Growing up in a predominantly Black community, I was always comfortable with my brown skin and kinky locs. Everyone in my family could braid hair and we all rocked the “gucci” and “dookie” braids in the nineties. I always struggled with length between poor relaxer treatments, inconsistent hair maintenance regimens, and lack of knowledge about the “moisture-protein” balance needed for kinkier/curlier hair. It wasn’t until I decided to go natural in high school that I became aware of the politics associated with Black women’s natural hair textures and styles. And now that I’ve been through college and almost seven years of Corporate America, I think I’ve finally figured out where my afro-textured hair fits in.
The Roots of Black Women’s “Roots”
Though many folks associate the “afro” hairstyle with the militancy of the Black Liberation Movement and images like Angela Davis, the afro truly is the most natural state for non-chemically treated kinky hair. Madame CJ Walker did ALL women a great service when she revolutionized hair products. But she also was a part of a centuries long movement to diminish the natural beauty of afro-textured hair. Now, before you harpoon me for my lack of adoration for the Madame, understand this message in its bigger context. The earliest messaging to Black women was that, not only was their skin unattractive and unsavory, their hair too contributed to their perceived lack of beauty. And, Black women have been flat ironing, press-n-combing, relaxing, blow drying, and perm-rodding their tresses ever since. This is not to say that women who treat their hair with any of these products or processes are working to acquiesce to the incorrect messaging they’ve received. But, these are the fundamental roots of Black women’s initial love for heat and chemical treatments. And, for the most part, many of these messages still apply.
The modern Black woman rocks many a hair style from weaves to natural plaits to wigs to relaxers. And, because of major innovations in hair technology like mass wefting machinery, global logistics from country to country, and web access to virtually any product one might think of, Black women’s hair decisions have innumerable possibilities. But, beneath it all, I find that the same general rule applies. Afro, kinky, and very curly textured hair is generally seen as unkempt and somehow less desirable than wavy, straight, or loosely curled hair. And this message permeates everything.
What the Non-Textured Think of Textured Hair
One of my most awkward hair experiences happened in college. I went to a well-known school in Southern California which was predominantly white. And though I lived on a floor with all Black students, I worked, attended class, and co-mingled with students of many ethnic and national origins. While working for the school’s housing office, I decided one day that instead of taking my individual synthetic hair braids down and immediately braiding it back up (which was tiring and tough on my poor fingers), I would rock my semi-large blown-out afro for a few days. My how many heads I turned. Now, granted, I am approximately six foot four inches tall so I tend to draw glances, but that puff of thick hair on my head caused quite a stir. At the housing office, filing student forms went a little differently than usual. My two work buddies, let’s just call them John and Mandy, were so taken with my change of style. John was a white male from the Midwest and Mandy was a Chinese female from Central California. They asked me if they could touch it, if I had to spray it place, and if it took a long time to get it that way.
The pinnacle of the conversation happened when Mandy expressed her disbelief that my natural hair could have taken on this texture without some tampering. She said, “Really Jenn? That’s how your hair really grows?” To which I replied, “yes.” She went on,” like from the scalp?” “Yes,” I said again. Thinking I was hiding something, she quipped, “from birth?” It was then that I realized that these people really had no dang idea that hair could grow kinky all on its own. All this time I was thinking that people just didn’t like the texture. It wasn’t that (exactly), in actuality, they might have thought I had some type of control over the afro. Like it was more strenuous a style than the individual braids, weaves, perms/relaxers, and everything else. And, just like that, it clicked to me that the status-quo normalcy of straightened hair in the Black community had created a synthetic imagery to others that afros were optional and therefore not natural. Instead, straight hair was the normal, natural state. It was mind-blowing.
Corporations, Media, and the Black Hair Fetish
Have you noticed recently that every car commercial that features a Black woman has the actress clad in a “natural” looking hairstyle? They often have curly textures or even would-be twist outs while enjoying their burger or selling you toothpaste. Even the children in the commercials have afro puffs and what used to be called “nappy” hair. It seems that corporations and media have caught on to the fact that the curly stuff is the real stuff. So much so that you’ll now see young non-ethnic men teasing their hair to get that afro look. Sometimes they may even say their hair is “froey.” So what is this new craze about afro textures and curly hair? Did hair just get kinkier over time? Well, maybe. With more and more people intermingling with different races and ethnic groups, there may have been some increased accessibility. It doesn’t hurt that there are two little girls in the White House who have been styled in two-strand twists, plaits, braids, presses, and just about everything else.
But, what about Corporate America has changed? Has it changed at all? I remember when I was working my first job out of college. I had just given birth to my son and was trying to stay away from braids so as not to put undue stress on my hormonal edges. I would frequently wear two-strand twists with loose cornrows in front to keep the hair out of my face. I got comments like “oh, you have cornrolls now!” and ” your shorter hair is sexy!” Many of them had no idea that this was actually their first time seeing my “shorter” hair. And my hair, which was actually the length of the weave I had been wearing, looked shorter because of shrinkage. Over the following months, I’d switch it up and wear a kinky ponytail or other synthetic styles. And, one day, a co-worker, who often said nothing nice to me at all, said “THIS, is my favorite hair style of yours…” She almost said it in a way that made me wonder why she thought I cared. But, what most stuck out to me was that my wavy ponytail invoked a desire for someone who never seemed to like me to give me a somewhat compliment.
I am no longer with that company and now work for a company with a laid back culture where people have piercings, tattoos, etc. But, I still find that my unique styles come up in conversation quite often. My trademark flat twisted faux-hawk (though I’ve been wearing it now for six months) seems to excite people all over the building. And why? I often wonder what my hair says about me, what it broadcasts before I even open my mouth. Does it say “Hi, I am a engineer turned financial analyst?” Does it say,”I’m militant so step back?” What does it say? To me, it says,”Hi, I’m Jenn. Nice to meet you.” But I find that my roots’ historical stigmas often find their way into perceptions of how I’ll behave, what my personality is like, and if I am any different from anybody else.
Corporate America is an interesting place. And, while playing personality Tetris as a Black woman in its simulated world is already something I’ve confronted, it’s my natural hair that seems to be one of the most daring characteristics people perceive of me. Unsure as I may be about that, I find it incredibly intriguing. And, though I sometimes feel like that one curly fry you get mixed in with your french fries, I find that my natural hair makes me feel more like me everyday. Luckily, corporations are changing. Black women are changing too. And I’d like to think that we, like flowers, are bending toward the light. Our natural hair only makes us stronger, more confident, and more complete versions of ourselves. It’s not a fad. It’s just who we are. So, isn’t it high time for everyone else to catch up?