressures us to conform to? Are we simply fighting a losing battle with ourselves?

The other day, a good friend informed me over lunch that next month she and her husband are launching a natural hair care beauty line called TreLuxe. She says it’s what we need. To get away from what white society says we should look like and back to our roots—back to where we understand how to take care of our curly kinks.

And I fight back all the questions that come flooding forth in my mind. Instead, we eat sandwiches and sip lattes and talk about the tragic shootings in Connecticut and the need for more gun control. Outside, it starts to rain, and I realize that I don’t have an umbrella and my hair will get wet.

And I again sense outer beauty taunting as inner beauty comes forward, armed and ready to command.

[6]Regina Kimbell v. Chris Rock et al., CV 09-7249 DSF U.S. 97052, District Court for the Central District of California, 2009. Accessed on LexisNexis Academic, December 10, 2012.


Monday, July 1, 2013