Originally posted at PostBourgie on May 20, 2009.
Here at PostBourgie, slb’s written about the Emmy-winning Tyra show. And I’ve written about nappy hair. So, when the Tyra show does an episode on nappy hair, it’s only natural that we post about that, too.
The online black hair communities have been in heated discussion about the episode since before it aired on May 12. Stop by Nappturality, Afrobella, Black Hair Media, and a couple dozen hair blogs, and you’ll find women (and some men) who have plenty to say about the episode, about Tyra, and about good and bad hair.
For those of you who don’t know what ‘good’ hair is, and didn’t want to sit through this instructional video, here’s my understanding of it: curly, satiny smooth, shiny hair that can be combed relatively easily. ‘Bad’ hair is thick, will break a comb, doesn’t shine, can be rough to the touch if not moisturized adequately, and is so coily that it doesn’t appear to have discernible curl pattern — this type of hair is often called ‘nappy.’ (For the record, I don’t think of ‘nappy’ as a negative or positive word, I use it as a neutral adjective.)
I have to give props to Ms. Banks, who somehow managed to make this episode not about her, like she usually does. Of course, considering she is usually bewigged or beweaved, I suppose it’s not surprising. As Tracie wrote at Jezebel: “TyTy’s stance on the hair issue was confusing, since she’s just about the weaviest person on the planet; in fact, she regularly gives white women weaves on America’s Next Top Model.” Were Tyra to turn the question of natural hair on herself, what could she really say? Nothing much, it turns out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One segment of the show featured a group of young girls, including a biracial child whose white mother relaxes and weaves up her 8-year-old scalp. And each story was more heartbreaking. One little girl, with the cutest, bounciest twists and little barrettes, only feels pretty when she’s covering her neat twists with a long, blonde, matted and plasticky Hannah Montana wig. Another mixed child, whose mother purposely only dates men who aren’t black, for fear of passing down bad hair, believes that nappy hair is an indicator of ‘lower class.’ All of the girls pointed to a nappy headed mannequin as the one with ‘bad’ hair.
Now, obviously, talk shows trade in extremes. We know that hair issues are more often insidious, and aren’t always indicated by women who claim that their hair is ‘higher quality’ than other black women, because they have ‘the white girl flow’ (a.k.a. straight hair that’s sleek and bouncin’ and behavin’ and is often only achieved by a biweekly trip to the hair dresser).
My father always hated relaxed hair on me. Unfortunately, the one time he was in charge of my hair was when I was a nappy two-year-old. My mother was in Jamaica at the time, and Dad couldn’t figure out what to do with my hair, so he chopped it off (instead of, say, asking his mother or one of his sisters for help). After that incident, he was barred from all hair decisions and had to accept whatever my mother deemed most convenient, which was a relaxer. Now, while there was never talk of good or bad hair in my home, ‘I need a perm’ was a phrase I said or heard every 6-8 weeks, like clockwork. Even my sister, who has the silky, loosely curly hair that many would deem ‘good,’ thought she needed one. Years later, when, with the help of my flat iron, I had mastered ‘the white girl flow,’ or, ‘whipped’ hair, as we said at HU, I never would’ve disparaged naturals, but I still thought mine was the most attractive look.
When one woman on the show suggested that black Americans chemically straightening their hair was simply the next step in genetic evolution, Tyra tried, and sorta succeeded, at being a moderator. She was fuzzily pro-natural, but nonthreatening. When another chemically straightened woman defended her choice to not introduce her newly nappy (and adorable) daughter to others, calling it a symptom of her ‘adjusting’ to her daughter’s appearance, Tyra did call b.s., and asked whether the woman was ‘adjusting’ or ‘ashamed.’ She didn’t outright criticize the ‘good hair’ advocates, aside from expressing concern to the woman who relaxes her three-year-old’s hair with harsh chemicals.
I found that segment particularly appalling, and not just because the mother was doing it wrong (you only apply the cream to the NEW growth, lady, not to the whole head). What I find most problematic is that the girl is being indoctrinated with ‘who you are isn’t good enough’ before she can read, by the one person in the world who should make her feel like who she is, is just perfect. And on the opposite end of the scale, there was a woman who refused to cut her daughter’s butt-length hair, even though the little girl was desperate for it to be cut because she was constantly being teased about it. Tyra managed to reinforce the long hair = pretty hair stereotype, by trying to make the child feel better by complimenting her on it. In that situation, it was pretty obvious that the mother was tying her daughter’s (and possibly her own) worth to how long her hair was.
Tyra’s conclusion was a weaksauce call for ‘choice.’ I don’t say that because women shouldn’t have the choice to do with their hair what they want, but because the aspect of choice was never addressed in the show. The participants came off as pathological or abrasive. And at the end, Tyra did this weird bit about us understanding what informs our choices, which was clearly self-referential, and seemed to be a half-hearted attempt to address her dependence on the lacefront wig.
Forty minutes isn’t long enough to tackle the complex relationship black women have with their hair. Ideally, a few men would have been included in the discussion, because hair issues aren’t just passed down from mother to daughter, and women aren’t the only ones worried about good hair (true story: I once dated a guy who kept one do-rag in his apartment, one in his gym bag, and one in his car, plus, he carried a boar bristle brush at all times so he’d never be caught without shiny waves). And black men are often the first ones to decry a woman chopping: “why would you want to cut off all that pretty hair?” I’ve even heard men claim that a woman’s long hair is the source of her beauty and femininity. If you spend enough time on the hair boards, you’ll encounter thread upon thread of women who are desperate for advice on how to deal with their boyfriends, husbands, brothers, and fathers who hate their nappy hair.
Overall, however, I think Tyra handled the topic admirably. As I told UniverseExpanding when we discussed the contradiction of the most unbeweavable woman, ever, doing a show on natural hair: anyone who suggests that hair straightening isn’t the only option for black women gets an A in my book. There are literally millions of black women in this country who have never even considered giving up their appointment with the relaxer or the hotcomb. I was one of them for a long, long time.