Thursday, March 06, 2014

The web of artifice intersectionality

This morning's poodle-walk accompaniment was the BBC Woman's Hour discussion on the "politics of afro hair." As someone with moderately politicized hair myself (on "Jewish" hair, see this essay; the point is not to question the Jewish authenticity of the Alicia Silverstones of the world, but rather to note that the women whose hair matches up with what's thought "Jewish" experience our own version of hair politics), I take a semi-personal interest in such discussions. Having spent about a week total of my life in the UK, and having never been black, this discussion was - as must always be disclaimered - not about me, even if I can personally relate to some of it, and not in the classic oblivious-white-woman 'sometimes I have a bad hair day, too!' sort of way. Disclaimer done, let's proceed:

Initially, my hopes were not so high - the discussion was introduced with a mention of how Lupita Nyong'o had worn her hair in an "unaltered state," I think was the expression, to the Oscars, which seemed an unfortunate conflation of hair-straightening and hair-styling. It would be like saying that because Nyong'o wasn't somehow painted lighter, she was wearing no makeup at all. This is, after all, the trouble with "natural" - we enter into a web of artifice intersectionality. Some forms of effort are not problematic ("problematic," argh, but no other word works here) in a racial sense, but might be in a gender one. More on that in a moment.

Then came the debate itself, which introduced further levels of intersectionality. Hannah Pool, a journalist, was pitted against Editi Udofot, a hairstylist; both are black. As the website confirms, Pool wears her hair in an afro, while Udofot has a blond weave. This was our starting point.

And so began one of those privilege discussions where the winner is, ironically, the person who's more educated, more upper-class (or whatever UMC is in the UK, because I understand there's also the aristocracy), more privileged.

Pool offered a critique of the ethics of human-hair extensions, explaining that only rich white men benefit from the sale of these, all the while talking to an apparently successful black businesswoman who sells hair extensions. Pool also announced to Udofot that she (Udofot) would look more beautiful with natural hair... this despite having never seen Udofot with natural hair, and despite Udofot's protests that this is not how she herself likes to look. Udofot explained - and having had equivalent conversations about my own hair, boy could I understand - that not all black women's "natural" is equally attractive. Her own natural hair, she explained, is thin, and incapable of growing into an afro like Pool's. She likes big hair, she explained, so whether she wears it straight or curly, she requires some kind of artifice. Nor, she went on to explain, when the topic returned to Nyong'o, is short, non-straightened hair some kind of automatic ticket to looking like a movie star.

Indeed. I've had they 'why the flat-iron?' conversation with people who assume that, barring said device, I'd surely have, I don't know, flawless ringlets, or cascading Pantene-commercial waves, or even just that insouciant French-girl hair. They're not imagining a less curly but somehow more voluminous version of this. Now, we may still say that it's unfortunate that women with meh natural hair feel they must alter it, but we need to be honest, and not claim that in all cases, "natural" looks better. For some women, "natural" means sacrificing beauty privilege a whole lot more than for, say, Nyong'o, who is maybe the most beautiful woman in the world.

And then... class. Often enough, for one's more "natural" state to be thought beautiful, one merely has to enter into some well-educated elite, simple as that. Easy peasy. Udofot explained that she prefers how she looks with the blond weave, but that she also prefers how she looks with makeup and nice clothes. Pool found this all just so sad, and wanted to explore the underlying issues (patriarchy, capitalism, and racism, I suppose?) that have fooled Udofot into thinking she must do all these things - some racially-problematic, some not - to her appearance. Udofot didn't seem particularly interested in being rescued from what is, after all, her source of income. But if she wasn't convinced, Pool nevertheless came across as the voice of BBC reason.

I mean, I don't know Pool or Udofot, and have subjected neither of them to extensive sociological examination. My knowledge of British-class-system-via-accents is limited at best. But my overall impression was that a look that's caught on plenty in more upper-class circles was being held up as superior. While there may be some objective truth to this - the cost! the chemicals! the impoverished non-Western women selling their natural hair! - it somehow leaves a bad taste when that-which-is-posh gets equated with better. And all the talk of what is or isn't "pretty" - this is going to vary by subculture, and perhaps that needs to be addressed.

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