For the last several years, natural hair “trends” have been on the rise for African-American and other women in the U.S. Just last week, Oprah graced the cover of O Magazine donning an enormous Afro, much bigger than the one she wore in the late ’70s when she first started on primetime. Oprah’s gesture pays tribute to the millions of women who have tossed relaxers and weaves to the side and embraced their own hair — their natural hair.
As I wrote last spring, women of African decent, and some others too, sometimes use a product called a perm to make their hair “more manageable.” These began as a trend in the 1920s so blacks (both men and women) could more readily assimilate into white culture and evade the detriments of racism. If you’ve ever read or watched The Autobiography of Malcolm X, you’ll remember the scene in which he dunked his head in a toilet bowl to find reprieve from the smoldering “conk” (what a perm used to be called) he was using to straighten his hair.
Oprah’s hair was a wig designed by lock guru Andre Walker but the idea of it still persists – Afros, and other natural hairstyles are here to stay … or are they?
Earlier last week, someone I follow on Twitter (and have a great deal of respect for) posted a tweet about natural hairstyles in which she claimed her disdain for women who wear short natural styles without a perm. My response? “Fuck perms.” If I’m being honest, I was totally taken aback by how a woman as rounded as she could be so unforgiving of other’s personal choices — and also that she was so shamelessly plugging for people to use unhealthy chemicals on their body. I then realized I, too, was guilty of policing people’s choices.
I once had a perm — first, because it’s what my mother chose for me and later because I didn’t know how to manage my natural hair. (In this case, correlation does equal causation.) I tried again and again to embrace the unruly kinks and curls that were my mane but I became frustrated and overwhelmed with the idea that this ritual took work. Making an investment in change felt impossible and it was much simpler to do what felt familiar – to perm my hair. For a long time I also cared very much what people thought of me. It mattered that I looked and felt beautiful and I didn’t associate the kinks and curls with that feeling. There were a lot of circumstances that justified my decision.
As I grew older, I cared less of what people thought. I still care about feeling beautiful, but it is balanced with my need for sustainable healthy practices. And because studies have show that perms are unhealthy and cause irreparable damage to your hair and scalp (among other things), and because these studies frequently come upon my social media networks, I thought it was common knowledge and believed that when people know better they do better. Also because the perm’s history is rooted in some super fucked up racist ideology.
I was wrong. Like many other choices (driving cars with smaller carbon footprints, exercise, and recycling) people choose what they believe is best for them and what fits their lifestyle choices. For some women using perms is and may always be the best choice. Even if Oprah, the queen of all things awesome, dons a Diana Ross-esque wig on the cover of her magazine, the aesthetics of a perm prevail. I can accept that and aim to stop policing women who choose what’s become pejoratively known as the “creamy crack” instead of natural hair. But I’ll expect the same in return. I wear shoulder length locks but once proudly wore a teeny weeny Afro (TWA) and other short cuts sans the perm, because that was what I believed was best for me at the time. I felt good about my choices and am glad that so many other women have embraced the natural hair revolution. We deserve to bask in our enthusiasm without unsolicited criticism.
Reprinted with permission from The Frisky.