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Perhaps one of the worst kept secrets in the United States is the amount of money black women spend on their hair. I was once a slave to that multi-billion dollar industry, so I can testify how people have literally built fortunes on a societal construct that caused black women to do whatever it took to get their hair ‘right’. I started perming my hair at the age of 13 because I was tired of getting my ears singed by the family straightening comb. It would never do to walk around with the natural hair God gave you…..”nappiness” was the equivalent of four letter words that were not allowed in my household, neighborhood or the world in general.
We had all bought into the Madison Avenue version of what beautiful hair looked like. It was long, flowing, straight, unkinky, ‘manageable’ locks that men could run their fingers through with ease. To have anything less meant that you weren’t beautiful….of course, none of this was spoken. It didn’t need to be. All one needed to do was to visit the neighborhood beauty salons, check out the neighborhood beauty supply stores and they would have their irrefutable answer.
Even black men were not immune to this reality. Before the depression, black men began to chemically alter their hair using something called congolene. In order to ‘conk’ your hair, this chemical had to be quickly applied to the hair with protective gloves and rinsed out immediately because it was made of LYE. To this day, you will find some who use texturizers to straighten and give their hair a wavy texture.
So, it was with great interest that I found that black hair care is an epic business in Paris. I was walking to the Hotel Paradis and noticed quite a few young black men standing across the street. We were tired and dragging our luggage and politely refused when each and every one of the guys asked us to please come into their shop. I was curious as to what the fuss was about and I noticed that each shop was, in fact, a beauty shop. I kid you not, each store without exception, was a beauty shop on either side of the entire city block. I couldn’t help thinking that it was the equivalent of a carnival barker egging you on to come inside and check out the show. For some reason, I felt uneasy about it. Later as I walked the city streets, I could see evidence of what those ‘beauty shops’ crafted. There were black women walking around with ridiculous amounts of fake hair that were poorly woven and multi-colored. It was not a good look.
However, nothing was more repugnant than when I happened upon a store called Fair & White. After checking their website, their main claim to fame is providing skin lighteners and bleaching creams to “all races and skin types”. Yet, if you venture to their site, there are only black models there….no other races (although there appears to be a fondness for bleaching cream in Asia as well). While it is true that black skin can be prone to discoloration (one of the reasons why they claim to exist) prolonged use of these so-called remedies is harmful. Nevertheless, this is not a new problem. Bleaching creams have been a staple in the black community for the same messed up reasons mentioned above. White skin is exalted in most cultures and if it means putting your health at risk with the use of potentially carcinogenic hydroquinone, clobetasol, and mercury creams, some feel it is worth the risk. Even some fashion magazines have been caught in the act of lightening the features of black actresses and entertainers.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is just a Parisian problem….this is a worldwide problem because it has created a perception that something is lacking in anyone who doesn’t possess the European standard of beauty. For those who have no concept of how damaging this ‘message’ is to the psyche not to mention the soul and would caution people to get over it, to learn to love themselves….it goes deeper than that. It’s so deeply ingrained into the person who is affected that it will take more than good thoughts and positive energy to dig out from that quagmire.
Until the world learns and accepts that beauty covers a vast range of skin colors, hair textures, body shapes, sizes, heights….there will be people who doubt their innate beauty because there are so many compelling mediums telling them to. The only true way to escape it is to live in a bubble. That is why whenever these issues come up (and they will) someone must be at the ready to counter it. To stay silent is to give tacit approval to the damage it will and has done for centuries. Isn’t it about time we end this ridiculous practice that only serves to divide and conquer along superficial lines?
Have you come across a similar sight that gave you pause? Did you challenge it or did it leave you speechless like me?
Athena Brady says
Hi Renee, I think it is so sad that people cannot celebrate who they are; instead of changing themselves to suit popular opinion. I have curly hair my Dad was greek and Mother Irish and sometimes people say to me “Do you ever straighten your hair” my reply is “if I want a change I might but I love my curls” We are all perfect just the way we are but the world had gone mad if it judges people an how they look.
Renee King says
I know….it’s difficult to have a relatively moderate sense of self esteem. Pair that up with being told overtly and covertly that you’re undesirable and unacceptable that’s a tough fight! That’s why I think there should be counter-measures put in place by the parents who can raise children to love themselves in spite of what the majority thinks. And more importantly for advertisers to stop promoting this insanity in the first place and it wouldn’t hurt to hire models who represent a wide variety of cultures, skin tones and natural beauty.
WOW!! Fair & White? Really? I’m shocked by this, but not surprised. It’s interesting that consumption within the Black hair industry is a global phenomenon.
Renee King says
I’m seriously at the point of being unmoved by all of this foolishness. It’s so disheartening that it makes you numb. I was quite surprised to see that the black hair phenomenal is more widespread than previously thought too. I guess it just means that no matter where you are, you are affected by the larger society’s definition of beauty.
I find it fascinating that some Asians and black women want to lighten their skin (as the so-called model of perfection) while so many Caucasian women will risk skin cancer to get as tan as possible, because God forbid anyone should walk around with pasty white skin. Women starve themselves to be stick-thin because that’s all they see in the media. They risk foot pain and back problems because they won’t go out in anything but 4 inch heels, because that makes them look “cuter” and they want men to notice them. It’s pretty sad the idiotic things we do to chase superficial constructs of “beauty.”
Renee King says
There is madness all around, isn’t it Gray? You are right about the tanning….spray, temporary, darn near permanent…..I guess we are never satisfied. It’s disturbing how the beauty industry has taken hold of the feminine mind, made it pliable and doubtful and anxious to try all of the ‘remedies’ to fix what THEY said is wrong with YOU. It’s so deeply entrenched in the hearts and minds of women that things will only change on a case by case basis. If just one person steps back and questions what they’ve been force fed all of their lives, perhaps that might exact a change in that one life.
Renee King says
Precisely, women in general are always told what is WRONG with them and this is mostly spearheaded by the cosmetic industry because it is their bread and butter. And the things that are decided that are wrong with a particular population of women is what is drilled into them over and over again. It takes a very strong minded and strong willed woman to get off of this crazy train but it can be done. The thing is that you must be prepared to catch flack from all sides when you decide to march to your own drum.
Unfortunately society has ingrained in a lot of Asians that darker shades of skin are associated with being poor. If you had dark skin years ago it meant you had been working in the fields all day.
Therefore, light and white meant you were the one sending the others out to work while you stayed out of the sun all day.
My thoughts mirror those expressed here already. I live in Thailand now, originally from UK. The women in this country are bombarded with advertising for skin whiteners on every corner. Almost every product in stores include whiteners – you actively have to seek out the one which do NOT contain the bleaching agents.
Really sad to see it. I read recently that most people in Thailand are probably Vitamin D deficient. It’s that much of a problem that it actually affects people’s health on a base level.
Renee King says
Great comment, Simon! I agree with everything you’ve said. Unfortunately, that same colorism caste system exists among Blacks too….specifically American Blacks, though, I suspect it has no geographical boundaries. I pray one day everyone will realize how ridiculous this entire situation is.
Sharee Washington says
Hi Renee. I’ve recently started to let my hair to go natural. It’s been almost 5 months since my last perm. In the past few weeks, I have started to get it straighten. Yes, the straitening comb is not for those fearful of the heat, but my hair looks and feel so much better. Also, I have an upcoming trip to China, and a young lady I know asked that I buy her some “Asian hair”. She wears her hair natural, but hates the look of her real hair and always seeking to cover it up. I’m not sure what to look for, but I’m sure I won’t have any problem in Shanghai or Beijing finding what she’s looking for.
Renee King says
I’ve been natural for a little over two years. I am noticing a big trend toward natural hairstyles these days. I’m relieved because lord knows our hair could use a little break from the ‘creamy crack’ or permanents to those who are not in the know. It has caused me permanent hair loss and I finally had to get off the crazy train and leave it alone. This is my testimony and I believe that in a free world we need to make our own decisions, I just wanted people to be aware of the toll that they are putting on their ‘crowning glory’.
I was taken aback at your friend’s comment that she hates the look of her real hair. I personally think that is part of the indoctrination to convince women of color that something is wrong with their natural state. Not to inject religion into this argument (because I am not religious by ANY means!) but why would you reject the way that God made you? It’s one thing to want to experiment with different styles for your hair, it’s another to HATE the way that you were born. So much so, that she would buy bone straight Asian hair to ‘cover’ (as if there is something to be ashamed of) her naturally kinky hair. That goes deeper than just wanting to try something different or new and it makes me sad to hear it. Maybe if she took the time to care for it, she would know that there is a diversity of styles/looks for natural hair. I would recommend this site to her to get started: http://blackgirllonghair.com. It’s a site that celebrates the beauty of our natural hair.
Sharee Washington says
Thanks Renee on further insight on the topic. I too have experienced hair loss, and like to see what my hair is like “on the real”. And it’s actually growing faster than I thought possible. And I will send the link you’ve shared to my friend.
Thank you for the article, it was very interesting and for me a relief. As nearly all the black women in my family have either processed hair or wigs, neither of which I like.
I don’t have a problem with people choosing to have their hair as they like. The problem is when “society” views the processed or wig look as the “norm” . Those who do wear a natural Afro are viewed as reactionary (ie trouble) or in developing regions as in Africa, they are seen as “primitive or poor” , even worse both primitive and poor, colloquially referred to as “bush”, by the rest of society.
I was living in Australia until fairly recently. There are a few Melanesian women in Australia either from the Torres Strait Islands or from the nearby Melanesian Islands. Melanesians like Negroes have “woolly” hair and brown skin. However, the Melanesian women I saw in Australia, wore their hair naturally ie in an “Afro-style”, for added beauty some even wore flowers in their hair. I admired their self-confidence in feeling comfortable with being able go about in public without having concealed or chemically altered the nature of thier hair. They looked just as beautiful as any other women.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t do what they want with their hair. But, when someone else’s view of what is beautiful has been straight-jacketed onto us for so long that we consider it the “norm” (to walk around with “straight hair”, when for a large section of black women, straight hair is not natural. Then something is definitely wrong with our perception of ourselves. People should not be looked down upon because they choose to wear their hair in an “Afro-style.”
As for Rhonda Lee kudos to her for being brave enough to wear her hair in highly public position with confidence.
There are still women in America who wear afros and they look beautiful.
I too am thinking about going natural because I prefer natural over fake.
The last time I relaxed my hair was November 2012. My hair is beginning to thicken. I keep it moisturized and surprisingly my hair is still soft. I never wore fake hair nor wigs. Give me short short natural hair any day.
And, most of these looks issues are about women. When I was a kid women were having the very same issues. While most men walk around looking like a slug.
Fair and White I believe is a product of India. To be fair in India it is a big deal.
Oh well, I love my brown skin.
Hi Renee, this is a great article and I appreciate you for sharing. It’s sad to realize that the notion of Caucasian beauty is purported all over the world and the only beauty standard even though they are actually the minority.
I’m hoping that this post reaches many more African and African-American women who feel the sting. Sadly it’s 2013 and we’re still dealing with the self-hate. Fortunately, the Natural hair movement is growing and will definitely liberate a lot of our sisters from hair bondage!
I agree with the tone of this article. However, let us not forget about fellow black men who also go through the hassle of taming their hair and being limited in what they do with it. Both black men and women have it the most difficult with regards to being able to express their natural beauty as we live in a westernized world. Luckily, more and more of them are waking up and seeing that showing your own beauty is the way to go through life! 🙂
i would say that color doesn’t matter at all, at least for me, when people do have different languages, cast and creed so why not color? and not to forget its not our choice it is very much given by God and God doesn’t make mistakes. I believe we all are beautiful in our way, we don’t have to judge anyone by their color its just who we are. we all are very much same from inside 🙂
I believe that every one of us is created with perfection. It is just wrong perception that we make when we are identified beauty with a single general jargon like white, tall, blonde and etc. Just try to be proud of who we are. By the way, nice post to read
I saw the Fair & White storefront when in Paris a few months ago and it stopped me in my tracks. The fact that the tagline was “No1 beauty store for women of colour” just left me offended and speechless. I was just google searching to prove that this exists to a friend of mine and came across this article. People need to embrace who they are. No more negative self-talk and stop people from putting themselves down. We are beautiful ladies! Own it!
I would like to say that this problem is beyond cultural backgrounds. It appears that Hollywood has waged a beauty war against us all. Beige women have to be tanned and thin all the time, brown women are told our hair isn’t straight enough (that is changing as we speak) as more and more women and might I add, not just black women are using natural hair care and less bleach/dye. While it is still upsetting on so many levels, I am equally happy to see that women are moving past this ungodly, unrealistic , made up standard of beauty.