Women are accustomed to having our bodies policed and politicized. Our reproductive parts are legislated, our body hair used as a source of shame. Trans women’s bodies are used as an excuse for violence. We aren’t safe at parties, clubs, on the streets, or often in our very own homes. We don’t have many ways to stake out a claim for autonomy over our own bodies, but if you’re not a Black woman, the hair on your head is at least a non-controversial aspect of your appearance.
I’ve read a fair amount of books by Black women over the past year, and not one of them, not novels, memoirs, or essays, that don’t devote massive amounts of time and story space to the phenomenon of living in a white-privileging culture with natural Black hair.
Being white, I’ve never thought about my hair outside the parameters of my own personal preferences. It’s long and layered because I like it that way, it’s red because that’s the color I landed on this time, and it’s straight because curling takes too much time. If I cut it off it would be a pixie cut, if I dyed it pink it’d be “quirky”. But it wouldn’t be a statement about anyone or anything but me.
Black women’s hair has been admired on white women while scorned on Black women. It’s been called unprofessional in the work place merely for growing. If a Black woman dyes her hair pink it’s “ghetto”, if she shaves it or grows it naturally it’s a political statement, if she straightens it she’s assimilating. In Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie details the scalp singeing ways women relax their natural curls into an approximation of white hair, not because white hair is naturally more beautiful, but because society prizes it as such.
Black hair is only the tip of the iceberg (forgive me). The more closely Black women resemble white, the more beautiful we consider them. It’s why the internet felt so comfortable saying vile things about adorable Blue Ivy Carter, who played dress-up with her mommy Beyoncé at the VMAs, because Blue Ivy looks more like her father. She’s a four year old little girl, by the way.
Nothing I’m saying is new in anyway, of course. This is merely an observation made after reading the words of the wise and wonderful women directly impacted by our Eurocentric beauty standards. We see this subject on dozens of think pieces as we scroll through social media, and it would be easy to dismiss the issue as having little importance–hair is small potatoes compared to the issues of racism and sexism our society struggles with. But reading Adichie, or bell hooks, Misty Copeland, Issa Rae, Kaitlyn Greenidge, or Angela Flournoy gives shape to the insidious ways misogynoir, that unholy confluence of racial and sexual hate targeting Black women, take root. Hair is the symptom, these women and their words are the cure.