Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Politics of Hair

This woman has gorgeous hair. (Image source: Easy Hairstyles)

Yesterday I had the worst haircut of my life. The stylist tried to give me a fro (which I'd never requested - I had in fact asked her to cut each curl individually, not to trim my hair like a hedge), but instead I walked away looking like a street urchin, with uneven and random tufts of woolly hair. I'd show you a picture, but I didn't take one because I'm in the middle of packing and no longer have access to either my webcam or my camera. Just let me assure you it looked awful. But my bad haircut wasn't just a bad haircut. And while it was easily the worst haircut of my life, it certainly wasn't my first bad haircut. In fact, the best I ever hope for in a haircut these days is mediocre. Why? Because I have super curly hair, and I live in Utah, the land where women with the slightest wave to their hair think it's curly. And where the stylists reinforce this myth and cut hair like mine the way they would cut wavy hair.

My little sister and I are both curly girls who were plagued by frizzy hair growing up (and tormented for it at school in my case)

I'm not trying to knock Utah, mind you. I've lived here 7 years, and although I might occasionally complain that I'm only here because tuition is cheap and living expenses are low, there are many aspects of Utah I love. The hair stylists, however, are not one of them. In fact, in the seven years I've lived here, I've had bad haircut after bad haircut, only occasionally broken up by mediocre haircuts. I didn't realize how bad those haircuts were, mind you, till I went to a place called 5 degree in New Hampshire and had my hair cut by a curly hair specialist. That's right, she specializes in cutting curly hair and to the best of my knowledge cuts nothing else, just curly hair. And while the shape to my hair that she created is similar to the shapes stylists out here create, her technique made all the difference.

What makes this technique so different? Instead of cutting my hair while it's wet, and cutting it so the ends of each layer are all the same length, she cut my hair one lock at a time. Let me repeat that: One. Lock. At. A. Time. Why did she do that? Because if different hairs within the same lock are different lengths, you get frizz, not curls. It's simple. So simple that I've maintained that cut on my own for the past four months, just trimming individual locks as needed. But there's only so much you can do on your own hair  if you don't have a neck that rotates 360 degrees, so I eventually had to find a stylist in Utah to trim it back to that original length. I tried to explain this technique to the stylist, but I should have known better: it's tantamount to asking a violinist to give the harp a whirl. Both instruments have strings, but the techniques used to play them are radically different.

Lorraine Massey, author of Curly Girl, shows us what healthy curly hair looks like. (Image source:

Desperate to fix my hair, I searched for a Utah salon on, and the website directed me to Shep Studio, just a mile from my home here in Provo. The reviews raved about Shep and another stylist named Patrick, and most of the reviews came from other women in Utah who had fled to Shep after experiencing the worst haircuts of their life. I wanted an appointment, and I wanted it fast, so I took an appointment for 9am the next morning, with a stylist who goes by Twix. Thankfully, Twix had a much better idea of how to shape curly hair, and I left with a haircut I would have once been thrilled by. But he still didn't have the curly hair expertise I found in New Hampshire, so I walked away with frizzier hair than I had before yesterday's disastrous cut.

The problem is, hardly any stylists are trained on how to properly cut curly hair. This is a problem all over the US, and it only gets worse in a place like Utah, where the general cultural vibe is that straight hair is better. (With the potential exception of hair that is first straightened and then looped into gigantic curls - but only on the bottom few inches of the hair). As Twix explained when he was fixing my hair this morning, most of his curly-haired clients come in wanting him to straighten their hair when he's finished cutting it, and some of them damage their hair by straightening it every day. And interracially adopted children get the brunt of this blond and straight culture. The lady who butchered my hair yesterday told me she used to work at an ethnic salon here in Utah, and most of her clients were black children with white adoptive parents. What did she do with the kids' hair? Usually she straightened it. Not just occasionally, but most of the time, because that's what their parents wanted. Sometimes she even added blond highlights.

Now, I realize the kids may have wanted straight hair too, but is it because they each and everyone preferred straight hair as an individual? Or is it because many of them had absorbed a dominant culture that told them they wouldn't look attractive till they conformed to (blond, straight-haired) white culture? I know that I'm prejudiced as a curly girl, but I suspect the latter is more at play, when it comes to black children adopted by white parents. If you think I'm making a big deal out of nothing where interracially adopted kids and their hair are concerned, consider the hair discussions at Womanist Musings. Renee argues that black women on Oprah were invited to treat their hair like a confessional, and that Zahara Jolie-Pitt's hair carries social ramifications because "nappy hair" is associated with a negative stereotype of black Americans and African Americans. In fact, Zahara Jolie-Pitt's hair is so controversial that an earlier Womanist Musings post (maybe written by Renee or maybe written by another contributer), critiques negative responses to Zahara's "nappy" hair and suggests that anyone who has a problem with Zahara's hair doesn't respect black women's hair in general.

The funny thing is, while I know I still have a better bet of finding a decent stylist in Utah than most black women do, I find myself relating to everything Renee and her contributors say about hair. I too grew up thinking of my hair as a problem to be managed rather than celebrating it. I usually went to school with frizzy, damaged hair, because well-intentioned parents brushed it, and I paid a total of 70 dollars across the last two days for two stylists to break every cardinal rule about cutting curly hair, from cutting it wet to using a comb on it. And everywhere I go, women with the slightest wave to their hair think it's curly. And while you may think it's a very small matter if a woman with wavy hair calls it curly, consider the false dichotomy of a world where hair is either straight or curly. Consider all the variations of curly hair, variations that are often indicative of ethnic minorities, that are all swept under the "curly" umbrella. Consider how treating the predominant white hair type as normal and generalizing all other hair types as curly dismisses other cultures.

My curly sisters and brothers out there, let's all unite and celebrate our hair. And for our straight-haired brothers and sisters, consider this: we curly-haired folk, curly-haired in all varieties, know a lot about straight hair. So please return the favor and learn a little about us.

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