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Kenneth L. Hardin: Hair shouldn’t define Black women

By Kenneth L. Hardin

“Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person? Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend? Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?” I would have to say no to those questions posed lyrically in the 2006 hit song, “I Am Not My Hair,” by artist India Arie. 

I’ve never really given women’s hair much thought, but it seems lately I’ve been thrust into the world of Black hair care. As I look back on when my hair virgin-like innocence was lost, I now understand this goes deeper than I realized.

I appreciate the time and effort Black women put into their hair. I love a sister who takes pride in making sure her dome is as tight as the shoes on her feet. Yes, beauty stylists are true American heroes. I know people who go to the beauty shop more than they go to the doctor, but I don’t judge.

I visited a local shop recently. After entering, I stood silent, marveling at the expanse of shelves of supplies and folks shopping like it was a Black Friday sale. As I walked down each aisle, taking in the various products, I got caught up in the weave game and stood there even more amazed. I was mesmerized by the number of bags of pressed and sealed hair hanging on shelves. As I saw women grabbing bags and even little children holding them, Arie’s words rang through my head, “Little girl with the press and curl. Age eight, I got a Jheri curl. Thirteen, and I got a relaxer. I was a source of so much laughter at fifteen when it all broke off. Eighteen and went all natural. February 2002, I went on and did what I had to do because it was time to change my life, to become the woman I am inside. ‘97, dreadlocks all gone, looked in the mirror for the first time and saw that hey, I am not my hair.” Sadly, society forces you to be your hair and ties your identity and value to it. 

There have been several instances where young sisters participating in sports have been forced to cut their hair to conform to rules. In Durham back in April, a 16-year-old Black softball player was told by an umpire she violated game rules because he was unable to see her uniform number due to her braided hairstyle. She was forced to cut her hair mid game in order to continue to play. She said, “I felt humiliated and disrespected. My hair means a lot to me.” Yes, this society tries to determine who you are by how you look. 

I overheard a young sister saying she had put both bleach and a relaxer in her hair, causing it to all fall out. So many are playing a deadly Russian roulette game with their health trying to achieve hair perfection. A recent, 25-year study conducted at Boston University found the long-term use of lye-based hair straightening products may increase the risk of breast cancer among sisters. Black women who used hair products containing lye at least seven times a year for 15 years or more had a 30% increased risk of breast cancer compared to those who didn’t.

I came late to the party, but I eventually showed up and watched the 2009 Chris Rock documentary, “Good Hair.” My mouth dropped open even wider as he explored the world of Black hair from all angles. What angered me most was how, although Blacks are the biggest consumers in the multi-billion-dollar beauty industry, we own very little in the game. Rock posed a good question of what constitutes good hair, and why it’s the ultimate goal. Arie said, “Good hair means curls and waves (no). Bad hair means you look like a slave (no).”  Director Spike Lee exposed this sad silliness contrived from mainstream societal expectations 33 years ago with his hit movie, “School Daze.” Even sadder, little girls who are 6-12 years old are enduring the burn of a relaxer without even knowing why.  

I’m astounded at how so many tie their value and self-worth to what their hair looks like. This madness needs to stop; it has to stop. What psychological damage are we inflicting upon ourselves in order to achieve a beauty ideal that’s foreign to who we truly are? Why do we continue to give economic support to a system that depends on us to sustain it, but shuts us out from enjoying any of the financial rewards?

We need to listen to and heed Ms. Arie’s words, “I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am the soul that lives within

Kenneth L. Hardin is a writer, a former Salisbury City Council member and is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.  

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