A Marker of Identity and Difference
by Kasey West
When I was a little girl, I had long, straight, beautiful brown hair. One day, a hairdresser washed it, brushed it, braided it and cut it. I was shocked and distressed when I looked at myself in the mirror. I saw someone I no longer recognized, someone I didn’t want to know. Several days later, I went to the local shop to buy a newspaper for my parents. I knew the shopkeeper well, but as she put the change into the upturned palm of my hand she said, “There you are, son.” I left the shop and cried. My short hair had changed the way I thought of myself and the way in which other people related to me. It shows how hair affects not only our appearance but also our identity.
I was reminded of this childhood memory when reading about the meaning of hair in the lives of African women in America. Although I am neither African nor American, and do not claim any equivalence in my experiences, I can relate strongly to the potential power of hair in shaping personal and group identities through this memory. In the book, Hair Matters (1), interviews conducted with over 50 black girls and women between 1996 and 1998 reveal the political complexities of African American hair and beauty culture. Ingrid Banks, sociologist and author of Hair Matters , concludes that ‘hair shapes black women’s ideas about race, gender, class, sexuality, images of beauty and power.’ Since mainstream Western images of beauty do not embrace tight black coils, the decision of many African American women to use relaxants, perms, hair extensions and pressing combs reflects a deeper devaluation of black hair in its natural state. As the feminist philosopher Susan Bordo writes, ‘When Oprah admitted on her show that all her life she has desperately longed to have ‘hair that swings from side to side’ when she shakes her head, she revealed the power of racial as well as gender normalization to the Caucasian standards of beauty that still dominate on television, in movies, in popular magazines’ (2).
The photographer Bill Gaskins portrays contemporary black hairstyles of African American women in the book, Good and Bad Hair (3). The title refers to the terms used by black women themselves to define different types of hair. ‘Good’ hair is sleek, smooth, fine, straight and long. ‘Bad’ hair is coarse, kinky, coiled short and ‘nappy’. Such beliefs are obviously derived from a narrow definition of beauty that is marketed and promoted in America’s fashion and beauty industry. Their power as a race-based measurement, however, goes beyond a personal statement of choice in approaches to hairstyle and exposes the social and political implications for African American culture.
The cultural historian Bruce Tyler describes how African Americans in the nineteenth-century were encouraged to adopt ‘proper conduct and grooming standards’ (4). It was believed that these would promote their assimilation into American culture and thereby improve their status in society. When female slaves attempted to change their nappy hair into good hair, they were hoping for inclusion through an imitation of Western beauty standards. Hair was slicked in waves with axle grease, wrapped with string to make it straight and relaxed using concoctions of potato, potash, lye and hot fat. By the twentieth century, many black women managed their own beauty shops and parlours. This coincided with an increase in commercial beauty products and treatments designed to aid African Americans conform to Western beauty ideals. For example, Madame C. J. Walker pioneered an innovatory hair-straightening technique called the ‘Walker System’. This involved the use of hot combs and presses to straighten and smooth the naturally coiled hair of African American women. In effect, hair styling practices arose from a desire to transform blackness into whiteness within the larger socio-political arena of racial difference and power.
A return to African-based hairstyling practices by many black women in the 1960s, on the other hand, marked an assertion of national identity and heritage in the face of oppressive Western ideals of beauty and continuing disenfranchisement. Although the popular Afro was achieved by blowing hair out to straighten the curls, it was representative as an expression of beauty ideals centred on an African identity. In other words, hairstyling became a political statement of connection to the black community. A large Afro was worn with pride and denoted commitment to the black cause. Although the popularity of the Afro declined, black hairstyles retained a cultural and political significance. The author Alice Walker describes the feeling of liberation symbolized through the embracing of traditional African hairstyling techniques. She writes, “I remembered years of enduring hairdressers, from my mother onward, doing missionary work on my hair. They dominated, suppressed, controlled. Now, more or less free, [my hair] stood this way and that…It never thought of laying down. Flatness, the missionary position did not interest it. It sought more and more space, more light, more of itself. It loved to be washed; but that was it” (5).
An emphasis on traditional African hairstyling practices continued in the 1980s and 90s. A wide variety of popular styles were worn including braids in West African patterns, relaxed hair, dreadlocks, twists, corkscrews and fades. Such hairstyles are designed to exploit rather than repress the natural texture of black hair. The ongoing promotion and appreciation of traditional African hair and beauty culture however is not unproblematic. As the cultural historian Noliwe Rooks explains about the hair of African American women, “its style could lead to acceptance or rejection from certain groups and social classes and its styling could provide the possibility of a career” (6). The relationship of hairstyling among African American women to racial identity politics thereby serves to create a tension in hair and beauty culture that remains unresolved.
(1) Banks, I. (2000) Hair Matters: Beauty, Power and Black Women’s Consciousness , New York, New York University Press.
(2) Bordo, S. (1993) Unbearable Weight: feminism, western culture and the body , Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.
(3) Gaskins, B. (1997) Good and Bad Hair , New Brunswick, N. J., Rutgers University Press.
(4) Tyler, B. M. (1990) ‘Black Hairstyles: Cultural and Socio-political Implications’ in The Western Journal of Black Studies , 14.4, pp. 235-250.
(5) Walker, A. (1988) ‘Oppressed hair puts a ceiling on the brain’ in Living By The Word: Selected Writings 1973-1987, New York, Harcourt.
(6) Rooks, N. M. (1996) Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women , New Brunswick, N. J., Rutgers University Press.
Kasey West studied psychology at university and is now a housewife and mother.