Today, I watched a live Youtube event hosted by Naturallycurly.com and featuring Michelle Breyer – Co-founder & President of TextureMedia, Miko Branch – Co-CEO of Miss Jessie’s, and Imani Dawson – Creator of Tribe Called Curl. The topic: Hair Typing–Does it Empower Us or Alienate Us? You can watch the recording here. Below are my thoughts and experiences on the issue.
I have been transitioning to natural hair since May 4, 2013, and this is a topic I have stumbled across several times in the last year when it comes to the natural hair community. In fact, it’s a topic that has directly impacted me personally.
I personally don’t think that hair typing is inherently empowering or alienating. Hair typing can be quite useful when it comes to figuring out which products may work for your hair. However, I do think that individuals with self-esteem issues and the need to elevate themselves do use it as a tool for putting others down and for making others feel “less-than.” The media can also perpetuate the problem.
Now before I begin, a little history may be in order so people understand that I am not speaking from a place of hate or anger, but from a place of understanding the role history plays on the systematic treatment of black women and their hair since slaves first arrived in America.
Hair in Africa can be an elaborate affair, from the use of threading, pleats, cornrows, and different mixes of herbs, berries, and natural oils that produce different textures and looks. A lot of that hair culture was lost when the first slaves were brought to America in 1617. By the 1700s, the term “wool” was used by caucasians to describe black hair, which ended up dehumanizing slaves. Lighter skinned slaves with looser textured hair were often preferred over darker skinned slaves with kinkier-textured hair at auction. Lighter slaves were often “house slaves” and were spared the back-breaking work of the fields.
Even after slavery officially ended in 1865, caucasians often required “good hair” (hair styled closer to that of white women) before entrance to schools, churches and several businesses was permitted. Enter in Madame C.J. Walker, who popularized the hot comb and the press-and-curl style (I ain’t mad at her, though some criticize her for encouraging black women to look white).
A few “natural hair revolutions” (if you will) sprouted up here and there from the 1920s through the 1970s. But a lot of those movements were met with resistance and retaliation. In 1971, Melba Tolliver was fired from ABC for wearing an afro while covering Tricia Nixon’s wedding, for example. The message was clear. Black hair in its natural state was unprofessional and unacceptable.
In the 1980s, Spike Lee exposed the “good hair/bad hair” and “light skin/dark skin” schism that had formed in the African American community due to what society had proffered as and deemed beautiful.
A few strides were made and trends were set with a few black celebrities such as actress Cicely Tyson wearing cornrows on television, model Pat Evans shaving her head, singer Erykah Badu wearing eccentric wraps and locs, singer Macy Gray sporting an Afro, actress Lupita Nyong’o in a fresh fade, and even rapper Lil’ Kim donning weaves.
In the same vein, as early as 2003, little black girls were not allowed to participate in ballet recitals because they couldn’t get their thick curly hair into a straight bun and cornrowing the hair into the bun was not an “acceptable” alternative. Even more recently, the military has received a significant amount of pressure to revisit it’s rigid hair policies for African American women as it currently prohibits common black hairstyles such as cornrows, dreadlocks and twists (even when pulled into a neat bun or ponytail).
Usher in the newest natural hair revolution, making natural hair care a billion-dollar industry. Use of relaxers have gone down over 60% since 2011 and yet, here we are still talking about texture discrimination. Why? Well, unfortunately (if I’m being brutally honest), the subconscious damage preventing society as seeing those with kinkier textures as beautiful has been done. That is several 100 years worth of damage that cannot be undone in a few years (though we as a society are making strides).
Also, the media perpetuates the image that those with looser, curlier hair are the “acceptable naturals,” leaving a large sub-section of African Americans feeling alienated and striving to reach a texture that their hair does not naturally achieve. The truth is that the majority of black celebrities/actors/models featured in the media are lighter skinned with what the general population might refer to as “mixed chic hair.” Only recently has representation of darker skinned women with kinkier textures become more prevalent. But then again, it’s really only a handful…well, one woman really (Lupita) that has had the torch thrust upon her. Not until there is a critical mass and representation of every kind of woman can we finally start to realize that the definition of beauty cannot be so confined (and is damaging when it is).
Side note and point of clarification: Not all mixed or light skinned individuals have “mixed chic hair” or looser, curlier textures. In fact, plenty have kinky type 4c hair. Also, not all dark skinned individuals fall into the kinky hair category–some have defined, curly hair (some dark skinned people are also mixed–I fall into this category). It really depends a lot on genetics, but the conversation addresses the generalization.
Which brings me back to hair typing.
The most popular system of hair typing was created by Andre Walker. Generally, Type 1 a,b,c hair is a variety of straight hair. Type 2 a, b, c hair are varying degrees of wavy (getting curlier as you got to the “c”). Type 3 hair is what is most commonly associated with “mixed chic hair” and are spiral curls, ranging from loose spirals to tighter spiral curls in the a – b category, respectively (when created, type 3c hair was not a category—it was created by naturallycurly.com). Type 4a and 4b referred to the kinkier categories of hair–being either “coily” or “ziggly” (having a zig-zag shaped strand). Type 4c–kinky hair lacking any curl definition–did not even exist under the original typing system.
In a 2011 interview with Elle magazine, Mr. Walker stated, “I always recommend embracing your natural texture. Kinky hair can have limited styling options; that’s the only hair type that I suggest altering with professional relaxing.” As you can imagine, Mr. Walker received a lot of backlash for that comment. He claims on his blog that what he meant was that for the ease of his client, he would recommend a mild relaxer to make her hair more manageable.
I’m not particularly offended by that statement. If your hair is a pain in the butt to deal with (and we all need to stop pretending that our hair doesn’t act up at times), then do whatever makes the process easier for you and more power to you. However, I can also see how that statement creates a negative impression of kinkier hair, especially if it’s the only texture he recommends chemically altering. When I stop and think about it, it really is like “what are you trying to say, Mr. Walker?” He has since said that his knowledge and perception of kinkier hair has evolved. Some assume that Mr. Walker’s perception of kinkier hair came from the fact that he himself would be considered to have Type 3 curly hair…but I have no idea if that actually affected his ability to evaluate kinky hair.
So, do I think hair typing is useful? Yes, for determining which products will work for your hair. Do I also think hair typing is used as an alienation tool? Yes, by those who need to feel more important than others (even if it’s a subconscious effort).
My Story: I didn’t grow up in U.S. My mother used all the varying hair techniques and styles I discussed above before slaves were brought to America (because, well, people in Africa still use them). I lived in over 13 countries and 6 continents before the age of 10, and it wasn’t until I got to America at that young age that my mother really decided that consistent relaxing of my really long, really thick natural hair was in order. My hair was difficult to detangle, I remember crying every time my mom suggested it was time to do my hair, and it took FOREVER.
I relaxed my hair for the next 17 years, using mild relaxers and suffering through the burns (I have a really sensitive scalp). Last year, the relaxers finally started to make my scalp bleed. That’s when I decided that I should stop relaxing.
I’ve touched lightly on the reaction of hair salons to my natural/transitioning hair before in a much more light-hearted post. In fact (and sadly), most of the texture discrimination I have received have been from other black women. All of these statements have been said to me at some point in the last year: “I don’t have to spend as much time on my hair as you–mine’s just ready to go,” “well, thankfully, I don’t have your situation to deal with” (discussing how some of my natural hair just doesn’t form a curl–from what I can tell, I have 4 different hair types on my head ranging from 3c through 4c), and “if you texturized it, it would look prettier.”
The other area where I’ve felt the undertones of texture discrimination has been at work. I’m an attorney. The legal field is an archaic profession and still holds on to a lot of draconian perceptions. I am lucky and blessed to work for a natural herself, but even she answers to a higher power. Wearing my hair curly (as I have to blend the two textures right now), “the ultimate boss” (caucasian female) made a snide comment stating, “wow… your hair just keeps getting bigger.” [insert look of disdain here]. Meanwhile, a caucasian colleague with blonde wavy/spiral curls had “absolutely perfect hair.”
Yes, I’m dark-skinned. Yes, I’m also mixed genetically. Yes, I have different textures on my head but they are mostly kinky. Yes, my hair is thick. Yes, it expands more outwards than downwards. So? Luckily, she doesn’t have the power to fire me over my hair (this is a sad reality that some people have unfortunately had to go through), but I do get the feeling that if I worked directly underneath her, my hair would be a point of contention.
I find it amusing that black hair seems to be the only area that people feel brazen enough to assert their opinions on you (how many people do you know randomly walk up to someone in an outfit they deem bland to tell that person that their outfit is drab? If they have any sort of manners, not many!). We also seem to be the only race who cannot wear their natural hair in peace, without the whole world weighing in. But I digress.
Hair typing is only used as a tool of alienation by those with an ulterior motive or those who do not have the self-esteem to love themselves without attempting to put others down. I could care less if you want to relax your hair, texturize your hair, or wear your naturally curly or kinky hair out, as long as you LOVE yourself. The typing system will neither make you nor break you–it’s your perception of you and whether you let other people’s perceptions influence your view of yourself. But noone can love you like you. We all need to learn to love ourselves, and eventually, the rest of the world will too. So carry on brave souls (meaning all women), do not heed what anyone tells you. Your hair is beautiful in all of its forms and all of its textures. I will shut up now. 🙂
Peace, Love, and Live Life Full,