“Clara Bowden was beautiful in all senses except maybe, by virtue of being black, the classical.” — Zadie Smith, White Teeth
I have always been fascinated by, and attracted to beauty. The magnetic pull of the aesthetic, in its various subjective forms, happily draws me, and I know always that what I see as beautiful is in my eye.
When I haven’t seen for myself, physical beauty has been pointed out to me. So-and-so was beautiful. Or I was beautiful. Or not. Depending on the eye of the beholder.
Sometimes it was pointed out to me that my complexion was too dark (to be beautiful) — depending on who was looking. My fascination with the aesthetic inevitably led to wondering about what constitutes beauty in public conception/s of what is beautiful. More specifically, what are the elements that constitute black beauty?
In late 2001 I conducted a study with South African women of Indian origin exploring shifts in post-apartheid identities, considering gender and race, and the individual influences that shaped personal and political identities.
When we talked about physical appearance and senses of self, time and again I was reminded of the role of older women family members in emphasising the abiding value and importance of straight hair and light skin. Whether the fair-skinned one had to have her kink blow-dried out, or whether others were told they would never find a “good” husband because they were too dark in complexion, the primacy of the straight hair-lightskinned model of what is beautiful abided, and was, and is passed down in that age-old women’s medium — the oral tradition.
A quick glance through our mainstream South African media — an extension of that age-old medium — will reveal the glowing icon of black (South) African beauty, and Lux “Face of Africa” Khanyi Dhlomo.
Other popular faces and images include former Miss South Africa, Basetsana Makgalemele-Khumalo. And the pleasing form of Halle Berry has proven that blacks with a dash of vanilla can be Bond girls too. The gaze of the business media falls easily, pleasingly, on the form of Bridgette Motsepe — our very own African woman mining magnate.
Camera lenses lovingly soak up images of Cabinet ministers Lindiwe Sisulu and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, shedding light on more than what they think and say.
What these women have in common, other than being public figures, is that aside from their blackness, they fit “classical” notions of beauty. They have the symmetrical bone-structure, the straight nose, the much-vaunted “fine” features, and, with a bit of help, straight hair.
Whether they chemically treat their hair to make it straight, or whether they purchase the black hair of their straight-haired sisters and attach it to their heads (a new take on sisterhood perhaps?), they appear to us, the public, as beautiful black women with straight hair.
In the contemporary and age-old black beauty hierarchy, straight hair is valued above natural (kinky) hair. Light skin is valued above dark skin. A straight hair/light skin combination is the most desirable outcome. Women like Motsepe and Sisulu typify this ideal.
But is the fact that women straighten their hair a public or a private issue? Does the personal choice of how we wear our hair, reveal something about ourselves and our views of the world? Is how we choose to present ourselves on the outside, a reflection of ourselves on the inside? And if it is, what does the choice to straighten, to take the kink out of our hair, mean? What does it say about how we (as public — and therefore important and knowing — figures) view and value ourselves, and our kinky, kroes hair?
Nani is a five-year-old girl living in a rural village in the Eastern Cape Karoo. She is very conscious of her physical self, and spends playtime with her friends holding modelling shows and beauty pageants in which she gets to parade in her bathing costume. The little girls jut their hips forward in front of imagined judges in an exaggeration of a beauty contest.
Nani tells me she wants human hair: straight hair, naturally straight hair, not synthetic hair. Human hair to Nani is the straight hair that beautiful people have. This hair can be bought and attached to your own less-than-straight hair, thereby hiding, dare I say it, your roots.
Nani’s natural, kinky hair is not human hair to her. The thought has not crossed her mind.
Where did the desire for human hair come from? Certainly nobody in her own community or physical vicinity can afford to have this shop-bought human hair? The actresses on Generations and Isidingo have human hair, she tells me.
Human hair, as Nani thinks of it, comes from TV — local content TV, nogal. The women on Generations and Isidingo are beautiful because they have human hair.
Human hair in Nani’s conception equals straight hair. Straight hair has value, it has currency. The beautiful people on TV have human hair. Not only on the local soaps and dramas, but the beautiful people on the news — reading the news, or being reported on, have straight hair too.
Straight hair in Nani’s world is a sign not only of beauty, but of success. This she has seen and learned and valued through the medium of TV. Most people in her economically and physically isolated village watch TV. Nani and her friends’ staple meals consist of either plain mealie meal or bread. There is no money for vegetables or meat, the parents explain. Most people get by on social grants in this part of South Africa and malnutrition and alcoholism are rife.
Most women in the village have straightened hair. And most girls, by the time they reach 12, have straightened hair. There is money for hair straightener. The mothers make sure of this. There is no discussion about the relative importance of hair straightener versus vegetables. This is the way it is and how it has been.
In contemporary notions of black beauty, whether hair is straightened (chemically) or straight (human) — it is clear that straight/er hair is what is desirable and aspired to. Is straightened hair simply — as a Kenyan ex-colleague, Anne, insists — more convenient, easier to manage? And if that is so, then by extension, is black/kinky/ African hair unmanageable?
Nani aspires to one day having human hair. There’s nothing she can do about her dark skin, but money can buy her straight hair. She will be beautiful then.
I have a friend, Saartjie, who wears her hair as it is: thick, kinky, woolly, luxurious. Every time she meets her aunts at gatherings of her large family, a fuss is made of her hair. “What is wrong with that girl, she is a disgrace,” they lament. “She’s just too lazy and stubborn to comb her hair,” another aunt complains.
All well-meaning aunties, all over the age of 70, for decades, trying to get this girl to do something “decent” (straight) with her hair. Saartjie’s hair bothers them because she wears it as it is. (“Egte Khoi hare [Real Khoi hair]!” an aunt exclaims.)
Saartjie’s hair is certainly human. Here human means something else: natural, curly, tightly kinky. Woolly. Thick. Soft. The aunts are surprised at the softness of her hair. They expect her natural hair to cut their fingers.
Their own kinky roots are such a faraway memory that they believe “egte Khoi hare” (like their own underneath the chemicals or attachments) will be hard and sharp — like steel-wool.
They believe the beauty myth. They are products of the myth and they use and consume the products of the myth. And the last I heard, Saartjie’s cousin, Mandy, was about to undergo an expensive new treatment to, once and for all, “permanently” straighten her kinky hair.
With the primacy of light skin or straight hair, reminiscent of white notions of beauty, continued through the complicity of black women (public figures, mothers, aunts) the possibility for five-year-old Nani to break out of these confines and find her African-kinky-haired-self beautiful becomes virtually impossible. Simply not beautiful. And so we continue to be less than human by our own doing.
Hair texture like skin colour is indelibly linked to age-old notions of what is beautiful. And so the story continues, generation after generation, with different media securing the line.
Maybe if I weren’t so black, I’d be beautiful. Good thing about my straight hair. Lucky me.