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



  1. I love your line: "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."

    I think being able to be 'biracial and proud' in my hair world was all about, not acceptance of everyone else's hair, but simply of my own. Took thirty years to accept and rejoice in my own curls. It really was about everyone else's hair. I had to stop comparing! How ridiculous is it for me to be comparing my hair to people around me with totally different hair?!

    I also love your line: "After all, those with naturally straight hair don't question their race loyalty when they take out the curling iron."
    Since my chemically altered manes have been gone, I have only a couple times straightened out my hair--I just can't do it, and for some reason I've mostly lost interest. I'm so frightened of damaging it again. To me, that's the one thing all women need to be concerned about--What are we putting on our faces and in our hair that is hurting us?

    So, yes, yes, yes, accept each other and fix our hair as it pleases us, but with one exception--be leary about chemicals and ingredients that all these companys sell to us.

  2. "After all, those with naturally straight hair don't question their race loyalty when they take out the curling iron."

    Lol - exactly! I think you hit the nail on the head there. Not defining ourselves by our hair means different things to different people, or even different things to the same person depending on the day.

    Straight, curly, black, brown, blue, or green... it's just hair. Let is be free and natural or tamed and sedated. Either way is fine as long as it's coming from a place of you wanting it to be that way for yourself, not to prove anything to anyone else.

  3. when i was in nashville [where the majority of black women, it seems, wear weaves] i had a convo. with a chic in the bathroom of a bar. her weave was a magnificent coif of artwork hanging down to her bottom. i checked it out, complimenting the quality of the hair, her hairdresser, and the way she was sporting it. i like weave, but get compelled to ask the folks that have it how they feel about weaving someone else's hair on their head. this particular woman's response to me was: "gurl, of course it's mine. i done bought it, right?" LOL

    as far as us looking at each other, judging weave wearers as self oppressed in mimicry of white women, i was also reminded that most weave comes from adivasis in india [the real hair anyway, not the synthetic kind] and, that almost every white gurl in hollywood is sportin one too. "pieces" they're called by my cape verdian hairdresser sonia [note: cape verdians and dominicans are dope when it comes to naturally straightening biracial hair: wash, condition with a comb through, set, dry, and then hop into the chair for the blow dryer and armwork that gets the job done right lol].

    but yeah, this hair business has set ALL women back about a thousand years. we should just revert to the truly natural, locks [pre comb and brush and of course, conditioner lol].

    great topic from a different angle shannon : ]