Many African American females have accepted that their bodies are different from the mainstream white, pencil-thin models and paparazzi-chased celebrities propped against the inner spines of glossy magazines and dancing listlessly across television and theater screens.
There is no sense that African American girls with different body types, shapes and sizes are plagued with the same body issues as white females.
However, African American girls have yet to declare independence from the straight-hair ideal that bombards them at every turn, an ideal that fundamentally challenges their sense of themselves personally, physically and socially. African American girls’ attitudes about their own and others’ hair – as it relates to identity, race, beauty ideals and self-acceptance – are still being teased out and teased at, as African American females move from girlhood to black womanhood.
Contradictory and complicated lessons about a black girl’s physical beauty can easily be chronicled through attention to hair and the ideals created for her within her family, circle of friends, and larger African American communities. Even as actress Queen Latifah, model Tyra Banks, comedienne Mo’Nique, and talk show host Oprah Winfrey proclaim full acceptance of the “thickness” or “healthiness” of their own black female bodies, their hairstyles signal a peculiar contradiction; perhaps even a public projection of an acceptance symbolized through long, straight, flowing and chemically processed hair.
Guiding an African American female’s early journey toward selfhood is the belief that straight, long and bouncy hair is the definitive ideal of “good hair.” Author Kim Green’s reflection in The Pain of Living the Lye underscores the effect of “good hair” on an African American child’s psyche: “I grew up mad at my hair because it wasn’t like the swinging manes of white children who surrounded me,” she said. To achieve the “good hair” ideal, a heated iron comb or lye-based chemicals become the tools of destruction and futilely temporary construction. The beginnings of these self-defining moments in young black girlhood are clear and long-lasting, and ultimately shape the public and private images of black womanhood.
The rhetorical ploy that associates straight and relaxed hair care with “good” mothering tugs at the emotional and spiritual bond between African American mothers and their young daughters, evident in this advertisement by Luster Products: “For your daughters, playing ‘dress-up’ can be wonderful make-believe fun and games. But as their mother, you know that looking out for them also has a serious side. And that includes caring for their hair. That’s why you use PCJ Relaxer.”
Responding to a concerned mother’s question, “When is it safe to press a child’s hair?” Olive Lee Benson of Olive’s Beauty Salon offers caution and challenges the questioning mother to “take into account [her] reasons for wanting to press [her] child’s hair”: “It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific ‘safe age’ when you can be sure to press your child’s hair without causing damage … pressing the hair can be a traumatic experience for youngsters. The procedure of tugging on the hair with extreme heat can frighten a child and implant in her negative thinking about her hair … Why are you pressing it?”
Benson’s tentative narrative of examination and introspection might be more straightforward and healthy for African American mothers and their daughters than the potentially damaging messages found in hair care advertisements and popular culture.
African American women and girls still journey toward a day when their sense of themselves and their assessments of other African American women and girls are not based on futile efforts to achieve a hair ideal rooted in someone else’s limited and limiting constructions and images of beauty. That U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s hair – and by extension the hairstyle choices she presumably makes for the Obama daughters – has attracted national attention and become the center of much media buzz means that Americans still have much to tease out about difference in terms of race, gender, sexuality, religion and even economics.
Comedian Chris Rock’s October 2009 humorously provocative and investigative big-screen documentary Good Hair surely puts these complicated identity politics back under the cultural microscope for our closer examination and better understanding.
Neal A. Lester is a professor and chair of the English department at Arizona State University. He has lived in Ahwatukee Foothills for more than 10 years.