Friday, February 23, 2007

Hair Weaves Tangle Self-Image for Black Women

By wearing weaves and wigs, black women can become the type of woman society doesn't otherwise expect them to be. But do these counter-identities lead to empowerment or self-loathing?

By Malena Amusa
This past winter, I noticed something very unsettling while I was visiting my family in St. Louis.

Almost all the black women I encountered were sporting lavishly long hair weaves, fake locks that can add length and volume after being sewed or glued to the scalp. Weaves come in straight, curly and kinky textures. But most black women with weaves wear them to extend and straighten the appearance of their naturally coiled and nappy hair.

Everywhere I turned, from the church to the mall, black women suited up in this straight-hair uniform. Was I missing something? I thought. Would my close-cut Afro set me too far apart from other black women?

Natural, kinky hair -- which is most associated with blackness -- has also been tied to inferiority in the United States. We can thank entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, the late 19th century inventor of the hot pressing comb -- literally a comb-shaped iron -- for the subsequent years of black women burning their disobedient hair into submission. Still today among African Americans, there exists a strata between those with "bad hair" and "good hair," the latter being hair that is most in sync with the dominant culture.

Walk into any pharmacy and you'll see a deluge of harsh chemical products that promise black women unnappy hair. Many believe this is a demonstration of self-loathing.

The January 2007 copy of Essence magazine I picked up didn't help. "Look Beautiful in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s . . . Real Women and Celebs Share Beauty and Health Secrets," the cover read. Featured were three celebrities with flowing, bouncy weaves and another woman whose silver hair was visibly straightened to suppress the real curl underneath.

Essence had made it clear: There was no way to be nappy-haired and beautiful at any age.

Myopic Beauty Image

This perplexed me because around St. Louis, so many everyday women who have no celebrity stakes to claim were subscribing to this myopic image of beauty wrapped around these hair weaves that, by the way, can take hours to glue onto the scalp and cost hundreds of dollars.

I wanted to walk in their shoes and understand them, so I decided to get a long, straight wig. Without the labor-intensive process, I achieved the luscious locks of a weave so I could learn what the non-celebrity woman had to gain from emulating the straight hair of non-African woman.

After several days of wearing the wig and interviewing black women, I found that the straight-hair phenomenon has little to do with a need to fit into mainstream social settings. Rather, these long weaves may reflect our desire to try on a different feminine persona that has historically been appropriated for white women.

Throughout time, weaves and wigs have served as costumes for black women to put on when they want to look sexy, such as in the 2006 movie "Dream Girls" that's loosely based on the 1960s rise of the Supremes, a Motown sensation.

In the opening scene of the movie, before the Dreams enter their first big show, they shift their poofy, European-hair wigs around. Finding a perfect fit, they then put on a killer show. As the Dreams become more successful and switch from mostly black to mostly white audiences, their hair get-ups become longer and bigger. The Dreams begin to look like white women in black face. And when one of the members gets kicked out of the band because of her hefty appearance, she quickly reverts to wearing an Afro.

1 comment:

Brother Spotless said...

A question directed toward our female readers, but I figure anyone can answer: is there a stigma attached to "black hair" (whether it be twists, an afro, dreadlocks, etc) that can be avoided by straightening and/or adding extentions?

Men: would you consider this stigma to be similar to the stigma that may be attached to cornrows?