The first time I visited Tel Aviv, I saw tall women with long, straight blonde hair at a local nightclub. I assumed they were European visitors. Nope. Not according to my Israeli cousin who took me there. He told me they were Jewish, just like us. But they don't have Jewish hair (that would be kinky), I said. Their hair is perfectly straight. He informed me there are Jewish girls who look like prototypical American cheerleaders -- naturally! This was big news to me. I'd never met a Jewish girl born with the kind of hair I spent my childhood wishing I had and my teenage years desperately trying to create.
Like the African-American girls in the next town over, I used a serious chemical straightener on my hair during my high school years. Like other girls whose blonde hair had quickly darkened to brown, I used bleach and lemon juice to go all bright-blond. All in an ultimately vain effort to conform to the "straight hair standard" Melissa Harris-Perry bemoaned a while back in a "politics of black hair" segment on her eponymous show. Every time it rained or I went swimming (I was a competitive swimmer as a youngster), it would revert back to its natural shape.
Now the Internet is all lit-up about the state of Gabby Douglas's hair when she just won Olympic gold: "A young black woman qualifies for the Olympics, wins the gold, and the main focus is... her hair?" writes Lauren McEwen for The Root.
As Harris-Perry talked that day with her African-American women guests about relaxers and chemicals, I remembered waking up one morning when I was in high school after a night spent bleaching and straightening to find my hair falling out. It was like rubber bands. If I pulled on a hair, it just came out -- completely. So, believe me, I understand trying to get rid of "kinky."
Fact is, I've had a non-stop crash course in kinky hair my whole life long. That's why I just finished cheering for Gabby, who didn't let anything stop her, much less the state of her hair or the politics of it.
Huffington Post commentator Julee Wilson called Harris-Perry's "teachable moment" that day a crash course on 'Black Hair 101.' Later in the show, Harris-Perry and her guests talked about the oppressiveness of the "straight hair standard." Been there. Done that. Know that. "Combing through the politics of black hair," they talked about the fear of the swimming pool and the beach and the workout. Been there, too. Done that, too. Know that one, too.
Harris-Perry went on to explain to us why some African-American women wear a silk scarf to bed -- as a way to protect a "straight style:" Melissa: Have you ever bound your hair around your head as tight as you can, keeping it in place with killer bobby pins, or, alternatively, sleeping sitting-up, so that the the orange juice cans can do their straightening thing? Been there. Done that. Know that one, too. The show also covered ironing and weaving. Melissa: May I introduce you to my Jewish girlfriends who weave extensions in their hair in order to be able to iron it to get it straight?
The fact is, "politicized hair follicles" grow from lots of women's heads.
The fact is, if going "natural" were good enough for any of us with kinky hair to meet our culture's WASP beauty norms, none of us would be enduring all these time-consuming (and expensive) treatments, however charming and supportive the beauty salon might be. If it were, the Gabby Douglas hair brouhaha wouldn't be happening.
Harris-Perry told us she spends eight hours getting her hair braided. She didn't say how often, but wow, even if it's just every couple of weeks! That's a significant time investment for a woman with a family and a big career. When, as Harris-Perry lectured, an African-American woman really wants to be judged -- not by the results of the beauty salon visit, but by "what's in her head, not on it" -- (hello, Gabby) -- I couldn't figure out how the eight-hour salon trips factored in, especially for someone who has proven over and over just how good what's under her head is.
It's because hair matters. Kinky black hair. Kinky Jewish hair. Kinky hair on any woman's head. Today, we learn that again. How sad.
As I'm now happily reading about Gabby Douglas, I recall the great Jewish cartoonist Nicole Hollander's book: I'm Training to Be Tall and Blonde. Hollander said it out loud in 1979, 16 years before Douglas was born. We're all still dealing with this: Enough already.
Next time Harris-Perry discusses the fact that "hair is still political," I hope she can share the story of Gabby Douglas's achievement, notwithstanding her hair, as well as stories about this shared experience for many Jewish and African-American women, women so frequently separated these days for no good reason. Meanwhile, in honor of Gabby Douglas, let's claim some sisterhood around this one. (And Melissa: Feel free to call me for the Jewish hair 101.)