Black hair has been a much contested, and discussed subject for generations.
From the observations of European explorers, to the uniform of the U.S. Military, celebrity children, to the idea of corporate professionalism, to the prejudices faced by today’s youth; there is not a single coil on the head of an African descendant that does not go unscrutinized.
This has, by no means, been limited to the United States, or just western civilizations for that matter.
This obsession with Black hair has touched every continent, including Africa.
As a young girl and teenager I was often put in circumstances that left me as the only Black person in a class or activity group. This was mostly due to my parent’s occupation, which involved them moving every couple of years to areas that had a majority white population. During these times I often feel victim to bullying that was often focused on my skin color and hair texture. My hair wasn’t straight, my hair didn’t move and bounce when in a ponytail. I was different, and these differences took hold of me and left me with a desire to be like the majority. So when presented with the opportunity to perm (in this case chemically straighten, not curl) my mane I jumped on it.
In college, I started to flirt with the idea of joining the natural hair movement. The basic idea of this movement is to instill,and promote the idea that natural Black hair is beautiful, and should become part of the international “beauty ideal,” that has been dominated by the European standard of beauty for ages. In doing so, it would encourage young Black people to stay or go natural.
Despite loving the movement I continued to perm my hair. It was lush, beautiful, healthy, and gained many a compliment, so why change?
When I joined the Peace Corps one of my major concerns was what to do about my hair. Knowing I wouldn’t have access to my usual hair products, unless they were shipped to me by my mother, and knowing I probably wouldn’t have access to running water in which to do my hair caused a problem. I scoured the blog universe trying to find an answer, but online resources of what other Black volunteers were doing was scant, thus I had to come up with my own plan. And in the end the plan was simple; wash it how I can, keep it braided, and don’t bother with a perm.
So why does this little back story even matter? Why would I talk about this, when its “just hair?”
In Burkina Faso, Black hair is just as hot a subject as in the West.
From the cities to the villages there is a mild gradient as to what hair styles are considered beautiful, including fake hair, or “mesh,” into your style is considered a posh statement of wealth, in the schools girls are required to conform their tresses to a set of national rules, advertisements for hair products that feature light skinned, and yes, straight haired women.
These beacons of beauty regulations, both formal and informal, impact infants to the older generation alike. In fact, I’ve seen babies, who are still being swaddled on their mother’s backs, with the latest hairstyles; no matter how much the coiffures may damage the hair.
And boy is there damage.
No child should be subject to a receding hairline caused by the pulling and shaping of their fragile strands into a style. However, it happens, and its root cause is this beauty ideal that finds its origins in colonialism.
From the water pump to the school my hair is considered immaculate by most. It’s full, reasonably long, and my hairline, or “edges,” are going strong. I’ve been ask my “secret,” get charged twice as much to have my hair braided, and have been asked to shave my head and share the wealth (which I hope was mostly in jest.)
However, in the same places, I’ve been asked by men and girls why I haven’t braided my hair when I’ve been wearing out for “too long,” and been told my hair “isn’t pretty” when it’s done up with mesh.
It’s not hard to fathom that the women/girls around me hear the same comments, as well as perhaps make the comments themselves, due to reciprocal self-loathing that is then projected onto their peers.
How could any girl, or woman, not find themselves pulling their hair in every direction a comment is made when so many people have so many different opinions on it (be it a person you know, the media, or the government)? And how could any mother not transfer those same confusions onto their daughter?
How could a girl in school be told to go home and take out their fake ponytail or shave their head, because it doesn’t follow the government rules, by a female administrator wearing a wig, and not be confused?
Why do so many people have something to say about a piece of someone else’s body? Why is the way our hair grows from our scalp not fine just the way it is?
Even in the land of African’s African beauty has been warped, and twisted. It’s done it job, trouncing the confidence of women and girls. An untamed head is unattractive. An adolescent sitting on my porch scrapes her mane back and ties it with a length of plastic coil, while others run their hands over my own mane that I’ve clipped back from my face. I smile at her, trying to think of encouraging words, “Faut lesser. C’est jolie comme ca!”
Around the village I hear in French,“ I want that, it’s pretty” and, “your hair is not like ours, it’s more…straight,”I say thank you, and that their hair is pretty too. At any denial of that I ask them, “why,” I insist on my statement. I tell them, “Mine is the same,” brandishing my coiled edges for them to see, “if mine is pretty, so is yours!” I usually get laughs, denial.
“Just tell us your secret!”
How can we fight this? How do we get our beauty recognized and accepted?
By simply telling a girl her hair is beautiful, and helping her gain confidence. By supporting movements, and promoting a change in an international standard. By respecting a woman’s choice to wear her hair as she pleases; permed, locked, natural, and all.
It’s a never ending conversation, a never ending battle.
So what’s in a mane?
Oh so much.
Being an African-American (Black) woman myself I have naturally taken a more keen interest in the effects of this scrutiny on Black woman/girls, than men/boys. However, the above observations and analyses are by no means an attempt to ignore that effects of this issue on Black men/boys.