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10.07.09

The War Over Black Hair

With Chris Rock's new documentary in theaters tomorrow, The Daily Beast's Elizabeth Gates looks back on her own hair struggles, from "bushy afro" to "comb through" to au naturel.

Chris Rock has done the unthinkable and lifted the veil from the myth, the legend, and the big business behind black hair. On October 9, his documentary, Good Hair, will make its way to theaters across the country, finally setting the record straight on block braids, fusains, perms, weaves, and even Al Sharpton’s lye-laden coif. But beneath the hilarity of Atlanta’s biggest hair show and Nia Long’s “sewn in” weave lies the still-unanswered question of why America has all but ostracized natural black hair from its popular beauty ideal, and how we can instill pride in our children’s self image when silky haired blondes still outnumber “kinky” haired black women onscreen and in magazines by a staggering number.

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Rock’s decision to make the film was prompted by his daughter Lola, who at age 5 asked her father, “Why don’t I have good hair?” She had already started the treacherous journey to make sense of herself amid America’s whitewashed beauty standards—the same journey many black girls begin the day someone asks to touch our hair or questions why we don’t wash it daily. This is not to say that white women don’t suffer some level of beauty confusion when coming of age, but by the time they can say Hannah Montana, they’ve seen a bit of their possible future, whereas we could go years before seeing reflections of our natural selves on the big screen. And quite frankly, watching Beyoncé flip her lace-front wig around in videos like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” doesn’t exactly translate to a young black girl, seated in front of her parents' TV with two large afro puffs springing from her tender head. All she sees is skin like hers and hair like theirs, inadvertently creating the want for perms, weaves, wigs, lace fronts or otherwise.

Unable to answer his daughter, Rock decided to tour the country interviewing folks at hair salons, barbershops, Asian-owned beauty-supply stores—traveling as far as India (where some of the best weaves originate), to discover why black women have literally bought into the idea that straight hair is not only prettier but also more acceptable than the hair we’re born with. His findings are a riot, but they also start to chip away at the psychology behind black hair and why, as Sharpton says in the film, we happily “comb our oppression” and spend thousands of dollars on anti-curling agents from hot combs to chemical relaxers—both of which could serve as a weapon if need be.

I can only speak for myself, a biracial woman who has always considered herself black (without exception). I was born to a white hippie mother and a black academic father and despite the fact that my black grandmother was a hairdresser and tried her best to oil down my bushy afro, my mother always washed it clean and let it “go.” And I mean, she’d let it go for days. As an artist (still nursing that white, liberal “come as you are,” “black is beautiful” hangover from the '70s), she thought my untamed (and widely socially unacceptable) afro was amazin'—however difficult it was to navigate with a fine-tooth comb. My sister, on the other hand, was born with “good” hair to go along with her fair skin. It hung down her back like the silk they pull from corn stalks, and it had the nerve to be blond too. It bounced when she ran; it wound easily into pigtails (like the ones on TV) and best of all it looked just like my mother’s. I could jump up and down for hours and my afro stayed put. Yanking it into pigtails wasn’t ever going to happen and the best I got when it came to family resemblance was, “that child sure does look like her daddy.”

The few times my mother did attempt to tame my hair it became a battle. She would chase me down, pin me between her knees and rake my hair into one large poof. She even tried to straighten it once, but I ended up with a frizzy, crimped disaster that sent me straight to the shower to undo the damage. I wanted a perm and she loved my curls. By age 13, my mother had tired of our consistent war over my hair and accepted my father’s barber’s offer to have his wife perm my hair. Here was my big moment: my silky, long-haired, afro-be-gone moment. She decided I needed a “comb through,” which meant it would be straightened from the root to the tip (even better in my mind). I slid into the chair and she wrapped me with a black cape, tipped my head over and slathered the creamy white chemical onto my scalp. At first it was all good. I was gnawing away at the Twizzlers she offered me, swinging my legs and listening to her talk trash about her husband to the other hairdressers. But not 10 minutes in, it started to burn. Burn like you wouldn’t even believe. A burn so bad my eyes started to water and my fists clenched up—I mean, I could literally feel the epidermal layer peel away from the dermis.

“Tell me when it starts to burn,” she said casually before adding that, “The longer it stays in the straighter it will be.” So I let it burn. For 20 minutes more, I sat with my teeth clenched, rationalizing my suffering with images of Beverly Johnson, the JET beauty of the week and Tyra Banks (who was then guest starring on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air). When it was over and she turned the chair around and took a tiny, fine-tooth comb and eased it through my mutated hair, I was in heaven, scorched scalp and all. I wanted to comb it, to swing it, to spin around in circles. When my mother picked me up she said she missed my curls, but I didn’t give a damn. I spent the rest of the night putting my new hair into “white” styles like my sister had worn and dancing around my room to Janet Jackson tracks.

Watching Beyoncé flip her wig around in videos like “Single Ladies” doesn’t exactly translate to a young black girl, seated in front of her parents' TV with two large afro puffs springing from her tender head.

In fact, it took me eight years to even start giving a damn—to realize that the hair on my head (which at various times was braided back and weaved up, depending on popular styles) wasn’t mine at all anymore; that it was an attempt to convince other people that I was beautiful and well-behaved, ultimately leaving my self-image in their hands. One day I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and cut it all off, from the root to the tip. Clumps of black hair fell to the floor like bricks off my back. I might have been near-bald, but I truly loved what I saw. I have cut my own hair ever since, but that first cut meant the most. My liberal mother had been right all along. Allowing my hair to grow into its natural shape gave me an opportunity to feel empowered by my own standards, future weaves or not. And no, my strife was never quite the burden Peola felt in Imitation of Life, but I sure as hell wanted to feel pretty—and there weren’t many afros on The Cosby Show or A Different World and there certainly aren’t any on Gossip Girl or The Hills. But by the time my hair was cropped close to my scalp and A Different World had run its course, I was left with my own standard, whether it was popular or not.

Perhaps it will take Chris Rock’s little Lola the same amount of time to come to terms with her own beauty ideal, and maybe her definition will always include a perm or a weave. But one day she will inevitably realize that America has done to black hair what it has done to the female body: distorted its image and replaced personal preference with patriarchal desire. And just like the rest of us, she will be forced to make her own choice about how to proceed. But hey, if nothing else she’ll always get a nod from Al Sharpton, who wouldn’t dare trade his own perm for anything or anyone at anytime, regardless of the weight of social acceptance.

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Elizabeth Gates is a style correspondent for The Daily Beast. She is a graduate of The New School University, where she cultivated her love for fashion and writing. A former intern at Vogue magazine, her interest in image, art and fashion has driven her desire to contribute to the vast narrative of modern culture in America and abroad.