/ 18 October 2009

Straight talk: A hair-raising issue

“This is me, y’all!” exclaimed model, television host and businesswoman Tyra Banks on the set of her eponymous show last month.

“I’ve just stepped out of the shower,” she said, to considerable screams of excitement from the (largely female) studio audience.

“I wanted to show the real me. I wanted to show the raw me.” Given the shrieks and level of hysteria from her audience (and the response later on the blogs), you’d be forgiven for thinking Banks was standing there naked. In fact it was just her hair that was naked, or “real”, as she called it.

As with many black women in the limelight, from Beyoncé to Naomi Campbell, Banks has worn weaves, wigs and hair pieces for pretty much all of her professional life — close to 20 years. In fact, it has been so long since anyone has seen Banks without a weave that one of her reasons for chopping the thing off was to dispel the rumours that she was bald underneath.

“Because I wear weaves and wigs a lot of the time, a lot of people suspect that my real hair is jacked up,” said Banks in her new online magazine. But rumour-busting wasn’t her sole motivation for ditching the false hair; she was sick of the fakery, she said. After all this time, she wanted to see what her real hair felt like, what it looked like and she wanted the rest of the world to see it too.

The extraordinary lengths black women go to to achieve long, flowing hair has long been something of a guilty secret within the black community. Even black men have often been kept in the dark about what exactly goes on in an Afro hair salon and precisely how much it costs. But all that’s changing — and fast.

This month comedian Chris Rock blows wide open the multibillion-dollar black hair industry in his new documentary, Good Hair. The film, which won a special jury prize when it premiered at this year’s Sundance film festival, was inspired by Rock’s young daughters asking him why they didn’t have “good hair” (straight hair). This set Rock off on a journey to the heart of the secret world of weaves, wigs and relaxers.

The film comes at a time when, thanks partly to Banks, but mainly to Michelle Obama, the topic of black hair has been straying with increasing frequency into the mainstream media. “Because of Michelle being in the spotlight there is this increased interest in how black women style themselves,” said Ingrid Banks, associate professor of black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “People are beginning to see the complexity of racial and gender politics that black women face daily.”

The debate about how black women wear their hair started early in the 20th century. It is no coincidence that Madam CJ Walker, often referred to as the United States’s first self-made female millionaire, made her name selling hair products to black women.

Walker, who was the first member of her family to be born free, started selling her home-made hair-loss remedy door to door in 1900. By 1917 she was at the helm of the largest black-owned business in the US. More than 90 years later, black women spend, on average, three times more than white women on their hair.

These days black hairstyles can be loosely divided into three categories. First there are natural styles, where the hair has been styled but left in its virgin state — Afros and braids, for example. Then there’s processed hair, which has either been pressed, hot combed or chemically relaxed (for instance, the curl has been straightened to some degree) and there’s the world of weaves and wigs.

It’s not just black women who wear weaves. But the big difference is that when white women pile on the extensions, no one accuses them of self-hatred, of trying to be something they’re not. For black women, opting for anything other than a natural style is still seen by many as a political act, a sign of having sold out or, worse, as a sign of some deep-seated desire to be white.

That is why, when a woman such as Banks steps out from beneath her weave, it means something. Hence the controversy when The New Yorker ran a cover illustration that put Michelle Obama in an Afro to portray her as a militant black woman. The fact is, Obama with an Afro would be a massive thing, a huge statement.

For some, though, deciding on a style is just a choice — but it’s not necessarily an easy one to make against this politicised background. In July last year I had my own straight-hair moment. After seven years of wearing an Afro, I wanted to change my look.

I’d done as much as I could with my Afro — grown it, cut it, dyed it, pinned it, brushed it out, worn it tidy, worn it messy. I’d run out of ideas. I was bored with my ‘fro and I was ready for something completely radical. Suddenly I found myself wondering if, perhaps, now was the time for me to try straight hair?

I set myself some boundaries: I would not chemically relax my hair, but have it dried straight. This is less traumatic for the hair and is also temporary (on my hair it lasts up to four weeks, or until the hair gets wet). I would aim to wear it straight for a year.

I asked my 21-year-old cousin to straighten my hair for me. As with many young women she is a master with the ceramics. Once it was done it felt sleek and modern and I rather liked it. My hair was bouncy and shiny and swished from side to side.

There was only one problem: it made me feel guilty. I felt like a traitor. And I became mildly obsessed about what signals I was sending out. If an Afro says: “I’m confident enough to wear my hair as it comes”, what does wearing my hair straight say?

But after a few days I started to notice some unexpected side effects of straightening my hair. Other Eritreans and Ethiopians — who generally all straighten their hair — started to nod and smile at me in the street, acknowledging me as one of them. And I love it.

All in all, the experience of wearing my hair straight in the past year has led me to change how I think of black women with straight hair. I realise how reductive it is to criticise a woman for going straight. I am still not a fan of relaxers, because I know how much they damage the hair. But I understand why so many black women do it. I understand the versatility of straight hair and I understand the seduction of it.

That said, I still wish more black celebrities wore their hair in natural styles — and I still have fantasies about Michelle Obama rocking an Afro in the White House. —