When Hair Becomes a Heart Issue
I named my hair Wild Mike.
And that’s what we call him, whether he’s been recently tamed by the flat iron or has just been washed and is jutting away from my head in all of its stubbornly-straight-yet-wildly-frizzy glory.
Though I’d been bereft of the “kiddie perm” (a slightly milder version of the sodium hydroxide relaxer that can eat up a soda can) ever since I was ten, most of my adolescent and early teen years thereafter were spent at the mercy of a pressing comb. I relied on the heat to keep my tresses hanging limply (and acceptably) around my shoulders.
The decision to go completely natural was one over which I agonized the same way a lot of women suffer over the choice to chop off their perms. I spent weeks reading up on ways to take care of my hair. When it finally came time to get into the shower without a shower cap and actually wet my hair, I was, in the words of Jane Austen, half agony, and half hope. When I looked at my wet hair in the mirror, I let out a shocked gasp: so that’s what it looked like.
Ideal Black Beauty
Women of all different colors, shapes, and sizes struggle with the fanciful beauty ideals of our culture. Some of us are size zeroes who are convinced that we look like adolescent males and fein after Beyonce’s curves. Some of us are curvaceous women who look at Keira Knightley’s spare frame and heave a wistful sigh.
Some of us are little black girls who grow up seeing that the only kinds of black women our society seems to accept as beautiful are ones who are so ethnic and undiluted that they look as though they walked straight from Africa with perfectly glistening ebony skin; or ones who are so ethnically androgynous that their honey-hued skin, gray eyes, and long, bone-straight hair don’t really give many hints to their origins.
I am neither an African queen or a biracial goddess. Most days, I have on non-chic glasses, no makeup, and frizzy hair. I am a nerdy medium brown millennial without an airbrush in sight. It takes me loads of gumption just to put up a selfie on Instagram.
All that to say, I am not a bastion of confidence. But if you need a professional on reality, I’m your girl.
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The Ditch on Either Side
I have learned from several years of alternating between Wild Mike in the Raw and Wild Mike Tamed by Fire that there is a ditch on both sides of the road when it comes to black hair care:
Either women can be so obsessed with the long, flowing hair of our sisters of other ethnicities that we pour thousands of dollars worth of chemicals and weaves into our hair…or we can fawn over the idealized portrait of “natural” hair that forms perfect corkscrew curls that spiral around ones face in a radiant display of Black beauty.
My hair, which is more Anne Hathaway pre-transformation in Princess Diaries than Angela Davis anyway, never looks like either ideal unless the time-space continuum decides to smile on my efforts, and I’m learning that this is okay: all of us have to bend to the truths of reality.
While I don’t believe that God’s Word speaks directly to the issue of how a black woman ought to wear her hair, I do believe there are important principles for us to consider when it comes to how we style our hair.
The Truth is in the Why
We all know the Sunday school answer to where beauty is found:
Well, sort of.
My insides, in and of themselves, are not very beautiful. In the literal sense, there is a lot of blood and organ stuff going on in there, but, in the spiritual sense, our insides are actually desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). Our flesh clings to wicked little idols like social acceptance and modern beauty standards. Our inside is what sometimes makes it hard for us to embrace the beauty the Lord has given us.
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True beauty comes from a heart submitted to the Lord (Proverbs 31:31), a gentle and quiet spirit of reverence before him, not from relying on outward adornment (1 Peter 3:1-6), a core transformed by the blood of Christ (Romans 12:1-2). This is in no way a slight against adornment – Christ arrays his bride in finery (Psalm 45: 13-15, Ezekiel 16:10, Revelation 19:6-8). Rather, if we are relying on our outward adornment for inner peace, comfort and beauty…we will always come up short.
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For instance, if you’re wearing makeup to enhance your natural beauty, that’s great. If you’re wearing it because you hate the face the Lord gave you, maybe reconsider your reliance on the powder and the brush.
Now, trade powder and brush for flat iron or relaxer.
This is not a blanket condemnation of women who straighten their hair: I am not of the mind that the only way for me to be comfortable wearing my natural hair is to get every other black woman in the world to follow suit, nor have I thrown my flat iron in the trash. But the difference between the straightened locks of today and the straightened locks of ten years ago is that I am not afraid for the world to see my hair as it naturally is, because that’s the way the Lord naturally made it. And I’ve learned to love it.
As women of the Word, we need to be faithful stewards of our time, money, and energy.
We also need to be good stewards of our health.
Recent studies show that relaxers may be linked to cancer and early puberty in black women. Whether or not the results of this study prove valid, I believe that black women should be able to step back from the chemicals long enough to examine their deeper reasons for running to them; and to consider that, perhaps, there are healthier ways to do hair.
And when I say, healthier, I don’t just mean not putting noxious chemicals anywhere near your cerebral cortex so much as I mean having the confidence to make decisions about our physical appearance based, not on cultural norms and acceptance so much as driven by a biblical confidence in the Lord. This isn’t a matter of how we women do our hair or our makeup so much as why. And, if the answer is anything other than peace in who the Lord has made us…it’s time to reconsider.