The Politics of Hair
I was born with black hair, so black that people often asked if it was dyed. Accordingly, I always wanted to be a blonde. I finally managed it around three years ago, and now I'm wondering if I should switch back.
Hair is everything, I like to remind non-believers. If you watch Saturday Night Live, you've noticed how wigs reinvent the cast, several times each episode. Jennifer Aniston likes to complain about being more than just her hair, but has she stopped spending a trillion dollars to highlight and straighten her naturally curly dark hair? What about Beyonce, who requires a wind machine to emphasize her flowing extensions?
You are your hair, and your hair is you. I once had a digitized VHS tape of my face with twelve different hairstyles superimposed over it. It was a gift from a friend, and it provided many hours of hysterical laughter in my living room. With each hairstyle, I was a completely different character. A secretary, a head-banger, a congresswoman, a tomboy, and a crazy old lady. It helped that all the styles were hideous.
While I've been at liberty to wear my hair however I choose, black women have not been as lucky. Laws prohibiting black women from displaying their natural hair still persist, believe it or not. The end of slavery did not confer the freedom to enter a public space without a headscarf. The advent of the hair-straightening comb at the end of the 19th century allowed black women to "tame" their "nappy" hair, promoting the idea that straight hair leads to social and economic advancement.
In 1917, the US Army issued a directive allowing women to wear their hair in long twisted locs, "as long as the strands are less than 1/8 inch wide, the scalp is in a uniform grid, and, when gathered, the hair fits into the required bun size of 3 1/2 inches wide by 2 inches deep." The US Navy followed suit in 2019. In early 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights declared its commitment to protect residents’ legal right to wear their hair in locs, afros, braids, and other culturally specific styles, granting the city’s residents more protection than the federal government provides. A similar law just passed in California, but what about the other 48 states?
Imagine being denied a job, white women, because you were born with straight or curly hair? It's hard but we need to try.
White privilege allowed me to go to Disneyland years ago and marvel at the sea of bad hair all around me. By bad, I mean bad. Greasy, damaged, tragic shags and perms, horrifying streaks, stringy, uneven, brassy, dirty bad hair. Ew, I kept complaining to my husband, I've never seen so much bad hair in my life!
The hair at Disneyland is the hair of Middle America. In most of the US, economic reality determines personal aesthetics more than Vogue or Instagram. Not everyone can shell out $350 for a keratin straightening treatment. Beautiful lustrous color is the province of the wealthy or genetically gifted.
And yet, according to a new survey conducted by lookfantastic.com, the average woman will spend $55,000 in a lifetime on hair products and treatments! If you live in California or Texas, you'll probably spend more than the $80 monthly average, closer to $120 or more. In North Carolina, survey participants report spending just $20 on their hair every month. If you still doubt that hair is everything, here's a fun fact: The global haircare market is set to grow to $87 billion in 2023.
My long straight blondish hair costs me a fortune, and I'm still not satisfied. I get lots of compliments, but I always point out how much maintenance it takes, in case anyone thinks I just woke up like this. I have more hair products than I want to think about and I'm still looking for more. My hair is too dry, too brittle, too something. It takes hours to air-dry but I am patient, because hair. Without my hair I am nothing.
I have a close friend who has been cancer-free for around four years but still struggles with the lasting damage of chemotherapy. She is a woman who always took pride in her beautiful long hair, and the new challenges keep reminding her of her brush with death. She wants her previous texture back, so she can feel whole again. She hates "the new normal." I feel her sadness but can't imagine myself being half as brave. I fear I don't have what it takes to lose my hair.
I know I'm shallower than most of you, and more preoccupied with my hair, I hope. There are worse problems than bad hair, god knows. But the stories of Rapunzel, Samson and Delilah, Lady Godiva, Goldilocks, mermaids, "The Gift of the Magi", and countless folktales remind us of the primitive significance of hair. It is virility, fertility, virtue, so enticing that Muslims and Orthodox Jews still want their women to cover it up.