I don’t usually talk about hair. I would be lying if I said my hair was a non-issue in my life. I, a woman, a Black woman, of course my hair has its own identity.
Last year, a Glamour magazine editor gave a “Do’s & Don’ts of Corporate Fashion” to a group of women lawyers at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.
First slide up: an African-American woman sporting an Afro. A real no-no, announced the Glamour editor to the 40 or so lawyers in the room. As for dreadlocks: How truly dreadful! The style maven said it was “shocking” that some people still think it “appropriate” to wear those hairstyles at the office. “No offense,” she sniffed, but those “political” hairstyles really have to go.
How totally clueless could she have been about Black women and our hair. How rude of her to say that we cannot wear our hair in its natural state, and that if we do, we are inherently making a political statement. Did she not realize that the “DONT’S” in her presentation targeted characteristics common to Black women only and thus in efficacy she was saying that our physical appearance alone is unacceptable? That’s like saying pale skin and blond hair is inappropriate in the workplace and that furthermore a tan and a brunette dye-job is mandatory to look professional.
I can only imagine that the “DO’s” all revolved around straight hair, which for a Black woman to achieve would mean treating her hair with caustic hair-straightening creams routinely.
Fine, I will admit that whether one lets ones hair “go natural’ or keep it relaxed is a touchy subject for many Black women, especially professional ones. Even the language is problematic as it assumes that relaxed hair is the norm and “going natural” is a choice for radical women. While black woman with relaxed hair is the reality for many it’s not our norm biologically. Thus, it is frustrating and disappointing to think that a Black woman can only be presentable in the workplace if she relaxes her hair, straightens it, or wears a wig.
Relaxing meaning that every 6-8 weeks, you apply sodium hydroxide (lye), guanidine hydroxide (no-lye), or another similarly caustic product on the “new growth” of hair effectively leaving the hair straight but also weaker and subject to breakage, hair loss, and scalp burning. In fact, relaxers often comes with a warning to “apply carefully, and avoid contact with skin”. In the days leading up to a “touch-up” a Black woman is likely to keep the scalp “dirty” and try not to scratch it. That’s when you see a Black woman with relaxed hair tapping her head like a mad woman when she has an itch. It’s customary to keep the chemically-smelling relaxer cream on your head until you feel the tingle ie. burning as the signal that the cooking is done. This is such a sad sight especially when the victim is a little girl.
Or what about the alternative of straightening with a hot comb? Ah yes, beauty at the price of greasy hair, singed ears, and the ever-lingering aroma of burnt hair. I remember when we would have to put a metal comb over an open flame, such as at the kitchen stove, to get it hot enough. You knew it was hot enough when your hair sizzled as the comb glided through the pre-greased hair. Now, we have advanced to electric combs and ceramic flat irons to damage straighten our hair. What progress!
Let us not even talk about the alternative of glueing, heat fusing, weaving, or braiding really tightly either synthetic or human hair into our own. Human hair from our sisters in the Far East and Indian subcontinent who are probably being exploited. It doesn’t take much to imagine what could happen after you apply glue, and other fastening chemicals to your hair, not just that first time, but time after time, for years. Hair and scalp damage of course.
So honestly, I don’t think that straight hair is a reasonable expectation of Black professional women unless employers want to be held accountable for the subsequent alopaecia and dermatology and therapy sessions.