Hair and the Black Woman
When I got pregnant with my oldest, I made a decision that I would no longer use chemicals in my hair and go natural. I remember reading somewhere that somehow it could potentially be harmful to my baby. I am not sure if this assertion is true, but to a new mom every warning can seem alarming. The cost to keep up with my salon visits was also a factor. It cost approximately 70 dollars each visit every six weeks.
I distinctly remember heading to the salon to get my hair cut. I would end up at the end of the day with almost no hair at all. In order to go natural, one must cut off the chemically processed hair. Heading to the salon was terrifying. I might have even cried.
For those who are unaware, Black hair is coarse, curly or both. Historically, women used objects such as straight irons to straighten their hair, but in the early 1900’s the relaxer was invented.
Relaxers are either lye or no-lye relaxers. Lye is a strong alkaline solution made of mostly potassium hydroxide. The FDA warns that any relaxer has the potential to burn the the scalp, but no-lye relaxers lower that chance. Once a Black woman (or any woman with coarse hair) applies a relaxer to her hair, it generally becomes straight.
I had chemically relaxed hair for as long as I could remember. I was semi-terrified to “go natural.”
Why was this so important to me?
For me, my hair had become an idol and centerpiece to my identity and beauty. If I had a good hair day, I felt good about myself. This all seems so superficial, but for many women beauty is important. For me, at the time, it was an aspect of my appearance that was too important. And for the Black woman, hair has historically played a significant role in our identity.
A Look at History
There are professors, historians, and artists who have spent their lives dedicated to the topic of Black hair and identity.
Dr. Tracey Owens Patton, director of African American and Diaspora Studies and a professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Wyoming, asserts the problem stems from the racist division in the United States and a desire for Black females to assimilate into the White culture of the time. Further, she argues that the Black female has continued to be compared to White women for standards of beauty. She explains in her article “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?”
Throughout history and to present day, African American women have challenged White definitions of beauty. What or who is considered beautiful varies among cultures. What remains consistent is that many notions of beauty are rooted in hegemonically defined expectations.
While definitions of beauty affect the identities of everyone, this article focuses on African American women and the intersection between beauty, body image, and hair. Specifically, this article looks historically at how differences in body image, skin color, and hair haunt the existence and psychology of Black women, especially since one common U.S. societal stereotype is the belief that Black women fail to measure up to the normative standard.
Given the racist past and present of the United States, there are several identity and beauty issues that African American women face. Since 1619, African American women and their beauty have been juxtaposed against White beauty standards, particularly pertaining to their skin color and hair.
During slavery, Black women who were lighter-skinned and had features associated with mixed progeny (e.g., wavy or straight hair, White/European facial features) tended to be house slaves and those Black women with darker-skin hues, kinky hair, and broader facial features tended to be field slaves.
This racist legacy and African American internalization of this White supremacist racial classification brought about what Jones and Shorter-Gooden have termed “The Lily Complex.” This complex is defined as “altering, disguising, and covering up your physical self in order to assimilate, to be accepted as attractive.[i]
In order to fully understand the significance of the topic, we must understand the history. I am not asserting all of Dr. Patton’s conclusions are my own, but I do believe her argument and concerns are worth considering, and in fact are common notions in our society.
Even as a child, I remember putting skirts on my head to give myself fake long flowing hair. My sisters and I would add bows to our “long hair.” I bought into the notion that long, straight, flowing hair was identified as beautiful in society.
Hair and identity continue to be topics of great interest in the Black community today. Many women are turning away from the chemically relaxed hair to the natural look. Filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa presented an Op-Doc on black women trading in their chemically processed hair for the natural look focusing on her own decision to do the same. The film and story was featured in the New York Times in May noting that the sales of chemical products had dropped by 17% between 2006 and 2011 as potential evidence for a natural hair trend.
And in November, I wrote a feature story about women in my hometown who have also traded in the chemically treated hair for the natural look. These references only skim the surface of this topic but if we dig and look into it, we can quickly see the significance of it in relation to how Black women view themselves.
Hair and a Biblical Worldview
So what is the Christian woman to think of all of this?
Though our conclusion may be different in terms of my Christian perspective, I agree with the general premise of what Dr. Patton has asked in her article: Am I more than my hair? As a Christian, the answer is simple: yes, I am.
As a woman who has been cleansed by the blood of Christ, I am much more than my hair. I would even go so far as to say that hair doesn’t matter in the least bit. God isn’t concerned about our hair-style; God is concerned about the condition of our hearts.
We see this theme throughout Scripture, but particularly when Peter is addressing husbands and wives. He writes, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4; emphasis mine).
He isn’t talking about a quiet woman, rather a woman who has been transformed by the gospel, transformed by the word of God. The moment God takes captive our wandering sinful hearts and changes the heart of stone into a heart of flesh, he also changes our identity (Ezekiel 11:19, 1 Peter 2:9). So the real question is what is my identity rooted in? Am I rooted in the Gospel or the world?
Paul appeals to us not to be conformed to this world, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
The good news is God saved us and he renews our minds (Titus 3:5). But we know our hearts and desires can be opposed to the Spirit that is within us. Paul understood this battle we face. He writes, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21).
Let me be clear, I am in no way saying a desire to be beautiful, or a desire to return to our natural roots (in terms of hair) is inherently sinful. No way. What I am saying is that if we are to think with a biblical worldview, it would seem that our highest aim isn’t to be identified by our hair or style and our highest concern shouldn’t be that either; rather we ought to desire to please and glorify the Lord.
Our identities aren’t rooted in our look (even if the world places stereotypical identifiers on us). Our confidence is that we are children of God; we are daughters of the Most High.
God is after an inner beauty that is grounded in the fear of the Lord. As we are all too familiar with, charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised (Proverbs 31:30).
[i] Tracey Owens Patton, “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair” Source: NWSA Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 24-51Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4317206