African-American women in Detroit share their thoughts and feelings about the often controversial and ever complex topic of hair
Lori: India.Arie sings the song “I Am Not My Hair.” Is it true?
Char: It’s true for me. That’s one of my favorite songs. It’s an opportunity to look at ourselves beyond the things that seem to have been made so important for us. Hair for me is just like a pair of earrings. I’m not attached. It just doesn’t mean that much to me.
Jan: Can I disagree with you? I look at you and see, by your hairstyle, a very secure woman. I think hair does say something about who you are as a person.
Elizabeth: As much as we have a strong self-perception about who we are, the world is constantly identifying us and labeling us by our hair-the one with short hair, the one with long hair, the one such-and-such color hair.
Jan: The one with the [so-called] good hair.
Elizabeth: Yes. So we can’t avoid what the world is constantly trying to inflict on us.
Katrina: Your hair is part of the many things that tell a lot about you. It doesn’t define us.
Lori: What are the most popular styles in Detroit right now?
Everyone: Long hair.
Monica: I will say that people don’t identify me as a Detroiter. Just by my style. They’re like, “You can’t be from here.” Why can’t I be?
Lori: Do Detroit women conform more to what Hollywood gives us than in other cities?
Monica: I think it depends on the demographic, but yes.
Katrina: What’s been coming across the salons is, definitely, Detroit is a trendy city. We do follow trends just like any other city. We just play it a little safe lately. The regular Detroiter, she’s just a plain Jane.
Lori: What do the words kinky and nappy mean to you?
Char: Are you trying to imply, Lori, that saying nappy or kinky is negative?
Lori: I’m asking.
Jan: Nappy hair is strong to me. It has a texture to it. It’s thick. Nappy hair is beautiful. I have a friend who has a natural. If I could wear that, I would, but I don’t have that type of hair.
Elizabeth: In recent years, people have twisted the word around to be a positive. My friend Linda Jones has a book, an online network, workshops, that celebrate nappy hair and she calls it that. She uses that word in celebration to embrace one’s natural state of hair.
Monica: The word has the power that you allow it to have. If you teach in your household that nappy is bad, then nappy will be bad. We spend a lot of time trying to define ourselves by words that really are neither here nor there.
Katrina: Jan, I’ve been dying to ask you when you said you’d wear your hair like that if you could, referring to your friend that has her hair natural, have you ever tried to go natural?
Jan: I’ve had a relaxer quite a long time. I had a ’fro for years when everybody had a ’fro, when I was younger, but I just don’t think it would look right on me with gray hair. I don’t like that look. I’ve seen other people with it.
Katrina: My point is maybe Black women don’t know how their hair really looks. I had a relaxer since I was three. I only went natural when I went to cosmetology school. I was amazed-“Wow, this is really the kind of hair that I have.” I didn’t know how, if you didn’t wear relaxer, that you could ever wear it straight if that’s what you wanted.
Lori: Why did you decide to go natural?
Katrina: I was so tired of relaxing my hair. It just seemed like, “Why am I trying to fix my hair? There’s nothing wrong with it.” If I decide to wear it straight today, guess what? You can straighten it. There’s a thing called the pressing comb. If you want to wear it natural, girl, go on and wet it. It just seemed like I had more versatility.
Char: That’s amazing to see a mother-this is not an indictment of your mother [but] mothers in general-put a relaxer in a 3-year-old child’s head. Are we thinking, “Not good enough? Let me fix it.” Or, “It’s too difficult for me to deal with. Let me fix it.” I had a perm in the fourth grade.
Lori: Are you making decisions about how you wear your hair based on your work? Family? Church? What is the driving factor in how you wear your hair?
Char: I’m going to China next month to do some business. [If] I walk into a boardroom with a bunch of Chinese men, they’re not going to hear me.
Lori: What will you do?
Char: I’ll maybe buy a wig. Put it on. Doesn’t mean anything to me though. I don’t feel like I’ve been told what to do because my end result is, I need to get this deal done. I’m not going to screw my deal.
Jan: Is there something that you would not do to your hair? Because I think there are certain things I wouldn’t do to my hair. I would never color it. And I probably would never wear a weave.
Monica: I’ve had everything. I’ve had a weave. I’ve had a relaxer. I’ve had color. I’ve had nothing at all for years. I’ve had braids. I’ve done everything. But I think it’s the nature of what I do [for a living] that allows me to just do whatever.
Ber-Henda: I’ve worn the braids. I’ve had my hair Charlie Baltimore red. I’ve done any and everything I could think of to my hair because I’m whimsical like that.
Char: Do you think that secretly, we hate our hair?
Monica: Black people have self-love issues in general.
Char: I just think it comes from just hundreds of years of programming. Just not good enough. It’s not just hair. It’s [that we feel] not good enough in general.
Jan: There’s one thing we haven’t brought up. I’m surprised it hasn’t come up yet. And that’s men.
Katrina: I only wear [my hair this way] because my husband wants it long. I’m comfortable with it because I don’t care. I love doing everyone else’s hair. I love helping you find your image. If it was up to me, it would probably be cut.
Jan: Do you think most Black men would rather see a Black woman with long hair? My husband-love him-he likes short hair.
Lori: I heard this on the radio once. They like the fantasy [of long hair], but they want to believe it’s real. They like Beyonce.
Jan: But it’s not real!
Lori: I had an argument with a Detroit News photographer, Black man, about whether or not Beyonce’s hair is real. He believes it’s all hers.
Char: I called my mother to tell her I was getting married. And she said, “Oh, that’s wonderful! You going let your hair grow for the wedding, right?” That was an unintentional insult. I don’t think that we get that our parents really program our insecurities.
Jan: But they were programmed.
Lori: A friend told me that she saw a Black woman start crying just at the suggestion that she stop straightening her hair because she said she thought that would make her ugly. What does that say about us when we feel that way about our natural texture?
Elizabeth: That’s not specific to race. There are plenty of women of other races that hate their body, hate their hair, hate their eyes. I’ve read about Asian women getting surgery on their eyes so they have a more western, open-eye look.
Katrina: As a society, I don’t think there’s a cure for it. I think it’s going to be like that from beginning to end. That’s just the way it is.
Lori: I grew up with my mom pressing my hair. In the early, mid-’70s, it was a special occasion for me when I got to wear an afro. It seems like now it’s the opposite.
Jan: But don’t you think that’s turning around now? Because you see more women going natural?
Lori: Do you all agree that that’s happening in Detroit?
Elizabeth: My mother just went natural-she’s 63-after years of perms. She didn’t know that she would like it natural. And she loves it. She looks younger. People are complimenting her. She just looks stunning.
Ber-Henda: The more and more you tap into the Source, whatever you consider your Source, none of this matters. I believe in any faith-based tradition, this [human body] is considered a shell. You have a soul that is going to transcend this plane. You’re not going to have hair. You can’t take it with you. So what difference does it make what you do here?
Lori: What you’re saying is absolutely true. But I certainly also think that as a little Black girl in this society, with the media and billboards and magazines, we do need affirmation about our hair.
Char: Girl, we need affirmation period.
Monica: We need self-validation.
Char: I call my niece little brown girl. “Come here auntie’s little brown girl. You’re the prettiest little brown girl I’ve seen all day.” Because I was called black this, black that, black the other.
Lori: And none of it was positive?
Char: And none of it was positive. We have to affirm women and then their hair won’t make a damn bit of difference.
Elizabeth: [There’s] hate between women based on looks. Hate between women because you have long hair and light skin or [short] hair and [dark] skin. That’s extremely divisive and hurtful. People make assumptions about you because of what you look like.
Monica: If it was up to me, it would just grow organically and loc. I can’t not work on my hair because of what I do [for a living].
Elizabeth: I agree. I’m not obsessed with my hair either. I just do whatever’s convenient for that day. I want as little work done with it as possible.
Jan: I am the total opposite. I’m a girly girl. I love hair. I love what we can do to our hair.
Katrina: And that’s alright.
Ber-Henda: I love weaves. I do. I’m not ashamed of it. I take my girlfriends to the beauty supply [store]. It’s like a field trip. You have straight hair. You have kinky hair. You got blue hair. It runs the gamut. As a woman that wears weaves, sometimes there’s just such a stigma, like I have a self-esteem issue.
Char: But people treat you the same way when you cut your hair off. “What’d you do that for?”
Jan: I do think that we as Black women have a serious problem with short hair.
Lori: Because of a European standard of beauty?
Several Women: Yes. Definitely.
Lori: If you’re not in an environment where there is someone encouraging or affirming you, do you have to be a really special person as a Black woman to get to a place where you can affirm yourself?
Char: I’m still having a conversation with myself daily that being a dark woman is OK, or that having short hair is OK. I have to constantly affirm myself.
My daughter, I’m clear that at some point she was ashamed that her mother had short hair because I didn’t look like the other mothers. She asked me to grow my hair. She didn’t think that short was beautiful. As she’s gotten older, she’s come along.
Ber-Henda: That’s just crazy to me. When I saw you come in, I thought you were just absolutely gorgeous.
Char: I could hear that every day and still have a challenge, because that wasn’t my original programming.
Elizabeth: This is all women. Kate Gosselin just got extensions and she’s blond and White.
Lori: I think it’s a different issue for them. For some of us, we feel like we have to correct a texture that is unacceptable.
Elizabeth: When I was little, Farrah Fawcett was really popular. I went to a very mixed school, but a lot of girls had the Farrah Fawcett flip. My hair was very frizzy, very kinky curls. I wanted Farrah Fawcett hair so bad. I wanted to be able to have that flip thing and it was impossible. It wasn’t until I grew older and people were always talking about my curly hair, saying, “I spent hundreds of dollars to get a perm to get curly hair like that,” until I realized, “Wow, I’m pretty blessed how I am.” But it took years to accept and celebrate that within myself. This is how God made me. But that dialogue [within] yourself continues all the time.
Jan: I would really like to see Black women be authentic. Whether that’s a weave or braids or dreds or twists, whatever. In Detroit, everybody does do the same thing. Everybody looks the same. Every young girl wants long, straight hair, and they want the longest weave. There’s something sad about that.
Char: We should affirm our way into a new generation of thinking.
Elizabeth: That affirmation starts from within. You have to shut out the noise. You have to ignore the world and what it’s trying to tell you and just go with what’s good with you.
Monica: It’s really important to have that daily affirmation of love and being in love with yourself. To do that every day.
Elizabeth: In the mirror.
Monica: In the mirror. Look in the mirror [and say], “You are so beautiful and wonderful and magical. I love you, with your sexy self.”