The Search for Good Hair - Styling Black Womanhood in America

By Buchman, Rachel | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Search for Good Hair - Styling Black Womanhood in America


Buchman, Rachel, The World and I


Good hair is to black women what being thin is to white women. It is hard not to notice the intricate twists and knots and braids and sweeps that many black women wear. Just as striking is the number of black women who wear their hair straightened. Both black and white women find it hard not to contrast their hairstyles. The dichotomy between white and black is one that is so ingrained in American society, since the time of slavery, that nearly every aspect of black and white culture is contrasted. Even as ethnicity terms, like African American, come into common use, both black and white Americans still make references about race rather than ethnicity.

Many Americans see blacks and whites as genetically, or naturally, different, but race is a constructed identity. Feminist author Judith Butler feels that gender is "a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief." Applied to race, this means that being black is a matter of acting black, that culture, rather than genetics, distinguishes black from white.

If race is a constructed identity, it is important to identify who constructs it for whom. In America, whites negatively identified blacks for so long that an institutionalized racism emerged and still impacts our society. In Black Looks, bell hooks poses the idea that race, culture, and identity are active, ways of "becoming" as well as "being." One way blacks have constructed blackness for themselves and others is through hair.

Historic hair

In their article about slave hair culture, Shane and Graham White present "the idea that the hair of one's head is a medium through which social messages can be conveyed and aesthetic standards of the dominant culture contested." The authors document the historical process through which slaves fought to keep their African sensibilities of style and aesthetic values. The personal became political as slave children were taught by their white masters to refer to their hair as wool, women were punished by being forced to shave their heads, and Sunday became the only day slaves had enough time to attend to their hair.

The Whites discuss Sylvia Ardyn Boone's analysis of West African communities, in which "merely to be presentable, a woman's hair must be clean, oiled, and plaited. For the sake of elegance and sexual appeal, hair must be shaped into beautiful and complicated styles. ... Disheveled, neglected hair is anathema to [groups such as the] Mende. It signifies insanity. ... Mende culture finds it morally unfitting to leave the hair unarranged and equates wild hair with wild behavior. Loose, unplaited hair is associated with loose morals.'" The Whites point out that slave women were humiliated by having to leave their hair unkempt or hide it under work scarves. They must have attached great importance and feelings of self-worth to the beautiful hairstyles they were able to create on Sundays and after slavery.

Whites constantly devalued the natural state of black hair. By 1830, blacks were being encouraged by whites, advertising in black periodicals, to lengthen and straighten their hair with miracle products. These products were often made from dangerous chemicals that caused the hair to fall out and burned the scalp. Slave owners encouraged blacks to iron their hair straight and many did, often singeing their hair, ears, and scalps. The ads and general encouragement relied on the white idea that black hair is essentially messy, hard to care for, and too coarse and curly to behave the way "regular" hair should, according to Noliwe Rooks. By making white hair the archetype, black hair could not be judged by its own standards.

Blacks fell prey to these ideas and began to believe that they needed to "fix" their hair to look like white hair. Ads for one miracle product show black women in the before sequence appearing to become white by using the product.

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