Tami Winfrey Harris: Natural Hair Is Not Unhealthy

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I once wrote about my natural hair:

My hair is nappy. It is coarse and thick. It grows in pencil-size spirals and tiny crinkles. My hair grows out, not down. It springs from my head like a corona. My hair is like wool. You can't run your fingers through it, nor a comb. It is impenetrable. My hair is rebellious. It resists being smoothed into a neat bun or ponytail. It puffs. Strands escape; they won't be tamed. My hair is nappy. And I love it.

I may love my hair. But common wisdom, even among people with hair just like mine, is that my hair isn't "good," at least as it naturally grows from my head. It needs to be tamed, preferably by straightening, but at the very least, especially in young children, hair like mine should be restrained somehow--in plaits or cornrows or something that hides its unruly nature. It should be shiny. You should be able to run a comb through it. All this in defiance of the natural properties of most black hair.

I suspect NEWSWEEK writer Allison Samuels follows this common wisdom.

Two weeks ago she sparked furor around the Net with an article taking Angelina Jolie to task for her daughter Zahara's allegedly uncared-for tresses. In the face of considerable backlash, Samuels didn't back down. In a NEWSWEEK online exclusive this week, Samuels answers her critics.

There is a lot I could challenge in Samuels's articles, but I will confine this post to one point: Samuels seems to embrace the notion, a gift of society's Eurocentric beauty standards, that tamed hair = healthy hair, and unfettered black hair = hot mess. What's worse, she wants little Zahara to learn to embrace this thinking, too--a terrible lesson for a girl with tresses that naturally feature fuzzy parts and curls that spring akimbo.

In a society with Eurocentric beauty standards, it is natural that hair common to people of European ancestry would be the marker for beauty, professionalism, and good grooming. And it is natural, though I think not good for us, that those of minority cultures have absorbed the standards of the dominant culture and adopted beauty rituals that support those standards.

This is why so many of us have memories of sitting at our mother's or grandmothers' knees, holding our ears, and listening to sizzling grease, as our hair was tamed into a straight, shiny, combable mass and woven into multiple neat plaits. Most of us remember this bonding time fondly. But, in reality, straight, shiny, combable, and neat are NOT markers of whether black hair is cared for or not. That so many of us, including Samuels, think these descriptors are related to hair health shows how much we have absorbed the idea that hair common to people of European ancestry is the norm by which all other hair must be judged. As I type this, my ginormous twist-out is shiny, but not straight, combable, or neat, And, I promise you, my hair is very well cared for.

Yes, I know that braiding has deep roots in African culture and is an ingrained part of black American culture. My beef isn't with plaiting; my beef is with the fear of the nap--the idea that unrestrained black hair, apart from other hair, is unacceptable. To many of us with natural hair, Zahara seems to be wearing a wash-and-go. But we are taught that black women can't simply wash their hair and go. Our hair has to be "fixed," made presentable. I think this hair hatred was born and nurtured right here in Western culture where the yardstick by which we judge our hair's beauty, health, and rituals of care is invariably a white one.

There is no way of knowing whether Zahara's hair is conditioned by scanning paparazzi shots. You can't assess its softness. You can't check for split ends. You can't see breakage. What Samuels is reacting to, I think, is the fact that Zahara's hair is "wild" and unrestrained. And black women and girls are taught that this isn't okay. It isn't pretty. It isn't proper. It isn't professional. It isn't ladylike.

I'll say this--I agree with Samuels that most little, black girls would NOT be comfortable wearing their natural hair loose as Zahara does. That is, in great part, because of the unrelenting messages they get, within and without our black culture, that their hair is inherently wrong. Must Zahara adopt these feelings of self-hatred to earn her black card? I like to think, as a black woman who has wrestled and come to terms with her own hair issues, my job is to help free the girls in my life from damaging self-hatred, not encourage it as a litmus test for fitting in.

My hair is nappy. It is soft and cottony, a mass of varying textures. My hair is fun to play with. I like to pull at the spiral curls and feel them snap back into place. My hair defies the laws of gravity. It reaches energetically toward the sky. My hair is unique. In a fashion culture that genuflects to relaxed, flat-ironed tresses and stick-straight weaves, my fluffy, puffy, kinky mane stands out. It is revolutionary. My hair is natural. It is the way God made it. My hair is nappy. And it is beautiful.


Winfrey Harris blogs at What Tami Said.