While tearing up the dance floor at Clinton's a few weekends ago, one of my friends opened my mind to a dilemma I hadn't considered before. She described a tricky situation in which a coworker of hers (let's call her Mathilda) who had always rocked natural hair came into the office one day with a relaxer. In the past, my friend had grown so accustomed to seeing her natural hair that after a while she stopped giving Mathilda compliments. So when Mathilda showed up to work with long, sleek hair, my friend was in a pickle. The change was so drastic she had to speak up! However, by complimenting Mathilda wouldn't she be affirming that her hair looks better straight now?
When she realized that she was caught between a rock and a hard place with Mathilda, my friend simply decided not to say anything to her about her hair that day. My friend understood that her words have a deeper meaning. You can't deny that society persuades girls and women to look a certain way, and this pressure manifests in our everyday interactions with people. Growing up I found it puzzling that some people would swoon over my weaves, but would say absolutely nothing when I got box braids or cornrows. As an adult I now understand that they likely meant no harm, but it's a blatant indication of what our society values in terms of beauty. I think my friend's active decision not to feed into the "straighter is better" mentality was wise, and I applaud her for her thoughtfulness.
As I write this, on the other hand, I can't help but think to myself hair isn't always political! Mathilda has every right to wear her hair however she pleases. We kinky-haired girls are blessed with endless possibilities when it comes to our hairstyles, relaxers included. Maybe Mathilda has never felt the societal pressure I mentioned before. Perhaps she just wanted a change, in which case my friend's struggle to be politically correct would've been for naught. Moreover, there's no doubt that a compliment on her relaxed hair would've made Mathilda's day. Not saying she's seeking attention or anything, but that's just how we humans are programmed; we like to be complimented.
So what's the right thing to do? Should we discourage what may appear to be assimilation, or should we celebrate an individual's right to choose what could be conformity? Honestly, I don't see this problem as being binary. I think there's a grey area in which we can support each other without getting bogged down in the politics. Rather than commenting specifically on a person's new relaxer, wig, or weave, I would simply tell them that they look great. That way they receive the ego boost they rightfully deserve for all the time and energy they put into their new look, but without any sociopolitical strings attached. And of course as our mothers taught us: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. ;)
Do you get more compliments from people when your hair is straightened? Share in a comment below!
Last week the Huffington Post published an irksome article about the newly crowned winner of Nuestra Belleza Latina, a beauty pageant reality show that, objectively speaking, seems to be mired in racism. The first line of the article reads "Francisca Lachapel was the unlikely contestant to win Nuestra Belleza Latina 2015," and goes on to cite how as an Afro-Latina, Lachapel and women like her have had difficulty finding representation on the show. From getting selected as contestants to being judged fairly against lighter-skinned, straighter-haired models, women with typically African features are not celebrated as they should be. In fact, the Huffington Post quotes one of the show's judges as having asserted, "Black Venezuelan women are not very beautiful." Even the one judge who advocated most for Lachapel implied the curls in her hair and richer complexion were hindrances. The hilarious part is Lachapel is only partially Black. If she had such a hard time winning the title, would someone with 4C kinks and chocolate skin even stand a chance? A reflection on recent events provides the resounding answer...
It would be aggravating enough if these were isolated cases, but the upsetting truth is Black women are used to this prejudice. Regardless of location, many of us grow up being told our hair isn't presentable unless it's straightened, that we shouldn't play in the sun lest our skin go darker. Our noses are too wide, our bums too big, and our lips too fat. And just when it seems there's nothing left, along comes cultural appropriation to tell us that in fact our features are desirable -- just not on us.
I know the subject has been beaten to death, and yet cultural appropriation still happens on the regular. Whether or not it's intentional is up for debate. I prefer to believe the majority of these perpetrators are ignorant rather than malicious, but maybe that's just a foolhardy coping mechanism on my part. Anyway, Katy Perry was put on blast last year for mocking girls who wear their hair in cornrows and who slick down their baby hairs (ie: Black and Latina girls). Despite her blatant and offensive insensitivity, the video in which she shames us for our unique style has been viewed nearly 290 million times. Similarly, Miley Cyrus will go down in history for putting rachet culture on the map and for inventing twerking, behaviour that mainstream society has spent decades telling Black people is "trashy" or "ghetto" when we do it.
Enter Kylie Jenner, the most recent celebrity to waltz obliviously into this mess. Last week she posted a selfie in which her lips were noticeably enlarged. She invited all her fans to join her in her #LipChallenge, which involves stimulating blood flow to the vessels in one's lips so they appear fuller. People have been achieving juicier kissers in all kinds of questionable ways, including sucking on shot glasses and water bottles. I'm sure you've already come across the hoards of bloggers imploring the young people of the Internet not to partake in this potentially dangerous challenge, but far fewer people are talking about the more insidious harm behind Kylie's latest craze: its societal implications.
When I first found out about the lip challenge, I chose to give Kylie the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to believe she was using her fame to promote an alternative standard of beauty. I wanted to believe she was telling the world that big lips are pretty, period. Of course after watching how the lip challenge unfolded on social media, I couldn't help but notice the stark unfairness of it all. I know many of the participants are Black. I also recognize not all Black people have big lips and not all White people have thin lips. However, the undeniable truth is it's Black people who have been ridiculed for hundreds of years for possessing this unchangeable physical trait, and yet overnight Kylie Jenner has somehow made big lips universally irresistible.
Back when blackface was a thing (*shudders*), makeup artists strove to paint the actors lips as ridiculously gigantic as possible. The actors would then behave like total fools, underscoring the belief that Blacks were animalistic. Today, the aftermath of this racism is evident in the low levels of self-confidence and self-love many people of colour feel at some point or another in our lives. So when someone like Kylie or Katy or Miley presents these "epic trends" to the Earth with no history or context or respect, it's infuriating. These are people with great social influence who can - and have - changed the world. I am not questioning their character or their right to express themselves; they are independent human beings who can do as they please. My issue is their lack of public acknowledgement of the double standard. They are unabashedly adopting for their own fame and fortune the very elements that make Black people unique -- the elements that have been the nexus of so much of our pain.
Ultimately I understand that beauty and fashion are constantly evolving, and some people might even consider all this proof that society is becoming more open-minded. While I do value that sentiment, the lack of appreciation for existing Black culture as a manifestation of Black history continues to trouble me. I guess what I'm really wondering is: why does the world need to see how pretty big lips are on a White girl to realize how pretty the've always been on a Black girl?
I think I'm addicted to natural hair events. Last week I attended THREE in the span of four days. I just can't get enough. On Tuesday, Ryerson University hosted a panel of natural hair advocates at an event called My Hair, My Look, My Swag as part of their Black History Month lineup. In attendance were a variety of speakers, vendors, Ryerson students, and members of the general public. I was pleasantly surprised to see a handful of male attendees scattered throughout the crowd, and there were even two on the panel. (I'd be lying if I said I wasn't also pleasantly surprised to have been given this amazing free cookie just for showing up.)
Because of the diversity in the room, we were able to dive into an array of questions regarding issues like how natural hair is perceived in romantic relationships and what it's like for men to rock their natural hair in an office environment. It was fascinating to hear the guys' take on what natural hair means to them. I thought it was especially interesting when Greg H'Side Samba, a professional dancer, stated that the decision whether or not to have natural hair boils down to health above all else. He cited the dangers of chemical burns from relaxing as reasons he wouldn't even consider going down that road, regardless of the styles relaxed hair would enable him to achieve. While it is possible to have a flourishing scalp and lustrous hair while relaxed, as some panelists pointed out, Greg believed the associated risks weren't worth it. (I tend to agree.) Even though the subject matter sometimes grew a little sombre there was always an air of humour, and we laughed constantly.
You'd think I'd have been exhausted from all the natural hair chat by this time, but the very next day I excitedly attended another meetup, this one called Curls, Coils, and Cocktails. It was hosted by one of the panelists from the Ryerson do, Bridget "Bee" Quammie, and her pal Ann Marie aka SoulAfrodisiac.
When I first arrived I was a bit nervous because it seemed everyone was already comfortably seated next to someone they knew. I timidly peeked around the tables in search of a free chair, hoping I hadn't already been at it too long. You see, I'm one of those people who feels hella awkward approaching strangers, but once the introductions are over with, we're BFFs. And that's exactly what happened when I spotted an open seat at a table with two ladies seated diagonally from each other. I was so glad I had somewhere to sit, and even more excited by the fact that they were both so friendly ... and funny!
The event was phenomenal. Bridget and Ann Marie gave us all a chance to socialize over appies and dranks at our tables before launching into the program. Their style of questioning each other and then inviting each of us to share our experiences and opinions was refreshing because unlike other events where there's a clearly established group of speakers and the audience is deemed separate, this felt like a group discussion where we were all invited to speak up whenever we wished. Some people ended up sharing some really personal and beautiful stories, which made the meetup that much more powerful and worthwhile. Overall, it was a fantastic opportunity to get in touch with other naturalistas - and enjoy some tasty cocktails!
Looking for a natural hair event in your area? Click here!