Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In honor of the weather, a post on frizzy hair

In a guest post at Racialicious, Tami writes: "Many black women have fraught relationships with their hair because we are the only race of women who are expected to change the natural properties of our natural hair to be deemed acceptable–professionally and personally." Given the number of hits this blog gets from people Googling for how to straighten the hair of name-that-ethnicity, I'm not sure whether I agree. But then I thought about it for a moment, and I agree after all. See below:

On the one hand, it's true that the politics of 'black hair' affecting a black woman do not exist for, say, a woman of English or German descent (leaving the question of frizzy-haired 'ethnic' women aside for the moment) whose hair tends to frizz. Both women may style their hair straight, but one is told she is doing this to 'look white', whereas the other is told she's doing this to look good - she'll 'look white' no matter how she wears her hair. If a black woman does not straighten, she's understood to be making a political statement about race, whereas if a white woman does not, she's just 'let herself go' that day. Now, what about a Jewish woman who fell asleep with wet hair and walked through a bunch of misty rain the next day? (Not talking about anyone in particular.) I'd very much like my hair to look other than the way it does right now. I'm quite sure, given my facial features and especially my extreme pallor, that no matter how my hair looks, no one thinks I'm black, so it's doubtful that my wish stems from a fear of facing the discrimination blacks have faced and still do face in this country. (OK, there was this one girl in high school who thought I was black, but that remains a mystery.) But maybe frizzy equals Jewish? Is my wish a manifestation of self-hatred? What if I were Greek or Italian? Polish or Irish? Would that change matters?

This much I know: women of all ethnicities are straightening their hair. WASPS, Latinas, Jews, even Japanese women all de-pouf like crazy, with great variation in the time and amount of chemicals it takes to get hair from Point A to Point B. What does it all mean? Does a red-headed, frizzy-haired Irishwoman undergoing Japanese hair straightening want to look 'white'? Yes and no.

At the crux of hair-and-race is the fact that when a white or Asian woman has straight hair, it's generally assumed that her hair is like this naturally, because after all, some white woman and many Asian woman have naturally straight hair. We've all had the experience of a classmate or colleague we'd assumed to be straight-haired showing up one day in curls, getting compliments on her 'perm', or strange looks on account of her frizz, and having to explain that she didn't have time to blow-dry that morning. Whereas with, say, Michelle Obama, the example in the Racialicious post, no one thinks she's sporting a 'natural' look, even though we've all presumably only seen her hair straight. What this means is that what we understand as a society to be 'white hair' - and what men ignorant of female grooming habits imagine is white or Asian women's wash-and-go hair - is far from the natural hair texture of many white and some Asian women.

But in the end, Tami is right. What matters for hair-hand-race, at least in the American context, is really that very, very few women society would consider black have 'socially acceptable' hair, making hair a political issue - historically and currently - for black women that it is not for white women of similar hair texture.

Part, but not most, of why non-black women straighten their hair is to avoid looking 'ethnic', with of course variation according to whether or not a given non-black woman is 'ethnic'. But the main reason lies elsewhere: curly, frizzy, wavy, or simply 'big' hair is, on white but not black women, a stand-in for low class. Rich white women in Manhattan do not perm their hair. Working-class white women on Long Island? Perhaps. The not-so-ethnic Anne Hathaway can't become proper European royalty in The Princess Diaries until her poufy hair gets flattened out. Big hair's connotations are a bit like those of big breasts (credit on this matter goes to Withywindle, who commented about this somewhere). As with big breasts, what some women pay for, others find the default situation. But hair texture, unlike breast size, can be altered with relatively little fuss and discomfort. (Relative to breast-reduction surgery or going on a massive and otherwise unnecessary diet, say.)

While frizzy hair may be more common among Ashkenazi Jewish women than among, say, Swedes, the fear I have today is less that people will - gasp - find out that I am a Jew than that they will confuse me with a "Nanny"-era Fran Drescher.

12 comments:

PG said...

What this means is that what we understand as a society to be 'white hair' - and what men ignorant of female grooming habits imagine is white or Asian women's wash-and-go hair - is far from the natural hair texture of many white and some Asian women.

Heck, some white men don't realize that straight hair even on black women isn't wash-and-go; they assume there's just variety among black people such that somehow nearly all black men have a certain kind of hair that only some black women have. Admittedly, the example I have in mind is of a white man so unobservant of what women do to look the way they do that he didn't notice his black coworker also was of short stature until he saw her step out of her heels one day.

Re: your post as a whole, I'd also point out that straightening is something that seems to start among black females at quite a young age, imposed by mothers, grandmother and aunts; whereas while I know many curly/frizzy haired non-black women (including myself), none of us had straightening done until we were old enough to have a preference (and most of us not until we were old enough either to operate the at-home iron or to go into a salon and pay for it ourselves). I don't know any non-black women who as children had an older female relative straighten her hair to "look nice" for a special occasion like a wedding or religious holiday, whereas my black female friends would have their hair-straightened as part of the Easter ritual (new dress and shoes included here). Non-black women straighten hair to improve their attractiveness (presumably sexual attractiveness); many black females have their hair straightened long before an age where attracting sexual attention is desirable.

Phoebe said...

"Admittedly, the example I have in mind is of a white man so unobservant of what women do to look the way they do that he didn't notice his black coworker also was of short stature until he saw her step out of her heels one day."

Ha. I had a classmate in college I'd always thought was really tall, until one day she wore sneakers rather than heels, and I learned that she was, like me, 5'2". It's not just men making these mistakes.

As for the question of childhood hair straightening, I've known this to happen with poufy-haired non-black children (my child self included)... sometimes. Every haircut I can remember, as in, from a very young age, ended with my hair being blown straight, and I remember curly-haired non-black classmates sometimes arriving at school with straightened hair. But you're right that the hair-flattening impetus usually comes from the adolescent or young woman, when it comes to non-blacks, and the parents of small children when it comes to blacks.

PG said...

Salon people definitely treat curly hair as something to be blown straight, but I never got that at home, which was more what I had in mind. My thinking on this is sort of biased because I got my first professional haircut at 11; before that, all homemade. Even my sisters, who have regarded me as a home improvement project my whole life, didn't try to straighten my hair until I was in middle school. (It was as futile as trying to curl my little sister's very thick, straight hair. Which is another thing: there are times when curly hair on non-black women is something one is trying to achieve.)

Phoebe said...

"Salon people definitely treat curly hair as something to be blown straight, but I never got that at home, which was more what I had in mind."

I'd thought you might mean home or salon, since you referred to special-occasion hair. (One of the three manicures I've ever gotten, ever, was, I believe, for my bat mitzvah, and if photos are to be believed, it looks like my hair was professionally blown dry, too. Of course, though I was a child, this was about me becoming a woman!)

"there are times when curly hair on non-black women is something one is trying to achieve."

This goes for black women, too, although the curls are typically looser than in a 'natural' style.

PG said...

There are black women who go from natural to curlier-than-natural? What is the process? I didn't realize there was a meaning for "perm" like the curly or frizzy haired meaning in white culture.

(Incidentally, all of this reminds me of Gerald Early's first footnote in his essay "Life with Daughters," where he recounts Richard Wright's experience when a white woman at a conference knocked on his door to ask him to explain what her black female roommate was doing. "Her roommate walks around in the middle of the night and the white woman often covertly spies her in 'a dark corner of the room ... bent over a tiny blue light, a very low and a very blue flame ... It seemed like she was combing her hair, but I wasn't sure. Her right arm was moving and now and then she would look over her shoulder toward my bed.' The white woman thinks that the black woman is practicing voodoo. But Wright soon explains that the black woman is simply straightening her hair. [...] The conversation continues with an account of the black woman's secretive skin lightening treatments. What is revealing in this dialogue which takes on both political and psychoanalytic proportions is the utter absence of the black woman's voice, her presence. She is simply the dark neurotic ghost that flits in the other room while the black male and the white female, both in the same room, one with dispassionate curtness and the other with sentimentalized guilt, consider the illness that is enacted before them as a kind of bad theater. Once again, the psychopathology of the black American is symbolized by the black woman's straightened hair, by her beauty culture."

Phoebe said...

"There are black women who go from natural to curlier-than-natural?"

Doubt it. But there are many black women who go from natural to ringlets, tight curls, loose curls, curly extensions, etc., which is to say, to hairstyles other than straight. (I can provide an extensive survey of the hair of women of all backgrounds, with a minor in European tourists. This is thanks to zoning out on the subway and knowing full well that, when zoned out, it's better to be zoned out in the direction of a woman than a man, because men think a woman looking at them is looking at them, which is bad news.)

The passage you quote is interesting. But the problem I was hoping to highlight in my post was that, if just about no one wears their hair in its 'natural' state (are dreadlocks 'natural'? use of conditioner? shampoo rather than liquid soap?), we need a different language for the politics of hair than that of natural versus artificial. What we're looking at is a wide range of artifice, done by different people for different reasons.

See: the drugstore 'ethnic' and 'regular' hair aisles-- according to the shampoo companies, everyone has hair in need of 'correction.' In Europe I've heard there's even shampoo for hair that gets greasy quickly, something perhaps too rarely sought in ethnic NYC to exist anywhere. Does a European trying to de-grease her hair suffer the way a black girl does in a class full of preppy wash-and-go blondes? Clearly not, but that's a different question.

Withywindle said...

Re plebeian = large breasts: somewhere on FLG's blog. And I was more self-confident in my contention than I should have been; the connotation may only be a century old, not two millennia old, and may be less universal than I said.

My mom has occasionally mourned that when she was young, straight hair was the only fashion, while nowadays curly hair is more acceptable, and sometimes ladies even perm their straight hair into curls. And all those 1950s movies do seem to show universal straight hair in the young ladies. I think the preference for straight hair is somewhat softer than it was 60 years ago.

Your word verification for this post is "expring"; this has a morbid ring to it.

PG said...

What we're looking at is a wide range of artifice, done by different people for different reasons.

I might have a distorted view on this because so many of my friends and myself do have our hair relatively "natural," in the sense that very few of us do anything that involves seriously abrasive chemicals on the scalp. (The first commenter on the racialicious post mentions her hair falling out due to use of such chemicals.*) Of my dozen closest non-black female friends (about half of whom are white and the other half East or South Asian), two get dark blond highlights in their light brown hair; one blow-dries her hair straight most days and occasionally gets it professionally straightened; one used to get her tight curls relaxed. The rest, like me, tend toward the wash-n-go with a blow-dry on cold days (where going outside with wet hair courts illness) and an occasional detour into "wouldn't it be cool to have one white stripe in my hair? Maybe I'll wait until I've had my new job for a month before I try that, though."

In a really sexist way, I suppose I measure this by what men do: if I'm putting in a lot more effort than my husband, then it feels more like "artifice," because it seems like something I'm doing because I'm female rather than because I want to be cleanly and look tidy. But he's also low maintenance, so I'd probably have more work without its feeling like artifice if I were married to a guy who gels and pomades and highlights. (Although I can't really imagine myself with that type -- like to like and all that; guys who groom intensively don't seem to end up with women who don't.)

* I think where one is on a range in terms of what it does to your body is important. For example, we all ought to think about what we eat and ought to get some exercise, but there's also the possibility of becoming so concerned about diet and exercise that it becomes both psychologically and physically unhealthy. I'm more concerned about the artifice of someone who keeps getting her legs waxed even if causes her to get a rash for two days afterward than the artifice of someone who can get the same treatment with no negative effects. Perhaps it's not so much the level of artifice as the willingness to bear pain or damage for "beauty" that worries me.

Phoebe said...

"I think the preference for straight hair is somewhat softer than it was 60 years ago."

Not much.

"Your word verification for this post is "expring"; this has a morbid ring to it."

I have word verification? I don't even think I knew this.

PG,

I can see dividing beauty routines into that which hurts physically/psychologically/financially and that which does not. But is a hairdryer or iron more 'natural' than a chemical straightener? I mean, you're right that there's a dividing line, but I don't see it as falling between 'natural' and 'artificial', but as one setting apart various forms of artifice. And you're also right to note the role of sexism in all this--wanting to look good (hair included) is considered silly in part because this tends to be a concern primarily of women (and gay men).

PG said...

And you're also right to note the role of sexism in all this--wanting to look good (hair included) is considered silly in part because this tends to be a concern primarily of women (and gay men).

Yes, although even that has its own natural/artifice divide that may itself be false. For example, I think daily shower exfoliaters (loofahs/scrubs/etc) are easily adopted by men because it seems like you're just getting cleaner, and getting down to the real skin under the accumulated grime and dead cells. Every guy whom I've dated seriously, I've gotten hooked on exfoliation (often just by example). Getting these guys to put stuff in their hair, or even to use nail clippers carefully to make a nice shape instead of just whacking the nail down until it bleeds? Impossible. Hetero men go to the gym regularly or watch what they eat in order to look good, but they're more resistant to something that requires their exercise of aesthetic judgment or that requires adding to oneself in some way (e.g. using moisturizer).

Phoebe said...

I'm not even quite sure what exfoliation entails, but unless very tired, I'm decent at using a hair iron. What does it all mean?

As for hetero men and the gym/eating right, I have not met as many of these men as are allegedly out there. But maybe the issue isn't just about adding to one's self versus not, but also about endeavors that one could claim to be about 'health' versus ones clearly just about looks. A guy can claim his trips to the gym are about avoiding a heart attack later in life. But moisturizer? Not really. ('Healthy' hair shampoos being, of course, loads of BS. Hair can be shinier or less shiny, but it's not about to get up and do a little dance. It's... hair.)

PG said...

See the Detailer Shower Tool, at home daily shower exfoliation for men as marketed by Axe in red and black for $5 each (long after many men had started using their girlfriends' $1 Duane Reade versions of same).