Friday, 25 March 2011

Real Hair, Fake Hair

This is not a Single Life post. But I was asked a question about black hair, and the difficulty black Nice Catholic Girls in growing their hair long. (This was in response to my observation that more men are attracted to long hair than short.)

Now this may make black NCGs hit the Comment button in indignation, but I actually do know what it is like to worry about real hair versus fake hair because I have extremely kinky, fuzzy hair that grows only so long and then stops. If I didn't keep my hair as long (and therefore heavy) as I could, it would rise up and froth around my head in an afro.

Black girls with afros look great; white girls with afros look weird and inappropriate. And yet I spent long agonized years of my childhood with a short afro. Today I have to think about my hair every single day to make sure it does not turn into its natural frizzy kinks. If I neglect it--dreadlocks. Heck, I have a dreadlock right now.

O dear. I just remembered the summer I was super-lazy and my hair was all dreadlocks and I got my mother to undo them all. I can't even begin to tell you how much that hurt.

There is something called "the politics of black hair", and unless I am getting this way wrong, its central question is "How come black girls feel so much pressure to have hair like white girls?" And that's a good question. The one thing I have to add to the debate is that not all white girls have hair like white girls. And nobody took a hot iron to my head until I was 33, and it was a REVELATION, people!

I'll never forget it. I was approached in a cafe by two hairdressers from the Caribbean-Canadian salon down the street, and they basically bullied into making an appointment. They washed my hair, and combed it out (with much scolding), and moisturized it (more scolding), and partially dried it, and then blew-dry it straight and then took the hot irons to it, and for the first time in my life, I had "white girl" hair. It cost just over $100.

I could go and on about my hair. It is one of my life's obsessions. It is responsible for so many random encounters. Four examples:

Black girls on the bus (in Toronto and American cities) sometimes lean over to me saying, in hushed voices, "Pardon me for asking, but are you mixed race?" ("Oh look," said one Caribbean woman at one job I had. "There's a new black girl. I must meet her." Then I turned around, and she was stunned. If you're confused, many black women in my city dye or bleach their hair auburn.)

In Boston, if I wore my hair in a bun, I was invisible to black men, and if I wore my hair out, black men--bus drivers, students, guys walking down the street--would engage me in conversation, and one made me take his phone number.

Also in Boston, two white construction workers working away on the edge of a university began to sing "Ebony and Ivory" as I walked by. I was flabbergasted. I didn't know if I should have reported them or what, since the university had a no-tolerance policy on racism.

In Toronto, an elderly lady at my theology school asked me if I had a straight-haired sister there. I explained that I had discovered the magic of straight-irons (thank you, Dionne!), but that I couldn't afford to be ironed more than once a month. And the elderly lady said--hold onto your coffee mugs--"Well, I guess sometimes you have to be wild and woolly."

Wild and woolly? My blood froze. It utterly froze. My grandmother, who was born in Chicago in 1904, had hair like mine only thinner and brown. Racism was a positive psychosis in Chicago before 1975, and as a child my grandmother was called "N--- Wool." Staring at that elderly lady, "wild and woolly" ringing in my ears, I understood in my bones for the first time in my life what racist attitudes towards black women and their hair were like.

Anyway, what I have to say is that not all white women have "white women hair" and so it's not just black women who feel pressure to live up to the standard set by Rapunzel. And also, my attitude towards natural versus fake is that you have to figure out what is right for you and then tell everyone else to bug off.

It is not easy to go through life with a big afro, but if you want to, you should. It is sometimes infinitely easier, if majorly more expensive, to go to the salon and have your hair cut short, ironed flat, braided or extended. The bad part is people accusing you of not being true to your roots, no pun intended.

Personally, I love braids, and I think they look amazing, with extensions or not. I would never use extensions (which have become very popular with white British women) myself because they are absolutely murder on your real hair. I hate chemical straighteners, and I have never, and would never, use them. My grandmother fried her hair with harsh chemicals.

Bottom line: figure out what's right for you and then do it. Tell critics to shove off. If you look best with short hair, have short hair. If you look best with long hair and you are willing to have the work done, get the work done or do it yourself.

Time for photos! So as not to look completely self-obsessed, I'd put in a photo of my baby sister, too, but she'd kill me.

MANAGED HAIR: See Blog Profile photo. To get that look I washed my hair, dried it in loose braids, redid the braids tightly and then took them out when I got to the restaurant without combing my hair. I just ran my fingers through twice. The photo was taken within half an hour after that.

IRONED (i.e. FAKE) HAIR: Oh, actually see the video on the side. That is freshly ironed hair. It's not as flat as it could be, but it is very flat. I screamed when snowflakes began to land on it. Snowflakes are made of water. And water is the enemy of ironed hair.

An authority figure once called my ironed hair "professional hair" and I was almost overwhelmed by the temptation to tell her I was mixed race, for then she would have died of white liberal guilt.

NATURAL HAIR: I love costume parties. At costume parties--and anything 1970s revival--I can just be me. By the way, as far as I know, I am not mixed race but 100% northern European, and my hair grows only that long. Of course, it looks longer when ironed.

Feel free to sound off in the com box about the part of your local beauty standard that makes you do nutty or expensive things.


Ginger said...

My hair is no where NEAR as curly as yours, (And I think yours is gorgeous, by the way) but I do have a head full of lots of red "Botticelli" curls. I spent years as a young teenager fighting it, straightening it and cutting it into styles I thought would make it seem less "big" because at the time, I didn't know how to style it the right way and my hair was indeed fuzzy enough to be the source of mockery from the straight-haired girls at my school.

Then one day I had a revelation. I was sick of all the trouble, so I let my hair go in its natural state and do its own thing and I almost never straighten my hair anymore. (Though, incidentally, I did this morning for the first time in months)

It gets fuzzy and curly, a bit wild and sometimes "wooly" but I've learned to love my hair and over the years, appreciate its uniqueness and learned the proper way to take care of curls so that they're the best they can be. Now I get complimented on my hair all the time. It costs me a lot less money and stress and time to go natural.

Kate said...

My hair is incredibly curly/frizzy/huge, but I've managed to find a hairdresser who works wonders with layers. I straighten my hair once every few months, but it's too long for me to do it myself. I've learned to appreciate the craziness and accept compliments graciously - after wearing it in braids or a bun most of my teen years.

When I was about 19 or 20, I remarked to a friend (aka Massive Crush) that I wanted to get my hair chemically straightened. He was vehemently against it, as then I'd look like a "cheap pornstar". That may have been the moment when I decided I liked my hair.

Jen said...

I've had two things yammered at me for the past umpteen years:

1. Color your hair! Why don't you color it! Don't worry you'll look older than you are?

2. Why so short? I mean, it's not butch, but....

I went prematurely gray very early - first strands at 15, 50% gray by 25, 80% in my late 30's. Thing is, it's a *pretty* gray - very fine, soft, shiny, and silvery. I did color it for a couple of years, for a lark, but truth is, I actually like the color, and it suits my face. It's kind of striking with dark eyebrows and dark eyes.

Also, when I was in my 30's, I had cancer, and chemo, and my hair never came back as thick after chemo. It came in quite sparse in spots. So I never let it grow very long (the longer it is, the more visible the sparse patches, and the more stringy my hair looks). I keep it a very short, chic, pixie-ish cut now, and have for the last 6-7 years. Not coloring it also helps camoflauge the sparse patches, because the contrast between pale scalp and nearly white hair is not as vivid as the contrast between my pale scalp and darker hair.

On average, people guess my age 7 years younger than what it actually is. And on average, 4-5 completely unknown-to-me men stop me in the supermarket, on the street, or in the subway and tell me my hair is pretty each week. I often also have younger or older women comment favorably - especially college age women (I get 'OMG - I hope my hair is that pretty when it starts to go gray!'). It's the women my own age that have always given me the most grief. My take on that is that there's a fair amount of projection going on. But it's still annoying to listen to it. I was raised not to comment on people's looks unless they asked my honest assessment, and even then to be as gentle as possible. It irks me so many others did not have the benefit of that upbringing. And I get really sick of the 'men prefer long hair.' It has not been my experience, but people keep trying to make it my experience. Boo hiss.

So long story short (too late! Haha): I don't do nutty or expensive things about this even though the local beauty standard of women my own age demands that I should. Life is too short.

Janet in Toronto said...

I have fairly coarse, thick, wavy hair (likely from the Jewish side of my family) and struggled with it all my life, finally resorting to just keeping it short.

I've recently gone through this midlife thing where I decided to grow my hair out, and discovered the Curly Girl approach to hair management. (There's a book and a ton of websites.) Essentially, it's no brushing, no towel-drying other than patting, very infrequent shampooing, use of non-silicone products only (I LOVE Moroccan oil), and generally letting your hair do it's own thing. This has been a complete revelation to me and my hair is a lot less frizzy. Less maintenance, more shine!

I still get the occasional blow-out when I want a straighter, more polished look, but that doesn't happen very often.

Sarah said...

Janet! 'Curly Girl' is how I learned how to deal with my hair, too! I LOVE it.

kozz said...

Indians are obsessed with fair skin. Almost everyone considers "fair" as the de facto beauty standard. So products like Fair and Lovely creams are hugely popular. I'm dark, and of course my mom started me off on the Fair and Lovely nightmare when I was about 16-17. I hated it. Every time I used it, it reminded me that somehow I wasn't good enough and needed fixing to be accepted in mainstream society. I just stopped using it after a couple of months.

It's purely by God's grace that I've never felt about being dark.

Incidentally there is a product called Fair and Handsome specifically for men. Guess it's an equal world after all.

Maggie said...

My hair was incredibly long and thick in middle and high school; mostly straight but a little wavy. Never unmanageable, though I did often wish it would hold curls better (alas, too long and heavy). Then when I developed an eating disorder it grew thin and sad looking; four years after recovery and it's still not as thick as it used to be :-(

Marie Catherine said...

Ooo hair! I like this topic of discussion.

I have dark brown, thick, somewhat coarse, curly/wavy hair. It's lopsided, one side of the part is wavier than the other. I had it grown down to my waist at one point. People complimented me on it a lot when it was down, but it was such a hassle to wear it down during daily routines. It also gave me headaches occasionally. After growing it out long enough, I gave it to Locks of Love. I've kept it shoulder-length or shorter ever since.

I just recently discovered the beauty of layers! They let my hair stay curly, and frame my face quite nicely. Every time I get my hair cut again (every 4-6 months or so), lots of people compliment me on it, especially the men. So, while I don't deny the fact that men like long hair, there are plenty of men who like short hair as well. I feel that if a man is going to be attracted to you, he'll like you best when your style reflects YOU. Not some fantasy style he has in his head.

Larissa L. said...

I'm mixed race, though being as pale as a ghost, most people only get the hint because of my hair. It's as curly as yours but, I guess, with half the volume.
I'm not the one in the picture, but we have the exactly same hair.

I'm brazilian and, although most people don't care with you are mixed race, they care about straight hair: even some men chemicaly straighten their hair! Curly hair is synonymous with bad hair.

Sometimes I go out to dance with my friends and it looks like I'm the only curly-haired in the room. But I love my hair and don't like to straighten it - it takes hours.

Thankfully, in Brazil, the "curly hair industry" keeps growing. I only cut my hair in a specific salon and use specif products.

My tip: moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. Try shea butter or aloe vera. We have a litlle aloe bush and use the gooey inside on the hair. It's also a great for cicatrization. And cut your hair while it's dry and in layers - it's life changing.

MorganLaFey said...

You lovely curly ladies! I've always thought curly hair beautiful and exuberant. Mine is yardstick straight and very coarse. It's impervious to curling irons, most styling products, and crimping (which was mandatory when I was growing up in the '80s). Oh the shame, that I didn't have wavy hair for my sideways ponytail!
As a side note, straight hair shows every single goof in cutting or coloring. Roots or oil are super visible, and unless you've just brushed it, it looks like you can't be bothered to actually do your hair (ugh). So revel in your voluminous locks!

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

When I was a kid, Mom called me Barbara Bush because my hair was quite bushy... ten years of short layered cuts have helped that a lot. My grandma was a hairdresser way back when so she's always cut my hair and we're kitchen beauticians - my mom, grandma, and sister have all colored our own hair (lots of fun - I love this one crazy red I did for a couple years -- although I'm impressed my little sis manages to do those crazy bleached highlights-- that's a real pain in the neck). I think we just have fun because hair's an accessory -- and it will grow out eventually.

I have the longest hair I've had since high school, and not many real layers... it was kinda fun for a while but the hair on my neck is driving me crazy now that it is... kind of warming up (snow! snow again! really, ? really?). Just the other day I sent a photo of a look I like around to my mom and sisters -- thinking of getting a loose wave permanent so I can go kind of 1920s look a la Jessica Beal in Easy Virtue (pic here).

I'm hoping that balances between feminine and short... and I think it'll be fun. :) It's just a shame I won't be able to color it red, too... this one shade called outrageous cherry was my best red on top of my dark hair -- just a bit too purple and deep to be natural, but great with my really rosie Alps+Brit Isles fair coloring. :D

Seraphic said...

Goodness! I'm glad it is not just me who thinks about her hair!

Kozz, that is really sad about skin whiteners--although, yes, I guess it is an equal world when even men are bleaching away. In Britain, thousands of women are obsessed with looking like they've been on holiday, so they paint themselves brown.

Although I know the Japanese also have skin whiteners, you would not believe how politically incorrect skin whiteners are in the USA. Being suspected of using them made Michael Jackson even` more of a tragic figure. Making yourself "more white" with bleaches is a definite no-no in the African-American community, I believe!

Maybe the solution to the wish to be whiter Indians and the wish to be browner Britons is for a great Indian-British intermarriage, and then eventually all Indian and British children will be the cafe au lait colour everybody seems to want!

Sheila said...

My in-laws all have really curly hair like yours -- they're half Dominican. They mostly wear their hair in braids 24/7, taking the opportunity to be creative with French braids or what-have-you. For nice occasions, they spend hours moisturizing and scrunching each others' hair so that the curls will be "defined" instead of fluffy. They so rarely let their hair go natural that my oldest sister-in-law showed up with her Afro to a costume party and everyone assumed it was a wig!

I think it's funny, though, because twenty and thirty years ago my mom was getting perms every few months because extremely curly hair was what everyone wanted. It had to stand way out from your head! Nowadays long and ramrod-straight is the only way, especially for young people. I have sort of wavy, slightly poofy hair that never knows what it wants, so it's never in style, haha. I don't mind it, though. I like it better short, but my husband met me when I had long hair, and so he likes it that way. (Tip to Singles: wear your hair the way YOU like it, so that if you mean the man of your dreams, he won't spend your whole marriage hankering over the hair you had when you met him!)

The author Regina Doman once remarked, "When Eve ate the apple, God told her, 'Your husband will dominate you, you'll have pain in childbirth, and no matter what hair you have, you're going to hate it.'" Cracked me up.

Jane said...

I color my hair a natural-looking blonde. I was blonde as a child, and when my mother got my sixth-grade school picture and realized my hair was almost brown, she freaked out so much that she took me--11 years old--to the hairdresser for highlights. And ever after I've just kept it up.

I wish I could be happy with my natural color, but having your mother essentially tell you when you are 11 years old and have glasses and a retainer and acne and feel like a hideous beast that you will be so, so much prettier if only you were's hard to get out from under that. She was otherwise a pretty fantastic, sensible mother.

Incidentally, I love your hair. When I was a teenager, my Irish dance teacher was a willowy woman with paper-white skin and huge, flaming-red curly hair, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. Ever after I've always admired curly, reddish hair.

Anonymous said...

Your hair is magnificent.

If you ever feel the need to look boringly professional, (or beautifully medieval) you have enough hair to pull off a nine strand braid (google it). I can only do a seven, and that's in the summer when my hair is thick from eating salmon.


kozz said...

Are we talking about hair? I thought were talking about particular quirks encountered in different races. Yikes.

As for hair, I have straight, glossy, black (ok, I have several gray strands now) no maintenance sort of hair which comes down to my hips.
Just the sort all Indian women crave for and cast envious glances. I thank God for the gift of good hair, but I also thank him for not making me excessively vain about it.

Elinor said...

You know, it occurs to me that you might find one of the long-hair forums useful - for example, (I'm a member there, although not under this name). Most of the women (and a few men) there have straighter hair than yours, but not all, and you might be able to exchange ideas.

Anonymous said...

What fabulous hair ! I saw the pic of you sporting natural frizzy hair and because I read you know italian, I say...sei bellissima !
ciao dall'Italia