Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Your hair is (probably) ugly

This is what my hair looks like naturally:
My hair is not silky. It is not smooth. It is not sleek. You cannot run your fingers through my hair without considerable effort. When I ride in a convertible with the top down, my hair hardly moves, if it moves at all. My hair lacks both luster and shine.

My hair grows wide before it grows long. On rainy days, I sport a halo of frizz. On sunny days, I also sport a halo of frizz. If I wear a hat, there is always the possibility that I will end up with some variation of a Hey Arnold hairdo. It is probable that my hair has more in common texture wise with a golden retriever's coat than it does with any model in a mainstream magazine.

I spent a lot of years struggling to learn to accept my hair. There were definitely days in elementary school when I would come home from school and cry about my hair. Its poofy. Its frizzy. It doesn't cascade or fall down my back and shoulders; it merely rests. When I was younger I went to a Jewish sleep-away camp. The girls in my cabin ritualized hairstyling. There I learned techniques on coaxing my "jew-fro" into a more secular style. When I was 13 I (embarrassingly) spent $700 to have my hair processed with a Japanese hair straightening technique. It didn't work. I still had unruly curly hair, now I just had $700 unruly curly hair.

Hair is something that societies in general ritualize, and not just the image-obsessed Western world. Some groups ritualize it formally, as with the Hindu ceremony of Chudakarana, and some less formally, exemplified by Black hair culture in the modern U.S. It is evident that, as humans, hair represents a lot more to us than just dead cells. Hair represents beauty. It represents power. Hair, or lack thereof, serves to make a statement on who we are, who we want to be, and how others to perceive us.

Whether or not this is fair doesn't necessarily matter. It is a fact with which we must contend to some degree. If we choose not to internalize the importance placed on hair, we must live knowing that others have, and it will affect how we are viewed in their eyes.

What makes this fact worse, at least for me personally, is that media has constructed a dichotomy in which one type of hair is marked as "good," and all other types are designated as lesser. Think about what you wish your hair looked like. Chances are, you probably thought of hair that is shiny, silky, and has a reasonable amount of body. The number of people I actually know with this hair texture I can count on two hands, yet this is the texture that our society has designated as the norm. This is the hair to have, and those of us who do not have this hair type are encouraged to make efforts to get as close as we can to this imaginary standard of average.

This article in Seventeen is a great example of this. The article is a special section for "Thick Waves, Frizzy Curles, or Poufy Hair." There are a lot of things in it that designate this texture of hair as wrong and "the other."

A) Implicit in the title of the article is a belief that thicker hair textures are "misbehaved."

B) Designating this article as "a special section" makes it clear that people with coarser hair are an inferior group. The rest of the magazine addresses normal hair, but frizzy hair girls are relegated to this separate section.

C) The phrase "fall in love with your texture again" implies that there was ever reason to fall out of love with thick hair. It also assumes that most readers have fallen out of love with it.

D) Must-have products include products that give hair smoothness and shine. These are not properties inherent to curly hair. These products are intended to move curly haired girls closer to "average" hair texture, and away from naturally curly styles.

E) Not a single style on this page embraces the natural hair texture of any of these people. All of these styles require blow drying/curling iron/flat iron (except maybe the braid). The bottom of the page is a literal manual on how to make your hair NOT look like its curly. AND every single person on this page is White, thus completely ignoring the fact that non-White readers exist/have hair concerns they may want addressed.

As an experiment I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to do a hairstyle from the normal non-"horrible-and-frizzy-and-totally-unsexy" section. This took me about two hours.

Frankly, I think this hairstyle looks like a community theater left the stage door open and the understudy from Annie escaped. I'm going to sleep on it. I will see how it fares tomorrow.

For some good examples of the "normal" phenomenon in beauty, check out this post on Sociological Images.