Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Good Hair Day

Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" is like the thing you never knew you always wanted. Except that I did.

For the longest time, I've been totally intrigued by black women's hair, which is odd because I grew up in your standard all-white Midwestern suburb. OK, there was one black kid in our sprawling subdivision, but she was adopted. By a white family. Some 20 years later, I can still name every black student in my high school, because there were only five. It being a Catholic school, I can also name the two Jewish students and lone Lutheran.

I think the fascination started in college, where I had an internship on campus. It was a pretty loose environment, as offices can be when staffed by kids with a minimum of adult supervision. We worked when we had to but we also just hung out a lot. There were a couple of African-American students in the office, as well, and one day the topic of conversation turned to hair. Terri, who handled administrative chores, happened to mention that black women get perms to straighten their hair. As someone who'd suffered through her share of bad perms to do the exact opposite--add curl and body to otherwise lackluster locks--I was mystified. And curious.

Ever since, I've harbored a secret wish to spend a day in an African-American beauty salon just to see what goes on: how hair is straightened and braided and what's up with weaves. But that didn't seem like a bucket list item I'd ever fulfill. If "separate but equal" is no longer the law of the land, it still holds true for hair salons. I'm hard-pressed to recall whether I've ever seen a black stylist at any of the salons I've patronized; I know I've never seen an African-American client. Thanks to Rock, though, I finally got my wish.

The movie begins with a simple premise. Rock's young daughter complains she doesn't have "good hair"--meaning hers is naturally nappy, not long and silky straight--so the comedian sets off on a journey (New York, L.A., Atlanta, India) to discover how good hair is actually attained. I didn't get nearly as much info on braiding as I'd hoped--someone else apparently will have to make "Good Braids"--but I did walk away with profound insights into the African-American culture of hair.

What I learned, without recapping the entire film, is that African-American women (and men, like Prince, at whose expense Rock makes a few jokes) willingly submit to chemical burns to straighten their hair. (Relaxer is made out of some sort of acid; Rock calls in a scientist to demonstrate how the substance can eat through an aluminum can.) Women with limited financial means will also spend thousands of dollars to purchase and maintain a weave--or expect their man to subsidize this habit, which Rock likens to cocaine addiction. Hair for these pricey weaves comes largely from India, where people participate in a religious practice called "tonsure," which basically means they routinely shave their heads. So some woman in India thinks she's sacrificing her hair to the gods, when in reality it winds up on the head of Vivica Fox.

How a weave is applied was easily the most astounding segment in the film. I'm not sure I completely understood the process, which goes something like this: the majority of a woman's real hair is braided and tucked under a cap. The weave (aka, Indian hair) is then attached to the head in sections/rows/"tracks," either by gluing or sewing. Sewing. I kind of watched this part through my fingers, like a horror movie. I'm 99.99% sure the weave isn't sewn directly to the scalp, but it sort of looked like it.

All of this to achieve what black people call "natural" hair--meaning white-people hair--by completely unnatural means.

On the one hand, I felt a little guilty and partially culpable for the lengths black women go to to achieve hair I come by thanks to simple genetics. On the other hand, I could sympathize with their efforts. I've never had particularly good hair either, at least not by Jennifer Aniston-Gwyneth Paltrow standards. Yes, my hair is straight. But it's also fine. And full of colics. It looks horrible when wet, to say nothing of my morning bed head. Seriously, one of the (many) reasons I've never tried out for the show "Survivor" is that I'm totally reliant on volumizing shampoo, thickening spray, a blow dryer and some sort of gel to look at all presentable. To minimize its many defects, I also keep my hair fairly short, so short, at one point, that a fellow customer behind me in line at the grocery store once tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me sir. Er...whatever." I started wearting more lipstick to compensate. When Oprah triumphantly grew her hair out to the point where she could wear a pony tail, I shared in her exhilaration. I want a ponytail too, one that jauntily pokes out of ball caps and swings back and forth when I go for a jog. I want to look like all the other Breck girls, too, but it's not in the cards.

More than anything, the movie got me thinking about standards of beauty. All these black women are chasing an ideal that an awful lot of white women can't attain either. And it's not just hair. It's height and weight and skin. For every dollar a black woman spends on relaxer, I suspect a white woman spends on wrinkle cream. All of us are trying to look like some more acceptable version of ourselves: the black woman trying to get her hair to look more white, the white woman trying to get her skin to look more youthful (the great irony here being the cliche "black don't crack." Black skin color might not be considered desirable, but it's elasticity sure as hell is).

It's long been held that women identify more with their race than with their gender; that black women have to deal with issues that white women couldn't possible understand. I don't doubt that's true. But I wonder if we didn't all spend more time together in the salon, if we wouldn't find more common ground. If we wouldn't all agree that we'd all be better off looking a little more natural, and a little less "natural." That we'd all be better off if we could somehow get the culture's standards to conform to us, instead of the other way around.

Rock interviewed a fair number of women--most of them famous or semi-famous--for the film. Only one of them eschewed relaxers and weaves, and for this she was labeled "brave." I thought she was simply beautiful.


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