A friend of a friend of mine a while back was lamenting why her natural hair did not look like X celebrity she really liked. That celeb’s hair was so big, thick and full, the curls so dynamic and bouncy. What products could this celeb be using? Was there a twist-out technique she could use to get the same effect?
I told her, “Girl, that is a wig.”
She did not initially believe me. But I pointed out there was no way this celeb, who was almost rocking a baldy the year prior, was now suddenly blowing in the breeze with Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” glory.
Her response to this realization was a mix of confusion and horror. She had grown used to women augmenting their straight hair with weaves and wigs, but natural hair? That could be faked, too? It was like finding out those people in Alabama didn’t really see a leprechaun.
But considering how fashion already presents women with impossible beauty standards for their butt, boobs, waistline and straight hair, would curly hair really be immune?
Of course not.
All my life, people have made a big deal about my hair, but in almost every situation, the hair they gushed over was not my “real hair.” I have never, ever “woke up like dis.” My hair—while strong, long and my dominant feature—is a carefully crafted myth that can easily be shattered by stuff like “the wind,” “water” or “the scarf fell off while I was asleep.”
All hair manipulation—whether it’s your hair or someone else’s—renders it otherworldly. I created my hair mythology because it was expected of me. It is expected of every black woman, and it is a pain in the ass. Going natural does not spare you of it, since your curly hair is compared with that of biracial women or women wearing realistic-looking Afro wigs. Loose, bouncy curls? Good. My frizzy, “Good Lord, what are you mixed with? An Arabian horse and a Brillo pad” hair? Bad.
Even with all my length and thickness, my hair could not turn into the hair of a biracial woman with a curly weave. It is not possible. That hair is a lie, a lie meant to give natural hair all the same anxieties as straight hair. It’s a standard set for you to fail against. Another beauty battlefield to die upon.
There are other lies: That your lack of “willpower” is the only thing keeping you from being skinny. That you can get booty injections for $500 that won’t also kill you. That you can wear impossible, beautiful shoes and have perfect feet. That you can somehow stay a size 4 without working out or ruining your hair.
All lies. But the natural lie hurts initially because so many people become attracted to natural hair out of the false promise that it will free them from the “stress of straight” and “the tyranny of the permed majority.” It’s outsider art for someone born on the inside of the European beauty standard, a way to embrace yourself with pride.
Until you realize your curly expectations don’t match your “You’re supposed to look like the old-school Hawaiian Silky logo” realities.
I never wanted straight hair. As a kid, I had an obsession with both Annie and wanting my hair to be a mass of ringlets. After spending most of my permed teen years in hard, plastic rollers, sitting under hair dryers trying to achieve the look, it finally occurred to me that—allegedly —my natural hair was curly. Could I finally have the spirals I wanted without spending four hours under a dryer?
Ha-ha, no. But I tried anyway.
Casting off the tyranny of “big perm,” I went natural in 2000. Almost immediately, I realized I’d traded one overlord for another. For starters, I had no clue what my natural texture was or how to style it. I had visions of 1996 Rachel True in my head, but what I got was the Brillo pad-horsehair combo that made every stylist I had curse under their breath:
Ha-ha-ha. You don’t look like Joan from Girlfriends at all.
At one point, I put one of those curl relaxer kits in it. But even with that, my hair still needed two pounds of conditioner to get that Tracee Ellis Ross swag. I cut all my hair off, yet again, and started over, eventually perfecting a twist-out that only (ha-ha) involved about four hours of work every weekend and about 35 minutes of work every night for maintenance. Loved the results. Hated the work.
There is no easy way out when it comes to beauty. If someone looks “effortlessly” pretty, I promise you that a great deal of effort was spent on it. This now includes all kinds of gorgeous natural hair—real and fake. But no one should despair. Knowing, as GI Joe cartoons used to tell me, is half the battle. I know that fake hair is not my friend or enemy, bad or good, but simply the reality of African-American women contending with beauty expectations forced upon us by callous Madison Avenue advertising executives and about a quarter of black men who say stuff like, “I don’t care if your hair is curly or straight, I just want you to wear your real hair,” and then chase after nothing but chicks who can pass Yung Berg’s “pool” test.
These days I wear a blowout and hide from rain. I do this because I am lazy and just want to twist my hair up in a ponytail bun and never, ever think about it. I still covet curly hair. I still wish I could have that perfect Afro. And I still like the look of a gorgeous natural hair weave, even if it is a beautiful lie.