Black Hair Obsession

08.12.13

Chris Rock to Blame for Obsession With Black Hair and Beyoncé

Beyoncé’s pixie cut has reignited the debate over black women and their hair. Allison Samuels says it’s all Chris Rock’s fault.

Blame it on Chris Rock. That’s what my friends declared this weekend as we gathered for our regular luncheon to discuss the hottest topics of the week.

In between chatter about Anthony Weiner, Oprah’s racist encounter in Switzerland, and Obama’s appearance on Jay Leno, the conversation quickly turned to Beyoncé’s new and surprising pixie haircut.  

Mrs. Carter’s decision to part with her signature long blonde tresses caused quite the stir on fashion and social-media sites. It also offered yet another chance to discuss the politics of black hair, store bought or otherwise. A discussion that only became topical for the mainstream population (according to my friends) after Chris Rock released his documentary Good Hair in 2009.

Good Hair offered a behind-the-scenes look at the multimillion-dollar industry that supports the myriad of black-hair products. While the harsh and damaging toxins used to make perms and relaxers received some screen time, the real star of the film was the all-consuming world of hair extensions and weaves. Rock even traveled to India for the documentary to witness first-hand the tonsure ceremonies that produce much of the hair sold in America.

“No one other than black people talked about weaves and wigs until Chris came out with that film,’’ said the owner of a major makeup and hair agency in Los Angeles. “But that movie made it a free-for-all for everyone to discuss black women’s hair.’’

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After Beyoncé revealed her new ’do via Instagram, a few hair-obsessed writers (including myself) decided to push the hair envelope even more by explaining the evolution of her golden strands. The singer’s early sun-kissed blonde braids easily morphed into more mature curls and waves all courtesy of the finest human-hair extensions and lace-front wigs available. Yes, Queen B has employed all the tricks of the trade and she’s done it better than most. 

For the record, I’m pretty sure Beyoncé had a head full of beautiful hair before undergoing the big cut. Wearing hair extensions and wigs was just a way for her to protect her own fragile hair from the wear and tear of daily hot curling irons, blow dryers, and megawatt stage lights. Makes sense, right?

But here’s what’s usually lost when the conversation about weaves, wigs, and hairpieces comes up: white women wear them too. In fact, the list is quite long of white and non-black women who regularly employ hairpieces and extensions to gain fullness, length, and protection from the elements for their hair.

While others have the freedom to be as fake as they want, black women are expected to toe the “keeping real” line at all costs.

Actress Linda Evans’s thinning tresses caused producers to suggest she wear several tracks of human hair for her role on Dynasty during the ’80s. First lady Jackie Kennedy would often add a perfectly coiffed swirl of human hair to her own mane for updos and special occasions. Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez have both used hair extensions to up their glamour games. Jessica Simpson loved additional hair so much she even launched her own brand of clip-on human-hair tracks sold everywhere, including Marshalls.

Yet for some baffling reason, black women take all the flak when it comes to adding human-hair enhancements to our varied beauty arsenals. If Dolly Parton’s mile-high hair pieces didn’t fascinate the mainstream population after all these years, why should Beyoncé’s lace-front wigs? What’s the difference?

In a world where requests for breast implants, liquid face-lifts, lip injections, and butt implants are the norm at doctor’s offices, women of color continue to be ridiculed for our love affair with Indian Remy hair. It appears that while others have the freedom to be as fake as they want to be in any area they choose, black women are expected to toe the “keeping real” line at all costs.

In 2009, just before the release of Good Hair, I spoke with Chris Rock at length about the many double standards that exist in beauty ideals for black and non-black women. 

The father of two adorable girls, Rock suggested that when black women wear hair extensions it isn’t with a product that is actually compatible with their own texture of hair. Although, I’d say Beyoncé’s sure seemed to blend well.

My interpretation of what Rock really meant was that adding hair for black woman was, in fact, an attempt be something or someone we aren’t.  

As a woman who loves adding hair to my own whenever possible, I can honestly say, weave or no weave, I still get either ignored or followed by security when I enter most upscale Beverly Hills stores. So, if the plan was to become someone I’m not, it’s sure been a major fail.

The sad reality remains that no matter how many major magazine covers Beyoncé, Rihanna, or Halle Berry grace, the ideal of female beauty in this country remains very narrowly defined. Smooth, fair skin, fine facial features, and long, flowing hair top the list of must-haves for those deemed the most beautiful. So if buying six to eight ounces of Indian Remy hair makes any woman—black, white, or otherwise—feel a bit better about themselves I say, what’s the problem?