Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The anti-anti-processed hair movement

Rachel Jessica Daniel
In grad school, my friend Rachel sported a magnificent afro. As each year went by the gravity defying circle atop her head grew at an excitingly alarming rate. She prided herself on her natural nappiness with fervor akin to the black is beautiful movement of the 70s. Because of this I was very surprised when Rachel decided to give up her natural fro and sport a long, sleek weave instead. On her facebook page, she stated that black women should not be defined by their hair. Since reading this statement I have come to ponder over her words and develop my own opinion as to the validity and strength behind her statement. My question to myself, and now to you the readers is: Is defining ourselves by natural hair just as restricting as our predecessors who defined theirs by their ability to make their hair behave?

I myself admit that I am guilty of judging black women who keep their hair in what I term to be the self-oppression mirrored to us by white society. I wonder how these women can perpetuate the notion that our hair must be sleek and shiny in order to fit into Caucasian society. I want these women to caste off the shackles of hair slavery and create new lives for themselves dictated by their own definition of what is beautiful. So when I read Rachel's words, I automatically felt that her new position had let me down. How could someone so dedicated to the cause just give up like that? How could she turn her back on us and call us women who define ourselves by our hair?

But do we, as biracial women, perhaps use our belief in the beauty of natural hair in a way that undermines our more fully black sisters with kinkier manes? Just as people come in all colors, so does hair come in all textures, and those of us who have one parent with straighter, sleeker hair are of course bound to have looser, spirally curls. And many of us biracial women--myself among them--are on the front lines of supporting mixed race marriages which, while natural, is a choice to step outside of the more socially acceptable mores of one's race.

And going one step further, perhaps claiming that only natural hair is beautiful is just as limiting and dangerous to black expression as saying that only weaves or chemical treatments are. After all, my decision to go natural coincided with a decision to adorn myself with a nose ring, painted fingernails, and makeup -- all anti-natural modes of self-representation. Sure, all those things are supposed to enhance natural beauty, but they in and of themselves are not natural. So why is altering one's hair any less socially acceptable?

Hearing my friend Rachel's words hasn't changed the way I want to do my hair, but it has challenged my quick judgments against other women for their own hair choices. Perhaps the freedom to go natural and the freedom to alter comes from the same place: namely, the freedom to make one's own choices. I have to admit that when I do get my wonderful curls ironed straight for a haircut, I'm blown away by how sleek and shiny my own hair looks and I revel in being able to do the things other girls do, like tuck my hair behind my ears or run my fingers through it without it frizzing up. I love my curls too much to straighten them permanently or add a weave, but now I won't beat myself up at getting a blow out every now and then. After all, those with naturally straight hair don't question their race loyalty when they take out the curling iron. Yes, Rachel, our hair does not define us. Our power comes from the knowledge that we can make our own hair choices, and create our own unique looks and be whoever we want to be.

--Shannon Luders-Manuel