It’s just hair! Right?

Editor’s note: This post was written by one of our interns, Jamor Gaffney.

It was the summer before I began 5th grade when I got my first relaxer. I was curious, nervous, and unsure of whether I was making the right decision. Not because of what I now understand to be a deeply rooted, oppressive standard of beauty in this country, but simply because I didn’t know how my hair would turn out. The morning before I went into the hair salon, I wore an Afro; I walked around my neighborhood so everyone could see my hair, and they would surely see the “new and improved” Jamor once I returned from the salon.

I later arrived at the hair salon, sweating bullets as I sat in the chair. The stylist parted my rough, kinky Afro to base my scalp with grease to protect my skin; soon, I felt the cold, heavy relaxer on my head… there was no turning back now. A few minutes in, I noticed a tingling sensation on my scalp, then, a burn! I started tapping my foot against the floor to signal to someone that I was uncomfortable and was met with the response, “Beauty is pain, beauty is pain”.

Now, I knew I couldn’t say this out loud but I wanted to scream, “That makes no sense! Get this out of my head!”

The hair washing person eventually rescued me and the rest of this seemingly stupid process was fine. Seemingly stupid turned into genius because the finished product was in fact, a new and improved, Jamor. I had shiny, silky, straight, long hair… I never looked back.

Today, I am more conscious of the implications of the relaxer in the black community and I wonder if my mom and I made the right choice in having my hair chemically straightened. The new BET original television show “Reed Between the Lines” about a black family deemed “the new Cosby Show” has an episode that speaks to my questions about perming my hair at a young age. Kaci is a young teenage girl who wants to perm her hair because a boy she likes at school prefers her hair straight. Her mother Carla tries to talk her out of the decision, explaining the potential consequences of putting a perm in her hair. A conversation like this would have been very helpful for me when I was younger.

Black Hair, Still Tangled in Politics articulates my thoughts on my hair, and the ways that black women present themselves. For black women, myself included, their hair is a performance of both their race and their gender. How I present my hair to others is in many ways, a statement or declaration of my race and gender. I’m pressured to keep my hair long and straight by men, black men!

I find it disheartening that within my own racial community, I’m not comfortable enough to present my hair, as is, how it grows from my scalp, without being considered less beautiful. This stems back to the Great Migration when blacks moved from the South to the North looking for better job opportunities and an overall better way of life. There were pressures by both whites and Northern blacks for this new influx of people to appear elegant, polished, and classy and “taming” their hair was the first step to maintaining that appearance. Today, similar pressures are put on blacks to appear more professional and approachable. All of these adjectives are just indirect ways of telling me to try to look white and be friendly, and that the efforts I make toward doing so will impact my success.

What’s unprofessional about a black woman washing her natural hair and putting a little holding gel on it for work in the morning? Some white women do just that, and no one is uncomfortable or appalled. For a country with such racial diversity as America, it should be considered highly problematic that our standard of beauty is still so sourly, solely skewed toward whiteness. How is this affecting young black girls today? Based on how perming my own hair as a 5th grader changed my perspective on black hair, I can’t imagine other young girls not wanting to feel new and improved too.

Alison Gardner

Alison Gardner

Alison Gardner is co-founder of VenusPlusX, and writes frequently on global sexual freedom, American fundamentalists exporting hate and homophobia, and grassroots activism.
Alison Gardner