Hair: Fashion Statement or Political Statement
“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
The past few years have seen a rising increase in the number of Black women allowing their hair to grow out naturally. In other words, these women have chosen to stop the treatment on their hair, a treatment that results in straight hair, as opposed to the curly kinky strands that they were born with. But what came about that caused the community to turn its back on relaxing their hair, a practice that many had been partaking in for most of their lives? And perhaps the more prevalent question is, why did we relax our hair in the first place?
In the 1900s, a savvy business woman began to develop her hair care products. Her name was Annie Turnbo. At the time, many women used goose fat, heavy oils, soap, or bacon grease to straighten their curls, which damaged both scalp and hair. While experimenting with hair and different hair care products, Turnbo developed and manufactured her line of non-damaging hair straighteners, special oils, and hair-stimulant products for African-American women. Madam C.J. Walker, another strong ingenious woman, also created a straightening treatment for Black hair.
Social attitudes at that time encouraged women to change the texture of their hair to make it smoother and straighter. Slavery was still fresh in the minds of the black community and looking like the White man or woman appealed to them as one way to blend into society. However, in the 60s, the Black community began to question this need to look like the White man in order to fit in. By about 1966, leaders of the Black Power movement started appearing on the news. They wore Afros – it showed you were proud to be Black – not Negro or Coloured, but Black. Black was not a bad imitation of White, Black was great and good all on its own.
But the political statement soon became a fashion statement. And as with all fashion statements before it, it lost its hold on society and straightened hair was back in play. What is currently in fashion at the time, affects the choices that we make, consciously and sub-consciously, regarding our clothing, shoes, hair, make-up, choice of jewellery and so on. Often our choices are directed by the decisions made when clothing stores stock their lines. Individuals who operate outside of the current fashion trend are then forced to search for specialist boutiques.
Our ancestors may have had deep reasons for why they chose to relax their hair or why they chose to rock a fro. But these days, many of our choices have been simplified to what is currently in fashion at the time. Some individuals are looking for healthier hair, as relaxers have been known to damage the scalp and the hair follicles. Others are simply keeping with the times – Chimamanda Adichie and Solange having made natural hair a matter of pride once again. For me, going natural gave me a greater sense of self. I wanted to know I could feel beautiful the way God created me. But I can and will stick rock a wig or braids.
Just as many in the past felt pressured to straighten their hair, today women who relax their hair feel pressured by those natural hair divas looking down on any female who still considers herself a member of ‘team relaxed’.
However, does it truly matter? Hair is hair, and what makes a person feel beautiful is due to that individual’s background and make up. Our hair does not define who we are, unless we want it to.
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