The XX Factor

Fried, Dyed, and Laid to The side

KJ, I loved your response to Dominique Browning’s rebellious decision to maintain her long, gray locks for as long as she damned well pleases. But I’m struck, as usual, by how different the world of beauty standards (and resistance to same) is for black women. (Sorry, Asians and Hispanics. I wouldn’t dare “go there”, but hope you will in the comments.)

Every so often, surveys come out lauding how much more comfortable black women are at higher weights, even when those weights land them smack-dab in obesity land. Yay! It’s trumpeted: Black women are much more accepting of themselves, much more resistant to the rampaging evil of beauty standards, which are just plain masochistic and expensive combat. Combat against their own bodies. So, OK, yay! But that’s so not the end of the story.

However we feel about our bodies, black women, as a group, simply torture ourselves over our hair. “Fried, dyed, and laid to the side,” is how a jingle I’ve heard all my life goes in sardonically describing this battle. Black women forego sex and exercise to maintain those expensive, time-stealing and often unattractive hair styles. Lye, ladies. Yes, lye (i.e., “relaxers”) and red hot pressing combs forged in open flame :That’s what most black women have endured since kindergarten or so. I freed myself from all that at age 32 and have been mostly “happy nappy” ever since, with what I like to call my “Malcolm Gladwell meets Sideshow Bob” hair.  But most sisters wait until 55 or so to make this painful journey. Even though, intracommunally, things have gotten much better in this regard, it’s still a common occurrence for an elderly sister to curl her lips at my hair and demand to know when I’m going “to do something” about it. Why, I always wonder, don’t they just ask when I’m going to straighten it? (Since it’s a foregone conclusion and all.) I think I know why: Lots of us are still ashamed of our natural looks. Good thing that, as we age, more and more of us are just saying goodbye to all that.

I have no science to back this up, just 51 years of being a black female: While aging white women may find rebellion in refusing to go short in middle age, black women often revolt by going bald, or nearly so. Sisters with what we called in the ‘60s a “Quo Vadis” (likely from this 1951 movie and described here ) tend to be middle-aged. To be sure, there’s a visible contingent of young, black, female hipsters sporting the Quo (OK, I just made that up), but my unscientific survey says that it’s their mothers, and grandmothers, who are leading the charge. Every time another one of my friends or colleagues shows up to a function all-but-bald and rocking funky earrings, there’s an immediate “meeting in the ladies room” while we get downright giddy over our freedom from the tyranny of processing our hair.  I’m not kidding; that’s how much those of us who hate straightening our hair, you know, hate it.

To continue opining without hard facts, I’ll argue that black women, unlike Browning, are less rebelling against beauty norms (fun as that is) than just, a la Madeline Kahn , simply tired (though for very different reasons). Tired of the hours wasted in beauty shops every four to six weeks, tired of the D-Day-like timing involved in also coloring it while avoiding unplanned baldness. Tired of the expense. Tired of sitting poolside, pretending we aren’t hot and tired of making Wicked Witch of the West-type reactions to rain or even a steamy shower with the new boo. (When wet, our hair “goes back.” Guess where.)

This is America, so I’ll waste my time pointing out that I’m not attacking black women who process their hair. Knock yourselves out. I’m just speaking as one who needed nearly 20 years to work up the courage to stop doing it, and as one who hopes her daughter will base her appearance on her preferences, not society’s. And that she won’t wait ‘till menopause hits to make the call.

(More on this in Chris Rock’s recent documentary, Good Hair . Trailer below.)