You Go, Curl! How Hair Makes and Unmakes a Black Woman at Any Age

That's me with my curls and all.Now I've gone and done it.

I know that things begin to fall apart when you turn 50, as I did last week, but I hardly thought they felt like this. I'm not talking about any physical deterioration (though I did slip, fall and crash hard onto my side at a Westside Ralph's grocery store just before Christmas--another blog). I'm talking about doing something for the first time in my life meant to be daring and affirming, something calculated to rage against the dying of the light, only to realize after doing it that I feel distinctly less affirmed, infinitely more foolish and far more mortal. Not too mention more broke--it cost $150.

I uncurled my hair.

This is no small procedure, as any woman will attest. And as any black woman will attest, taming curl to any degree by pressing, hot-combing, weaving, chemical-treating or flatironing is a political statement. It is a regular capitulation to a beauty standard not ours, a standard that's we've absorbed so fully that we usually fail to see its politics at all anymore. But I've always seen it clearly because my hair, while curly, is straight enough to be considered "white" hair that always had the option of being left alone. I could go au naturel, unlike the other black girls I grew up with who regularly endured the medieval tyranny of hot combs on Saturday night in order to look presentable at church on Sundays and for the rest of the week; I remember sitting in their kitchens silently watching that procedure with a strange mix of fascination, envy, horror, sympathy and guilt.

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My mother washed and set my own hair to beautify it, but she never tampered with the curl. And neither did I, until last week when, approaching 50, I decided that I finally had the right to straighten my hair just a little bit for the sake of convenience. I liked the curl still, but I had always fantasized about making the unruly top of my head just a little straighter, tamer, just so that it would lay down and stay out of my eyes for once. Was that little alteration so political? A little political? Was that like being a little bit pregnant? Would anybody even be able to tell?

I decided that one of the good things about becoming 50 is that you don't give a damn about what anybody thinks anymore. That is very liberating, in theory. So I kept my birthday appointment with my stylist for something called an anti-frizz treatment. This is generations away from a hot comb, though it's also a euphemism because it essentially does the same thing--breaks down curl or kink by any means necessary. But Larry, my stylist, assured me that my hair would not be straight, merely less curly by about ten percent. Maybe a bit more, but just at first. The whole treatment would only last three months anyway; it was temporary. That fact more than anything convinced me to go ahead with this. Whatever the results, they would be reversible.

Three months can't come fast enough. My hair is straighter for sure, but it's characterless. It literally hangs between curly and straight, traumatized for all to see. It's out of my eyes (sort of) but hardly beautifying. I feel like I delivered a punch meant to only stagger my opponent, but gave him (or her) a knockout punch instead. I feel sorry for my original hair, which I didn't mean to hurt but did, and now it's off somewhere trying to recuperate.

Meantime, I have a new look. New is not necessarily good, as any impulse shopper will tell you. I have to suffer it for a while. Another good thing about being 50 is that you know that time truly heals--in this case, curls--all. I and my hair will be back.

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 on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

About the Author

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 on KCET's Departures blog.
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I loved Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" that discusses this!


Everything is political. So yes hair can be too. However, experimentation with hair has long been a cultural artifact of sun people with kinky hair -- the existence of your so-called "white" hair notwithstanding. So please, don't weigh down an entire race of people with your insecurities an attempts at carving out more social cache for those of your ilk.

The fact is, every person who changes their hair is not making a political statement. Just like you said - you like your "curly, white-looking" hair. So what kind of political statement are you making by liking you "white-looking" curly hair over your "white looking straight hair"? It is not necessarily a political statement either way to me, but you seem to argue that it is. (And if you ask me, you gushing about your "white-looking" hair - as with much of this article - reveals more about you than it does about the body politik of the American Black woman.

I am so sick of the judgement bourgeois, condescension from articles like this. This entire post drips with a holier than thou attitude. In it, you claim that Black women have so absorbed white women's standards of beauty we don't even see it anymore. Well - you clarify - Black women who hair isn't like yours don't see it. As you make clear, "I've always seen it clearly because my hair, while curly, is straight enough to be considered "white" hair that always had the option of being left alone."

That is some white supremacist bullshit, right there. You see clearly because your hair is straighter? So you are arguing that the curls on Black women's heads give us less insight into our beauty choices? You argue in this article essentially that because our hair is kinky or tightly curled then somehow we have become oblivious to the patriarchal, white supremacist system that limits or sometimes informs our choices about how we wear our hair? As they say in the vernacular, BitchPlease.

Are the Black women I know with blue- and gold streaked basket weaves trying to attain whiteness, or summarily rejecting white standards of beauty? What about the Black women who get extensions but of kinky hair? What assumptions would you make about their politics? -- these are rhetorical questions. It's privileged of you to even assume that you can answer what a Black women thinks by the way she wears her hair. And you only think so because we are Black/have kinky hair. That is the very definition of white supremacy.

In reality, Black women get perms, weaves and straighteners for a variety or reasons. People get perms for manageability, weaves for diversity, extensions to be trendy and for a host of other reasons. Not everyone wants to look like they have "white hair" as you so loving gush about your own.

In my opinion, you (and people who enjoyed that CHRIS "there are Black people and there are ni**as" ROCK documentary) have fully bought into the white supremacist lie that that Black women are sitting around enslaving themselves through their beauty choices because we don't know any better and are just waiting for a good white education to show us how much we really like combing through kinky hair or wearing our hair the same style every day. Bourgeois Blacks and white people like to pretend that they know something that we don't: that without weaves and perms we Black women would feel more authentically BLACK. Ultimately, they want to pretend they have the power to give us that authenticity. Blackness itself is a political category, and one that middle class Black (and whites) are always seeking to define and redefine for their own narrow benefit. As we see, white women are not held to such a standard, or even any standard at all about the politics of their hair. This despite the fact they buy MORE human hair wigs that Black women.

Why doesn't the Ms. "white hair" author of this post consider white women's wigs, extensions, colors, perms, dies, highlights, tints, teases, blow-outs and Bump-Its political? Why? Because to her, these are merely the accoutrements diverse culture and style!Why? Well...'cause see...well 'cause its white ladies that are doin' it!


This article was nothing more than a bourgeois tool of white supremacy authored under the guise of benevolent guidance to the "ignorant" black masses. Have a seat.