The Good, the Bad and the Hair

Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers | Getty Images

Riffling through the L.A. Times this morning (yes, I still take the print edition--I'm a paper-phile), my eye was immediately caught by a front-page story in the sports section. Not about sports, but about hair.

True to my gender stereotype, I'm fascinated with stories about style, chiefly clothes and hair (another L.A. Times guilty secret: I actually read the 'Image' section). That doesn't mean I don't know the latest updates about the revolutions playing out in North Africa and the Middle East, but it does mean that my brain needs regular coffee breaks. This morning's diversion in the sports section about the famously waist-length hair of gridiron stars and upcoming Super Bowl rivals Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews would fill the bill nicely.

But as I've learned from experience, even the most trivial subject is often only a degree--or less--removed from much more serious matters. Chris Erskine's column was meant as a lighthearted and humorous tale of two tresses, framed with advice from some upscale local stylists about how these guys could make the most of their unusual look. The compare-and-contrast approach was fine, and unavoidable: Clay's hair is straight and blond, Troy's is dark and explosively curly. Clay is white and fair, Troy is of Samoan heritage and brown-skinned. But the concept started souring for me when Erskine, in an initial comparison, described Clay as often looking like he as posing for the cover of a romance novel, while Troy's hair was "straight out of a box of Brillo."

Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers | Getty ImagesOuch. I know he meant to poke fun at both, but not all pokes are created equal. Brillo is one of those pejoratives for black hair or tight curl, akin to kinky or nappy but not as neutral. And certainly nothing that would ever be cast as romantic, not even on the cover of a trashy novel.

The column went on to cite more professional critiques of Troy's hair than of Clay's. Overall, stylists suggested that Troy make himself over by ridding himself of the curls altogether by flatironing, braiding or shaving it down to the scalp--"taking the buzzer to him and giving him the Barack Obama." (I assume that Obama would never have become our prez had his hair been long enough to even hint at the nap or kink that stylists, and the American mainstream, find so obtrusive.) Meanwhile, while one stylist did suggest a buzz cut as one possibility for Clay, the Green Bay linebacker was mostly advised to get a trim, some layering, maybe some blond highlights. In other words, Troy needed to lose his runaway hair, while Clay needed to enhance what was fundamentally an asset.

It's the same old story of color and lopsided beauty standards, this time involving famous men and viewed through the prism of hair, which, as every black person knows, is a serious prism indeed. I know, I know--Troy is a millionaire athlete who won't be the least impacted by those ancient judgments; after all, his hair is insured by Lloyd's of London and stars in commercials for Head & Shoulders. But for us mere mortals who bear the social consequences of wearing our Brillo au naturel on a daily basis, and secretly envying those flowy, white-boy locks in our weakest moments, it's a very different story. Happy Black History Month.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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Frizzy, unkempt hair looks horrible on EVERYBODY. White, black, Latino, you name it. I don't see the "racial" element in the Times's story. If the term had been something other than "Brillo," would that have caused less offense? Is your point that American society has decided that frizzy and curly is worse than greasy and straight, and that is racist because black people tend to have the frizzy and curly kind and white people tend to have the greasy and straight kind? I happen to think the frizzy and curly gets more attention because it is more arresting visually by virtue of its size and volume.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing seeing how other folks weigh in. And frankly, I think both gentlemen look equally ridiculous. Mr. Matthews' hair disturbs me more, though, because it looks as though he has not washed it recently.

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C: Thanks for your feedback! The point I was making is that 'frizzy and curly' (and kinky and nappy..) are almost always viewed as undesireable, especially on colored people, even famous ones. The reaction to it tends to be, 'God, can't he/she do something with that HAIR?' The aesthetic impulse is always to get rid of it--cut it, perm it, weave it, transform it--rather than to just wear it. The advice to Troy in the article ran in that direction, which I found interesting and not coincidental. And since the writer did use 'Brillo' and not another term to describe his hair, I can't really answer your question on that point. Btw, it's interesting that you call Troy's hair unkempt...because it's big and curly? Nappy, kinky? Should it be combed? I can tell you as a person with curly hair uninterested in any modification that brushing only makes it bigger.
Yes, frizzy and curly is far less acceptable than straight n greasy. That's tied to racial attitudes, not just in this country but any other country with a history of slavery or colonization. A nonblack person with curl--say, a Jew--doesn't get the brunt of those attitudes for obvious reasons. But they still tend to see their hair as problematic.

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Thanks for this thoughtful piece Erin. As usual you take us in a direction that is great for getting the conversation going. To my eyes Troy Polamalu has Lisa Bonet hair, which is the hair I wanted as a child and could never begin to achieve. I would love to have Troy's hair, as would lots of folks, women and men alike. Maybe men especially, and maybe especially men who would take any hair of any kind at all --kinky, straight, limp, whatever. Troy is folically blessed... On another note, I'm sure you saw the latest VIDA study about the dearth of women in the pages of top literary outlets. http://vidaweb.org/the-count-2010 Has someone done a similar study on the presence of non-white writers on these same pages? I'd be very interested to see those results.

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Who is Erskine's editor? (Not to mention copy-editor?) That is a big pile of editorial #FAIL.