Monday, April 26, 2010

Bon Hair, Bad Hair

Good Hair (U.S., 2009) directed by Jeff Stilson; produced by Chris Rock, 96 minutes

This obsession with hair is an interesting phenomenon within the black community. Some wag once said that black women obsess over their hair the way white women obsess over their weight. This doc seems to confirm this observation. This is not so much a film review as it is the story of my curly hair and my search for "good hair".

Fun and a bit provocative, Rock catalogues the various ways black girls and women deal with their nappy hair: chemical relaxers, weaves sewn on to scalps with real human hair (mostly from hair sacrificed by women at temples in India - which was disturbing to learn), chemical perms. Oy ... The expense, the hazards of strong chemicals, the time involved (hours and hours), the emotional stress, all in search of "good hair" - Western hair, straight hair.

I casually remarked to R one time that some black girls hate to go swimming because of ruining their hair. R saw this as racist and scoffed at the statement. But I assured him, with all the work it takes to care for, and maintain, your curly hair, the last thing you want is to ruin your perm, weave, relaxed hair in a pool full of chlorine or lake water.

This whole "good hair" thing hits at the heart of dis-ease we feel about nappy and curly hair in Western society. Women strive endlessly for "good hair" and we want "good hair" because we know we will be judged by our looks and especially our hair, our "crowning glory" as the poet Maya Angelou describes it in the film. Even world class poets know that ...

As the bearer of a curly head of hair, I know that I have tried to tame, control, relax, manipulate every strand and have done so since birth. Sometimes successfully ... I am obsessed with it.

I have been fighting with my hair since back in the day when my mother would sit me in front of the TV before school started and hack away, pulling and struggling through my tangled curls early in the morning to get me ready for the day. My straight haired mother thought the best thing to do was to  put my long curly hair into a little bun on the top of my head (complete with old lady style hair net to control it) and then take the long strands at the back and curl them into cannoli thick strands at the bottom. It was just as strange looking as it sounds.

Now that would make you popular in the land of silken haired blonde Marcia and Jan Bradys in grade school.

My mother, fed up with struggling with it when I was ten, lied to me once and told me that if I cut it short, it would grow back straight. Obviously the woman was desperate and I was dim-witted enough to be believe her.

Then, I had an epiphany in my mid teens, since I had thick "black" hair I would wear it in an afro which got bigger and bigger as my teenage alienation deepened. It would elicit stares, nasty remarks and really unpleasant encounters with strangers who did not like it at all. It seemed to really threaten people and authority. This lasted for about two years and divided people - some liked it, others hated it. Everyone had an opinion about it and were very free in dispensing their opinions.

Try walking around my east end Hamilton neighborhood with that head of hair or confronting a house full of Sicilian relations at family occasions.  

Then, feeling spiteful and angry because a boyfriend had shaved his head without telling me or consulting me (and who also happened to love my afro), I cut it all off in my last year of highschool and had to deal with it short and curly.

I never really felt comfortable with my hair until my early 30s where I just chose a more relaxed style, pulled back away from my face, that worked with my troublesome curls and long hair. But eventually this got tedious for me.

One day several years ago, I was threatening to do something silly with my hair when my stylist suggested that I let one of them straighten it and see how I felt about it. Wow, what a difference. And the reaction of people around me was quite striking. They seemed to liked it, they really liked it. 

Let me qualify that - the people very close to me did not - husband, child, mother. They did not like it at all. Every time I would return from the hairdresser with straight hair I would be greeted with this: "Oh ... your hair ... it looks ... nice." (N.B. "Nice" is the husband's code word for "I don't like it but I really don't know what to say.") He really has not come to terms with it. People are very proprietorial about your hair I find.

But I like the diversity, I like the change. I like slipping into different identities and personas. I can't prove this but I think that people treat me differently when my hair is straight or curly. It's a little like one of the interviewees in the film said (semi-jokingly): "If your hair is relaxed, this makes white people more relaxed towards you." 

You feel me?

1 comment:

Cheryl said...

Sometimes I think the Amish have the right idea - just stick it under a cap and forget about it!!!