Silky straight hair has long been considered by many black women to be their crowning glory. So what if getting that look meant enduring the itchy burning that’s a hallmark of many chemical straighteners. Or a pricey dependence on “creamy crack,” as relaxers are sometimes jokingly called.
Getting “good hair” often means transforming one’s tightly coiled roots; but it is also more freighted, for many black women and some men, than simply a choice about grooming. Straightening hair has been perceived as a way to be more acceptable to certain relatives, as well as to the white establishment.
“If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed,” the comedian Paul Mooney, sporting an Afro, says in the documentary “Good Hair,” which won a jury prize at the Sundance film festival. “If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.”
The movie, made by Chris Rock, explores the lengths black women go to get long, straightened locks, from a $1,000 weave on a teacher’s salary to schoolgirls having their hair chemically relaxed.
In the face of cultural pressure, the thinking goes, conformists relax their hair, and rebels have the courage not to. In some corners, relaxing one’s hair is even seen as wishing to be white.
“For black women, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said Ingrid Banks, an associate professor of black studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “If you’ve got straight hair, you’re pegged as selling out. If you don’t straighten your hair,” she said, “you’re seen as not practicing appropriate grooming practices.”
Anyone who thought such preconceptions were outdated would have been reminded otherwise by some negative reactions to the president’s 11-year-old daughter, Malia Obama, who wore her hair in twists while in Rome this summer. Commenters on the conservative blog Free Republic attacked her as unfit to represent America for stepping out unstraightened.
Although legions of black women in America straighten their hair (including Michelle Obama), hair salons specializing in natural styles have proliferated, and more black women are working with their virgin hair. Many wear their twists, locks or teenie-weenie Afros (known as TWAs) with an attitude — proud to have not given in to the pressure to straighten hair. In “Good Hair,” Nia Long, the actress, describes the conventional wisdom that straightened hair is more desirable: “There’s always a sort of pressure within the black community, like ‘Oh, if you have good hair, you’re prettier or better than the brown-skinned girl that wears an Afro or the dreads or the natural hairstyle.’ “
For some, the battle lines are drawn.
But in recent interviews, a number of people of color expressed a weariness with the debate. They asked, essentially: Why can’t hair just be hair? Must an Afro peg a woman as the political heir to Angela Davis? Is a fashionista who replicates the first lady’s clean-cut bob really being untrue to herself?
“I am who I am regardless of how I wear my hair,” said Tywana Smith, an owner of Treasured Locks, a Web site devoted to upkeep for relaxed and natural hair. “I want my kids to be seen for who they are, not for how they wear their hair,” she added. “Whether they walk down the street with twists or braids, they aren’t making any other statement other than ‘Today I felt like twists.’ “
Assumptions about the motives for straightening or wearing hair natural aren’t as easy to make as they once were. During the last presidential campaign, Noliwe M. Rooks, the associate director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, had many conversations about what it meant when the hair of Sasha and Malia Obama was pressed straight. “Unlike earlier times,” the conclusion wasn’t “clearly she had sold out, or she’s saying straight hair is better,” Rooks said. “There’s a complexity to who we are now. There wasn’t an easy answer to why.”
Last year, sales of home relaxers totaled $45.6 million (excluding Wal-Mart), according to Mintel, a market research firm, a figure that has held steady in recent years. So many black women use relaxers or a hot comb to get a straight look temporarily that not doing so can require courage. Online where black women discuss hair, commenters may support the natural look for strangers but don’t adopt it, said Rooks, the author of “Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women.” I’m not brave enough, they write — it’s so wonderful that you can accept yourself as you are.
For many people no matter their race or hair texture, accepting yourself “as you are” is a high bar. The history of beauty is one of dissatisfaction and transformation: Brunettes become blondes; white women get their curly hair Japanese-straightened. To go from short to shoulder-length and back again, celebrities from Britney Spears to Queen Latifah use weaves, which require a stylist to sew or to glue someone else’s hair into tracks on the scalp.
For Banks, making a choice is crucial, not the resulting hairstyle. “If a black woman makes a choice to relax her hair, or to cut all her hair off, or just do nothing to it, it’s empowering to make that choice,” she said, noting that black women on plantations didn’t have that luxury.
Shayna Y. Rudd, of Washington, wore a past-her-shoulders weave to have a better shot at the Miss America title. She said an adviser gave her two choices: Imitate Beyonce’s long luscious look or Jada Pinkett Smith’s flowing mane. “I couldn’t be who God wanted me to be,” Rudd, 24, said ruefully. “I didn’t win. My spirit was crushed.”
She has since sworn off relaxers and extensions; instead, she occasionally presses her tight-curled hair and slicks it into a bun, which is what she did in August when she won the title Miss Black USA. (She bested 28 other contestants, only three of whom wore their hair natural.) “Don’t buy into anyone else’s standard, set your own,” Rudd said.