Monday, November 16, 2009

A White Woman's Shallow Understanding of Black Hair

Another possible title for this post: what Smalls has been up to in a women's studies class. After being introduced to the complexities and connotations of black women's hairstyles by Liz via Shakesville, I chose this topic for a report this freckly, blue-eyed white woman stumbled through in front of a mostly multi-racial class, including two African women. The report went over well and the African women spoke up about the hair pressures in their respective countries. One said that it was normal for girls' heads to be shaved all through school, but the girls who were sent abroad for school always had braids or wigs because they were picked on in other countries for looking too boyish.

I was inspired by this Time article, in which Jenee Desmond-Harris discusses the impact of first lady Michelle Obama’s image. When the first lady attended a festival with her hair pinned up last July, a media frenzy erupted because people who saw photographs of Obama were unclear whether or not she had cut her hair short. Obama’s muscular arms, sleeveless dresses, bare legs and shorts have all made headlines since she became a public figure.

But one style point that stands out, especially to black women, is Obama’s choice to straighten her hair, since black women’s hair is naturally curled very tightly. Journalists have wondered if Obama straightens her hair with heat alone, or with the help of chemicals, and bloggers have discussed why Obama would hesitate to wear her hair in a natural style. But the hesitation becomes clear when Desmond-Harris considers the implied connections between hair and placement in the social hierarchy, that the natural ways for black women to wear their hair have subversive and even sexual connotations, as evidenced in Don Imus’ verbal attack on the Rutgers women’s basketball team and the controversial New Yorker magazine cover featuring Obama with an Afro. Desmond-Harris recognizes that Obama and the president crushed a huge political barrier, being the first black family in the White House, but that social barriers for black women remain. Being a public figure, Obama brings black women’s social issues to center stage. As a black woman, Desmond-Harris sees a woman in the White House dealing with the same image standards as herself, and wonders if the choices black women make with their hair will ever be a non-issue.

Reading Desmond-Harris’ article as a white woman, I felt a lot of guilt at the idea of black women’s success being so closely tied to a beauty standard that limits their options. All American women are held to ridiculous beauty standards that demand we be thin, big-breasted and delicate among many other things, to be feminine and desirable. But within these beauty standards, I can see that the decisions black women make with something as trivial as a hairstyle can be a loaded choice, when the successful women on television and in politics conform mostly to the standard of making their hair more like white women’s hair. As a white woman of Western European descent, the images of women in fairy tales, movies and even advertisements all show women that look like me. When I wake up in the morning, I have to worry about women’s beauty standards when I consider my hair, makeup and dress, but the decision to wear my hair straight and down takes me a fraction of the time it would take a black woman, because my hair falls naturally straight. I never have to worry that wearing my hair how it naturally dries after showering will affect my reputation at work, or even make people question my beauty according to the typical standards. It’s clear from Desmond-Harris’ arguments and from other viewpoints, that there are unfair connotations for hairstyles that come more naturally to black women.

Michelle Obama is widely considered a beautiful, stylish and sophisticated woman, but Desmond-Harris’ article “Why Michelle’s Hair Matters” points out that Obama’s image is carefully constructed to fit a beauty and image standard that has social implications for black women everywhere. Black women’s hair is curly, and there are ways to style it without chemicals or excessive heat, but natural styles like Afros, dreadlocks and braids have negative social connotations. Although all women deal with beauty standards that dictate behavior and body image, the beauty standards favoring straight hair in the United States take considerable time and money for women with curly hair to conform to. These standards not only establish what is desirable, they dictate black women’s professional and social opportunities.

Because black women’s hair is naturally curly, if a famous black woman like Obama wears her hair straight, observers jump to a number of conclusions for how Obama’s hair got that way, all of them requiring significant effort. Desmond-Harris talks about the possibility that Obama had her hair chemically relaxed, blow dried and straightened or hot-combed. Whatever the method, one thing is clear: It took a lot of work. Desmond-Harris mentions that Tyra Banks, another black celebrity renowned for her style and beauty, was relinquished the hair extensions she’s worn for her entire public life on the season premiere of The Tyra Show. The extensions, wigs, chemicals, straightening irons and hot combs are implied every time the public sees a black woman with straight hair, and going without these significant efforts can be controversial.

Black women don’t go through the straightening process for no reason—the natural ways to style black hair are often considered unprofessional, subversive or dangerous. Desmond-Harris cites commenters on the Philadelphia Inquirer web site sympathizing with Obama’s choice to wear her hair straight. One commenter admits that she wears her hair straight for the first few months of a job, and one wrote, “Girl, ain’t no braids, twists, Afros, etc. getting into the White House just yet.” But why would it be outrageous for Obama to wear one of these hairstyles?
Desmond-Harris points out that the controversial New Yorker cartoon image satirizing Obama as a militant pictured her donning an Afro, not by coincidence. By relinquishing a natural hair style like the Afro, Obama is conforming to a beauty standard that favors white women, a standard that has been established in the United States since Colonial times by the people that have been in power since then—white men. For Obama to wear her hair naturally would likely make white men, or white women, uncomfortable, helped along by the associations people make between Afros and black pride, cornrows and gang culture, or dreadlocks and Rastafarians. The link these hairstyles have to black pride or even Afro-centrism clearly makes people nervous, as if the hairstyles could lead to a social hierarchy shift. The fact that the styles associated with black pride are ones that complement black women’s naturally curly hair is probably no coincidence—any style besides laboriously straightening hair to look more “white” is easier for black men and women to wear and maintain. On the other hand, hairstyles that Caucasians are comfortable with, the ones that are never considered out of uniform in police departments or the military, are the ones that come naturally to white people. As the previously mentioned commenter pointed out, the White House isn’t ready for a black woman whose hair isn’t styled like a white woman’s—a black woman can be the first lady if she’s not too black. If Obama didn’t spend the time and effort to straighten her hair, she would most likely not be considered such a stylish, beautiful and sophisticated woman.

Because Obama is a smart, successful black woman whose closest relationship is that with the leader of the free world, her actions and decisions reverberate in the cultures she represents. Desmond-Harris writes that the web is afire with blogs dedicated to dissecting Obama’s style and hair choices, analyzing why and when Obama gave up her “schoolgirl’s curls” as seen in her 1985 Princeton graduation photo. Black women and girls who look up to Obama seem to be wondering why and when Obama made the decision to start straightening her hair, and whether they should do the same to send a message of maturity and sophistication. But in addition to the influence she will have for black women, Obama also has the power to normalize black women’s hair for everyone else. Desmond-Harris mentions the obnoxious questions she encounters when discussing the care of braids or dreadlocks with people who aren’t black. She mentions people’s confusion of how to wash one’s hair when wearing those styles, and the assumptions people make that the styles are “dirty” because they aren’t conducive to the washing habits that are easiest for white hair. These questions have implications of their own, that these styles aren’t civilized, that they’re savage. But these notions could be swayed if black hair in its natural state was considered normal. In college, a white professor gasped and gaped at a classmate and friend of mine when she wore her hair curly once—hair that was usually straightened and shoulder length was all of a sudden very short and curly. My classmate eventually stopped the professor’s exclamations by saying, “this is how black people’s hair usually is.” I would guess that this ignorance about black women’s hair is pretty widespread, because people might not realize that straight hair isn’t natural for black women.

All women deal with beauty standards that dictate how to behave and look, but the current hair standards in the United States favor white women. While women deal with constant messaging about weight loss, health, attire and sexuality, most of the non-black population doesn’t have to worry about expensively taming their hair to go on a job interview. These are considerations that other women simply don’t have to think about, if they have socially-acceptably curly hair. The level of curliness that seems acceptable is the kind we see every day in women held up as beautiful: long, flowing hair with loose curls, or curls that have seem to be controlled on some level. The fad curls that have come and gone mostly represent straight hair intentionally made a little curly, the work of perms, irons or curlers. Even curly-haired Jewish women in my life are adamant about straightening their hair, almost as a defensive move to not look as identifiably Jewish, since their curls are more on the uncontrollable side of the spectrum. Because their hair texture and color was one way Jewish men and women were identified during the Holocaust, it’s an understandable reaction. Even if they’re not worried about death, Jewish women certainly could be defending themselves against anti-Semitism in many forms in the present day, in the same way that black women are defending themselves against the reputation of being dangerous for proudly wearing dreadlocks or an Afro.

Black women know well what it takes to make their hair straight, although people born with straight or socially-acceptably curly hair might not understand the expense and time it takes black women to attain this beauty standard. Being the first black first lady means that Obama will always be a trailblazer, and hopefully her example will inspire black women everywhere that they can accomplish as much as she has scholastically and surely, in the next four years, politically. With natural-hair awareness on the rise on the web from feminists and other proud black women, hopefully braids, twists, Afros and dreadlocks aren’t too far from the White House. I recognize that I can’t fully appreciate the pressure black women face regarding their hairstyles, but I will try to understand and be an ally in whatever way I can be.

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