Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Water, Weaves and Womanist Woes

“She hath more hair than wit.”
--William Shakespeare
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”

is your hair still political
tell me
when it starts to burn
--Audre Lorde

Recently, a white friend and I were discussing racial stereotypes, and she mentioned one about black folks hating to swim. “I don’t know about that one,” I said. “I can wade just as well as anybody else. My hair, on the other hand, has issues with water.”

This stereotype, like most, embodies a kernel of truth. When I was a freshman in high school, I had to take swimming for a semester. While Kate, Beth and Kristy were frolicking in the pool, I was watching by the water’s edge. I loved swimming, but hated wearing a latex cap. It made my already big head look extraterrestrial, and further enforced the notion that I was “different.” Rob, a cute Italian kid with a crooked nose (whom I was secretly crushing on), shined a spotlight on my discomfort. “Why don’t you get in the water?” he asked. “Is it because your hair will get really messed up, and it will take a really long time to fix?” My blonde and brunette classmates glanced at me with pitying smiles, as if I had a hair handicap.

Most black women with chemically processed or straightened hair struggle with The Water Issue. Rain, perspiration, even steam from a cup of herbal tea can derail the “every two weeks” maintenance schedule. At age ten, I underwent the black girl's rite of passage - a home kiddie perm – and with few exceptions, have been wearing my hair straightened since then. As a woman who likes to consider herself conscious, I’m constantly reminded that straight hair connotes conformity with European standards of beauty. bell hooks believes that since sisters have such a variety of natural hair choices available (dreads, ‘fros, locks, etc), straight hair should be worn only in times of emergency. “Practically speaking, a lot of black women learned to prefer straightened hair, to see it as better because it took less time,” hooks says. “Is this another ‘survival strategy’ carried over into contemporary black life that is no longer needed?" But more on hair politics later.

The Water Issue has me in the midst of a coif crisis. In January, I took my first Bikram yoga class and loved it. Despite the nausea and headaches I suffered from doing asanas in a room heated to 105 degrees, my body was getting a much-needed detox. I wasn’t too worried about the copious amount of sweat that Bikram produces because I had a hair appointment the following day. However, if I decided to do “hot yoga” on a regular basis – which I had been seriously considering – what in the world would I do with my ‘do?

Black women have to get creative with ours. We don’t wear hairstyles; we perform them. Maybe this is why so many sisters skip the gym in favor of the salon. Any woman who has ever spent upwards of three hours in a beauty shop, to be fried, dyed, and laid to the side, looks askance at any activity that would mess up her mane. Hair as performance art aside, I know that I need to exercise, to break a sweat for at least 30 minutes each day. To combat The Water Issue, I’ve been weighing three options:

1. To Weave or Not to Weave?
Even though I went as long as I could without “selling out,” I got my first weave when I moved to California in 1996. A woman named Angel, who boasted Toni Braxton and Janet Jackson as clients – performed the three-hour process in the basement of her South Central home. I had fourteen inches of some poor Indonesian woman’s tresses sewn into my real hair (discreetly braided underneath), and I was grinning in the mirror as if I’d just discovered the next best thing to the hot comb. I was instantly in love.

Weaves are back with a vengeance – longer, bolder, bulkier. Sisters sport them with pride, like neo-Afros in search of a revolution. Although I might have my stylist glue in a track or two for “special occasions,” wearing someone else’s hair presents a whole nother set of enigmas for me. For one, long hair is still privileged in our society, as evidenced by cover girls Beyoncé and Tyra, and the video vixens who populate your garden-variety rap video. Although I don't want to buy (no pun intended) into this mindset, I can’t deny the “benefits” I received with extensions hanging down to my bra strap: Men open doors for you and zip across three lanes of traffic on the 405 to holler. Once when I was idling at a stoplight, two Latinos pulled up next to my car. The passenger leaned out and told me my hair was beautiful. I wonder if he’d have the same sentiments about my real hair.

I can’t knock another sister’s hustle, but a weave – and her silky cousin, the lacefront wig -- represents an escapist fantasy for me, a Third World Rapunzel locked in an ivory tower. Some purists might argue that the straightened, highlighted tresses I now sport are also escapist and as ideologically removed from my nationalist beliefs as bleaching cream. This brings me to my second hairstyle option.

2. The Braid-y Bunch
I must admit, The Water Issue became a non-issue when my hair was safely ensconced in cornrows or twists. I could fulfill my tribal obligations and walk in the rain at the same time. When I vacationed in Hawaii a few summers ago, I even surfed.

The downside of wearing braids: I hate the way I look. My forehead feels naked and lonely with cornrows, and I get lost in the synthetic jungle of individual braids. On a purely superficial level: I get less play from the brothers. On one dating Web site where I posted pictures taken of me in Oahu, one man commented that I was “incredibly average” with braided hair. Not that his words should be taken to heart, but that’s exactly how I see myself. I don’t feel an affinity toward the Motherland when my hair is braided. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, braids are more functional than familial, a trendy token of nationalism, like green, black and red medallions and kente cloth.

At the most, I could wear braids for a month to jumpstart my exercise regimen, but they don’t represent the real me. That leaves my third and final option.

3. Shorn Again
At age 11, I spent the entire summer indoors. The reason? A botched relaxer caused my hair to shed in clumps. Being the pragmatist that she is, my mother cut off all but an inch of my hair and gave me a jheri curl. June, July and August were wasted behind my screen door, as I moped about wearing a plastic cap like an extra from Car Wash. When school started in the fall, my classmates taunted me for looking like a boy, and I swore I’d never wear my hair short again.

Never say never. The fab 90s found divas like Jada Pinkett rocking cropped, texturized ‘dos, and showing the world that short is sexy. I did my part in the style revolution, albeit with a cute Halle Berryesque cut. Although I was still clinging to the straight texture like a badge of honor, I had to give myself props for finally parting with my shoulder-length tresses.

Cutting my hair off, and letting it grow out naturally, is a style option I have toyed with for a long time for several reasons. One, it symbolizes rebirth and renewal. It also connects me to an enlightened body of womanist warriors whom I admire and whose footsteps I strive to walk in, among them Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Pearl Cleage, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, and Ntozake Shange – all of whom wear natural styles.

As India.Arie sings, I am not my hair. I shouldn’t be my hair, but I am my hair. The more I try to untangle myself from my tresses, the more they become interwoven into my identity. So what if I keep an umbrella in the back seat of my car in southern California where it never rains? So what if I have to spend three hours at home wetsetting, mousseing, manipulating, braiding and unbraiding my hair to evoke a “natural” style? So what if some white women “pet” me whenever I rock a new look, and ask how often I wash my hair? I wouldn’t trade in my naps for the world.

This is the option I have chosen to combat The Water Issue: Grudgingly, I will wrap my pressed hair in two scarves, like I’m on my way to do day work, and go hit the StairMaster. The scarf does a sufficient job of protecting the ends of my hair, but my roots always get damp. As a result, I’ll be walking around with two different textures until my next appointment. I haven’t decided what I’ll do about Bikram, though. No amount of head wrapping will prevent pressed hair from morphing into a baby Afro in the sauna that is hot yoga. I guess I will have to create my own style. Yogi Hair. Yes, I’ll definitely have to look into that.


Darryl said...

as the former captain of my high school swim team, swim, nicole swim... it's the 21st century, so don't be bogged down with 20th century paradigms. create your own paradigm.

Visions of Vida said...

Darryl, you broke the stereotype! To keep it real, it's probably easier for black men to indulge in worry-free swimming -- unless, of course, they're rocking kiddie perms or jheri curls -- than black women. I'm trying to create my own paradigms, but it's a process. Thanks for the support!

Ernessa T. Carter said...

Nicole... if it makes you feel any better, I can't swim either for fear that the bottom of my dreads will become untwisted and I'll have a small, unattractive afro layer, until I retwist.

Great blog, though. My permed sister does the scarf thing when she hits the gym. And when I'm there, I see a ton of other black women in scarves. So that sounds like the option to me ... though you know you could always rock dreads. Length and prestige, baby. ;)

Wendi said...

Gracefully written piece. I think the problem is that the "revolution" is over-televised. Celebrity and trend has trumped real style and substance--just like The Last Poets lamented when afros were sported like weaves are today. To update you, my hair is still horrendous post-Bikram: matted to my head, orphaning my already short forehead...go swim, Nicole. I like Darryl's idea. We just can't have another Hair VS Exercise debate! --xo

jnetsworld said...

Princess Nicole,

I had NO idea that your tresses are sometimes at the helm of your choices. I think you're beautiful all the time whether you're doing the straight, braid, or scarf thing. I never think of you as "average". Girl, you've got style and attitude. Wear that with more pride than your hair style and I think you'll find everyone head over heels charmed by your SOUL.

I can't wait to see you create a yogi style. Lead the way and start a trend. Heck, if you wear a scarf to bikram, I'll wear a bandana too!

toinetta said...

Woman, I do understand the hair "issue". I just learned to swim and it was my ritual to deep condition and wear a cap -- which kept my hair surprisingly dry.

You know my solution to all hair woes -- my trademark lady sings da blues bun -- all that's missing is the gardenia.

But lately, I've been rocking a curly pony extension -- setting the road for the full unbeweaveable tresses to come.

Excellent piece on the dilemma of beauty and health.

Monique said...

Nikki... you know I don't suffer from the "Water" issue because I can't swim - not drowning is more important than what my tresses look like when I get out of the water! When I exercise, a ponytail is my best friend with a little help from a flatiron. Girl, go and get your sweat on - no matter what your roots look like, you are still magnificent!

Hope said...

I think we need to get with…If our hair is straight up nappy, a little kinky, beautiful waves, or slightly thinning or balding…We need to rock our styles and be comfortable with what we have. If you are comfortable in weave rock it…if you relax it rock it…if you do the AFRO thing rock it…..The people who gave you attention before and after different lengths of hair/styles have insecurities with themselves. Avoid them like the plague.

On another note I do not perm my hair anymore… It was personal choice and I have been able to rock variety styles. I like my versatile hair. And I love it when I get reassurance from me, when they say, “Wow your hair is beautiful and you don’t have a weave”.

Lastly, when I go to gym…I pull my hair up on the top of my head so only the edges sweat. …Don’t wrap your hair it doesn’t work, the sweat from the scalp works it way down to the ends of the hair. By all means don’t wrap your hair in a do rag…let the hair breathe…It works!

One last thing…When I go on vacation…it’s purely me, my hair, and the water..no braids….just straight kinky wavy hair. I usually slick it back for the evening affairs! I am on vacation..hair and all…no time to be fooling with blowdring, pressing…or whatever!

I love to swim and have been swimming since age 7. Hopie

Tarla said...

My friend sent me this and asked me what I thought, here is my response (and excuse me for the long-winded nature of it):

Loved it. She has a captivating writing style. Puts you in a reading mood, as for the hair issue I have a few questions as to why BLACK PEOPLE are always the point of reproach for things that everyone does? Shall I begin?

1. When white girls straighten their hair what are they trying to be?

2. When white girls curl their hair what are they trying to be?

3. When white boys shave their heads what are they trying to be?

4. When white people tan what are they trying to be?

5 When white kids use street vernacular what are they trying to be?

6. When white boys rock dreds what are they trying to be?

7. When Asian kids listen to rap music what are they trying to be?

And the list goes on, my point? Why the hell would we be trying to be anyone else when everyone is trying so damned hard to be us. lol. I must say I press my hair, I cornrow my hair, I pull my cornrows out and just wear it all over sometimes. I press my hair and people think my hair is weaved. Stopped perming about 4 years ago and now it's to my bra strap. One time when I wore it wavy after taking the braids out, I was in a restaurant, and this older Black lady comes up to me and asked me where I buy my hair from because she has been looking for that same texture, I told her that it was my hair.

Do you know that woman actually put her fingers in my hair because she thought I was lying. Black people sometimes are worst than white folks when it comes to matters of hair. We look too deep into things that are superficial. There is this musician that came out a couple of years back called Donnie he had this song called cloud nine (speaking on his afro) and it's very deep. If we were more concerned with the beauty of the mind and not what's growing above it, Lord the places we could go...it's okay to take care of you but when looks are more important than books...Fill in the blanks.

sylvanita said...


Two days ago I spent 40 minutes on the elliptical and refused to look at myself in the mirror as I left the gym. In the past few years I've ramped up the exercise and found my hair paying the price. Girl hair will grow back, dry out and curl again but your fly funky detoxed body is forever!

I don't believe there is such a thing as a "natural" hair style, once you decide to run a comb through your locks you are altering its original state. So let's stop fooling ourselves, short, long, permed, frosted, unpermed, the hair is just the crown of the glory that is you.

Visions of Vida said...

Ladies, thank you for ALL the wonderful words of support and hair tips. Tomorrow, I will be hauling my butt out of bed at 5 in the a.m. to get back on the elliptical machine. As Sylvanita wisely noted, my "fly funky detoxed body is forever!" Peace and hair grease!