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The Good, the Bad and the Hair

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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 Images

Ouch. 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.

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