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curly hair and history


Full article here.


Pardon the topic switch (it’ll all make sense in a paragraph or two), but I have naturally curly hair. As Lorraine Massey’s book Curly Girl explains and most curly-haired women can tell you from personal experience, stylists are trained to cut “against the curl”, which explains why until recently no stylist at any price ever gave me a good cut unless I was straightening. They also give you precisely the wrong advice for your hair, which is emphatically not “just like straighter hair.” In fact it’s so different, Massey says you should never shampoo - there are better ways to get your hair and scalp clean that don’t damage your hair.

Why would stylists ignore the curly market? You wouldn’t know it from looking at the media, but we are nearly a majority. Why not cater to us? (I finally found a curly-haired stylist who can cut my hair properly, and I’m paying her handsomely for her work, and I’m glad to do it.)

As Massey points out, it’s a side effect of Western racism. Curly hair belongs to Africans, whom we once saw fit to enslave. It belongs to the Irish (that’s me), who were fit only for unsafe cheap labor, and loathed for “taking jobs from” the good, straight-haired white people. It belongs to Jews, resented because they keep thriving no matter what people do to them. There’s a longterm association of curly hair with groups of people Anglos want “kept down”, who make trouble if you don’t make sure they know their place. Ignoring their differences from you can be as effective as highlighting them. Curly-haired women are often made to feel unfashionable, weird, unwanted. And straightening isn’t as simple a solution as you think. It’s expensive, damaging, time-consuming, and always, always, always the curl lurks just around the corner, waiting for the slightest humidity (or whatever your hair’s trigger is) to revert to its true nature.

So ego is part of it - part of the industry’s belief it’s we curlies who are wrong, not the industry. That we should change by straightening, not the industry that should change by accepting the facts and adapting to the customer.

But ego’s not all of it. I really don’t believe stylists understand that they don’t understand what curly hair needs. Years ago, people learned trades through apprenticeships; decades ago, X years of experience on the job could equal a college degree in a field. Now we’re all so dependent on school, even vocational school, which causes us to skip the thinking process, as if stuff we learn at school represents the whole of human knowledge and all we need to do is memorize it. If it didn’t come up in your Vidal Sassoon class, it can’t exist. Even though it seems to exist right in front of you, you know it can’t, or Vidal would’ve mentioned it.

Despite Massey’s book, the hair care industry still largely fails to get it. If they suddenly acknowledge curly hair really is different (duh!) then holy shit, suddenly everyone needs remedial classes. Vidal Sassoon’s training suddenly looks pretty stupid. What a pain in the ass! Can’t we just pretend there’s nothing new to learn, no matter who it hurts, and sit back and feel good about ourselves? Ego and laziness - the intrepid supervillain team! ###

BetaCandy makes some interesting points and, as someone who has severe cowlicks and thin, fine, low-volume hair and therefore can't style it to save her life, it's not just curly-haired people who suffer at the hands of beauticians. They can make my hair look good for one day but then it turns to shit again. Oh well. (Incidentally, Elizabeth Moon is the only author I've ever encountered who wrote a heroine with bad hair. Hair care does not come naturally to women and not everyone has wonderful hair.)

But, more importantly and far more to the point, discrimination suffered by curly/kinky-haired people was not just about ego. It was also about economics. Blacks, Irish, and Jews do not make up a really large portion of our entire society. Blacks are only about 10% of America's population, for example. Those businessmen who discriminated against black people were not just doing it because they wanted to feel better or safer than anyone else. It was also because if they went ahead and served the 10% of the population they were screwing over, they could potentially lose 50% of their customers. That was their fear.

Of course that didn't happen, at least in the long-run, but it doesn't mean that they didn't have the fear. Back then they didn't have as many big-box stores as they have now. Most businesses were local. You lose your clientele, your store closes and you can't feed your children. If anyone thinks this fear did not have some form of authentic basis, look at the mobs of pissed-off white people who harassed the Little Rock kids, or the screaming, rabid crowds that protested in Boston during the busing ruling.

It is important, if you want to understand racism, to understand the viewpoints of the people who discriminated against other people. "How could they do this??" has to be understood if such a thing is ever going to truly end. Back then, especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a white person could easily be lynched or shot for helping a black person. Some of the freedom riders in the 1960s were shot or otherwise seriously injured. Helping a black person in any way could be an extreme act of bravery. We just don't see that very often any more, in part because our society is less sick than it used to be, so we (esp. white people) have a hard time really understanding racism. But it wasn't just ego that kept storekeepers from serving blacks. It was, in a lot of places, the understood cost to themselves and their families.

Not an excuse, just a reason. Though I'd like to point out that it's very easy for us to say "well, they should have got up the guts to help black people." No one's pointing guns at our heads.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 9th, 2008 10:14 pm (UTC)
Hi! I followed your link back through my website stats - hope you don't mind me chiming in.

You're right, losing the (bigoted) clientele was part of it, too. (Which I attribute to ego, but then I'm tracing the economics back to ego too, so it's not IMO that one of us is right and the other wrong, but two ways of looking at/stating the same thing, both of which are important in different contexts).

I did want to make one interesting point, however. It sounds like you have "severe cowlicks" but don't think you're curly? Cowlicks ARE curl. You may never have Shirley Temple curl, but my point is we're trained to think of straight as the default, like white is the default. In fact, more people have at least SOME wave and curl than not. But because we're all taught those straight-hair techniques which break down curl, we don't realize it.

Example: when I was a kid, my mom styled my hair like a straight-haired person (the only way she knew). At the age of 14, I had an appointment for my first perm scheduled when I went swimming and didn't dry it afterwards and suddenly - BOOM - all this lovely natural curl happened on my head. My friends and I were all "WTF is that?" I canceled the perm appointment!

So there are some politics going on there, too, in making us assume we have straight hair unless our hair is so unruly kinky curly that you can't possibly deny it's curly.
Jul. 9th, 2008 10:36 pm (UTC)
Hi! No problem; it's a public entry. (Though I sure am glad I attributed everything!) I was concerned at first that you were mad at me due to the birdie in the icon but you don't sound mad. I'm not in copyright violation, am I?

I should clarify - all the cowlicks are on one side of my head. The other side is straight. It all pulls out when my hair is long, but my hair looks wretched when long. If I cut it, I end up with weird hair. I've been really tempted to just perm the whole thing and have done with it.

I quoted the whole section on curly hair because I think it would be of interest to my friends with curly hair who might not read Hathor Legacy. Thanks for writing the article. :)

You're right about straight hair being the norm, and it being political. At some southern polling places, in the past, people had to pass the comb test. This was really unfair for blacks, southern europeans, and other people with curly hair. A lot of italians were disqualified from voting this way. Also, because straight hair is the norm, my beauticians always blow-dry the hell out of my hair to straighten it. I literally have no idea how to manage my hair. I wish I did - my hair is a great color and I hate being self-conscious about it.

I'm a US-minorities history grad student and as such I tend to focus on history when I write about anything. You are right that we're coming at the same thing from different contexts.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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