Monday, June 14, 2010

Thank God I’m Natural!

This is not a review of the book of the same name. I will do that in a later post.

I just watched the much talked about documentary ‘Good Hair’ written and produced by comedian Chris Rock. I know this came out ages ago, but it was good to see it at last after all the interest it had generated – especially among natural-haired women.

"Thank God I’m natural" was all I could think at several points during the movie. In his quest to find out what the term ‘good hair’ means, Chris Rock explores the significance of hair to African-American women, how they are wearing their hair, and what, if anything, makes hair ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

Although he does not advocate wearing one’s hair in any particular way, it was noteworthy to me how the benefits of being natural glimmered through occasionally but strikingly.

For a start, he speaks with a white scientist who explains the effects of sodium hydroxide (a main ingredient of relaxers) on a can of Pepsi. After soaking in the sodium hydroxide for several hours, the body of the can has totally corroded away. When Rock mentions that Black women who relax put this compound in their hair, the scientist asks incredulously, ‘Why would they do that?’

In another scene, we see Rock speaking to a woman who is getting her hair done about the effects of relaxer on her hair. Her complaint about how relaxers burn the scalp and break the hair off is redundant, because we can clearly see that most of her hairline is gone.

That was painful to watch, because I remember those days of retouches so vividly; particularly the accompanying scabs that I’d be gingerly peeling off my scalp for the next week or so.

The documentary goes on to explore weaves as a styling option and Rock visits Chennai in India to see where the hair that constitutes the ubiquitous ‘Indian hair’ weave comes from.

I knew that much of this hair comes from unsuspecting donors, but I had no idea just how ignorant they were about where their hair would eventually end up. Some long locks are given in a religious ceremony either as a sacrifice for a closely held desire or as a thanksgiving for answered prayers. The hair, unbeknown to the donors, is sold to hair factories where it is cleaned and packaged for sale in the West as human hair weaves. In some other cases, we are told by a hair ‘expert’ (aka hair thief), that some locks are snipped off the owners’ heads while they are sleeping in a public place or at the cinema engrossed in the latest Bollywood offering. Imagine waking up to realize that your hair is gone and imagine also the curses the women would rain on whoever stole their hair! I cannot imagine sewing hair with such bad vibes into my hair.

After spending anything from $1,000 on their human hair, many women are unlikely to engage in any activity that would ruin the hair. Understandably so. But I cannot imagine returning to the days of being scared to work out (and sweat out my style), swim, get caught in the rain, enjoy the wind sweeping through my hair or in short most fun physical activities.

In one poignant scene, a group of high school students talk about how “afros are cute and all”, but how they would not take seriously anyone in a professional setting who wore their hair that way. It was sad, because it’s apparent that European ideals are looked upon as the standard of what is professional and stylish. However, what the young women did not consider was that just as with non-natural hair, there are varieties of styling options and yes, some styles do attract more attention than others. What was especially sad was that even the lone student with the afro seemed to agree that her hair was not presentable for a work setting.

I read some reviews of this documentary with the opinion that Chris Rock had the perfect opportunity to make a case for natural hair. Perhaps yes, he did, but I don’t believe that was what this film was about. It was one man’s exploration of African American women and their hair. Also, there is the tendency for the makers’ personal preferences to influence the slant of the film.

I was miffed at how Chris Rock suggested that a man might prefer a woman with natural hair, only because she’d be easier on his pocket. However, I appreciated the attempt to discover what the styling trend was among black women (note: the scene where he tries to sell nappy hair at some hair supply stores. You'd either find the reaction of the store managers hilarious or offensive.) At the same time, he failed to push further to question why straight, silky hair is the gold standard in hair styling. Nonetheless, I thought there was volume spoken in what was left unsaid.

In the end, actress Tracie Thoms eloquently summed-up most people’s attitude to natural hair: It is incredible that my decision to wear my hair the way it comes out of my head would be considered revolutionary.

And I totally concur! Women who have made the decision to remain natural really should not be looking to any source – this documentary included – for validation of their hair care choice. Like Tracie Thoms stated, you have to wear your natural hair with conviction, because there is so much pressure on you to relax.

Ultimately though, what it boils down to is that you need to make the decisions that work best for you – whether that’s to remain natural, wear a head-full of weaves or relax your hair.