A (Ridiculous) Case for Conformity.


Latoya goes in on the second (yes, second) absurd Allison Samuels piece in Newsweek complaining about Zahara Jolie-Pitt’s “wild and unstyled, uncombed and dry” hair. In her pieces, Samuels argues that the “bonding” experience black girls have with their mothers while getting their scalps greased and hair braided is invaluable, and that having their hair “well-managed” provides girls with “pride, dignity, and self-respect.”

After pointing out that though the Ethiopian-born Zahara is black, she’s not African American, and isn’t living the cultural experience that Samuels is applying to her, Latoya writes:

The styles of childhood do not continue into our preteen years, the age when black girls normally get their first relaxers. Does [Samuels] have fond memories of her mother basing her scalp before she applied the chemicals that would straighten her hair? Or is that a ritual that is just understood as a part of growing up? Are her memories scarred with the taunts of other children? My cousins came home crying after being teased about their “beady-beads” and their “kitchens.” And who did the taunting? Many times, it was other black students. We need to stop encouraging conformity and hair hatred, because there is a logical end to the path we are walking down. Instead of fighting each other when someone’s hair doesn’t conform to our specific ideals, wouldn’t it make more sense to fight against a racist system that penalizes and politicizes certain hair styles?

In addition to co-signing all of the above, I’d like to add: eff outta here. Samuels reminisces fondly of a time when she sat between her mother’s knees, but from what I hear from friends who went through the ritual, it’s not a pleasant experience. When my sister was visiting recently, it was difficult for me to watch her braid her daughter’s hair; as my sister detangled my niece’s hair, Nili would frequently let out exaggerated cries of pain, which merely annoyed my sister. The struggle there didn’t seem enjoyable for either party.

Samuels ends her second piece with the weaksauce statement: “I’m not a member of the Jolie-Pitt household, so I can’t assume to know their thought process or intentions. But one thing I do know is that girlie girls usually like to have their hair combed*.”

I don’t know if Zahara is a ‘girlie girl,’ whatever that means, but she is a child. And children like to be free. Why impose racially skewed, conformist standards on her? And moreover, this statement: “To many, she’ll be just a black little girl—and a black girl with bad hair at that” says more about the author than the army of straw men she’s constructed. By couching her argument in terms of what others think about a black female body, Samuels is making the age-old argument that conforming to someone else’s standards is somehow freeing for the conformist. This is an argument, which, to me, seems stunningly counter-intuitive.

Hair comes with angst for many, many women (the majority of the world doesn’t have straight hair), but, speaking for myself, I know that conforming doesn’t alleviate that angst.

In the last year-and-a-half, I’ve grown a full head of multi-textured (coily, kinky, and wavy) hair that goes out and up rather than down. In fact, just yesterday I tweeted: “Coming to terms with the fact that the hair on top of my head is just always gonna look like someone took an afro pick to a poodle.” Despite the silliness of that statement, I’ve never been happier or more confident about my appearance. My only regret is that I wish I’d always had access to my natural hair, instead of being relaxed since before I can remember and spending years chasing the ‘white girl flow.’

*True fact: despite being called ‘girlie’ by the proprietor of this very blog, I haven’t ‘combed’ my hair in weeks. Does that mean my hair is unkempt? No, it just means that I recognize that tools designed to arrange straight hair wreak havoc on my coils and curls — they cause breakage and disrupt my curl pattern — and I avoid using them.

**I know you can’t really see her hair in this picture, but her face mirrors my expression at reading Samuels’ columns.

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  • Beth

    Thanks for this. I’m glad that folks from the blackblogosphere have been responding to Samuels. It is a shame that it appears that she hasn’t thought much about the sincere and considered responses she’s received.

    On another note–congrats on enjoying your hair! I’ve been natural since ’98 and have never regretted it.

  • belleisa

    “In her pieces, Samuels argues that the “bonding” experience black girls have with their mothers while getting their scalps greased and hair braided is invaluable, and that having their hair “well-managed” provides girls with “pride, dignity, and self-respect.”

    -The feel of my burning scalp, and the smell of those chemicals were certainly not a “bonding” experience. Neither was the feeling of a brush and or comb on the back of my hand when I refused to sit still even after being warned. Nor the heat of a hot comb near to my ears and the back of my neck and the sizzling sound it makes as it’s burning your hair straight!

    And “invaluable” is a really strong sentiment. It’s as if Samuel is afraid Zahara is not going to know that in the context of this country she’s “black,” because she doesn’t yet (and hopefully never) know the pleasure of feeling scabs on her scalp from leaving a perm in for too long.

    As if being raised by two seemingly emotional healthy and confident (and filthy rich) parents isn’t enough to provide a girl with “pride, dignity, and self-respect.” Nope that’s all in the perm.

  • ladyfresh

    oh no she did not!
    That is a child!
    How dare she!

    or keep hair natural—while still ensuring that it’s well conditioned, well combed, and in place.

    again she is a child.

    looking at the shits her hair is not dirty not is it matted, it’s simply curly

    are we still that distant from a natural look that we cannot recognize curly hair in it’s natural form??

    i’m disgusted and yes i also have curly hair

  • ladyfresh

    oh and i also have memories of my mother wrestling with my hair brushes and combs broke, i got hit in the head if i did not stay still
    i’ve had aunts and cousins try to tackle my hair
    i felt no closer to any of them than i did to my mother for the experience
    what bonding moment is she referring to?

    oh man i’m pissed

  • I’m a woman with pin straight and thin hair. I feel angst about it. These days it’s because of the [what I feel are] premature grays. When I was six years old it was because of my mom.

    My mom used to sit me down each morning to make perfectly parted braids. She’d use a pencil to draw an invisible part and would make sure there was no strand of hair out of place. I hated the process even though she did a great job. There was no bonding. At all. I recall few times struggling with my mom about something (we’re no Rory and Lorelai, but we’re quite close), and hair is one of them.

    At around 6 or 7, I told her I didn’t want her to comb my hair in to braids or ponytails. She said I’d have to cut it because I couldn’t leave it loose.

    I agreed and went with her to my aunt’s house. At the time, my aunt was taking hair stylist classes.

    I got a rather unfortunate bowlish cut. I didn’t cut my hair short for a very long time after that and mostly left it loose.

  • To be fair, she wasn’t arguing that Z needs a perm, but as Latoya said, that’s usually the next step for the vast majority of black American girls whose hair is ‘well-managed’ as children. Once girls hit the pre-teen years, children’s hairstyles get replaced with either a relaxer or braid extensions, both of which hide the natural texture and often damage hair.

    She’s basically arguing that leaving hair out, or wash and goes are unacceptable for black girls. What she’s pointedly not saying is that she doesn’t like loose nappy hair.

  • anon

    I dont know too many black women who looked at the hair rituals between many black American women and their caregivers as “bonding”. Bonding time with my mom? Reading, watching Cosby, doing homework, Saturday morning chores. Wiggling between her legs while she struggled to make a straight part? Not so much.

  • HumboldtBlue

    oh and i also have memories of my mother wrestling with my hair brushes and combs broke, i got hit in the head if i did not stay still

    This is one of the more fascinating pieces I have read on the intertoobz in a long time. For the record, I’m a white guy, who uhh, comes from a family of white folks who take curly hair to a whole other level. Reading sisters talk about the pain associated with hair combing and brushing as a child made my head hurt (you’d understand if you saw my white boy ‘fro) because it’s a ritual I endured as well, as hard as that may be to believe.

    I also have two adopted nieces, one bi-racial the other, well her name is Ebony (and there is no better name you can give a girl who is as beautiful as she) and it almost always put my nerves on edge when my SiL (black woman) would sit the two girls down for the hair brushing ordeal.

    I wanted to scream at her to stop, enough with the Pink Oil, enough with the tugging, the pulling the un-snagging, watching as the girls’ heads were bent backward when Mom hit a particularly tough knot.

    My nieces are now just entering high school and hair has become an issue yet again, this time because the two girls have such different hair. Margo has long, silky locks much like her mom, while Eb has short, coarse curly hair (until recently, lengthened with extensions).

    I hope Eb takes her parents advice and let’s her hair go natural, with it’s tight curl, it’s just a perfect match for that kid and will only add to her striking natural beauty (no, I’m not absurdly biased, the young lady is stunningly beautiful as is her sister) and I’m hoping that as she grows she realizes that her beauty is enhanced by keeping her hair free of a bunch of chemicals.

    Sorry to butt in, but I can still feel the tug of that goddamned comb through my hair on bath night and it wasn’t a bonding moment at all, unless you consider bonding, pain.

  • anon

    humboldt, im sure you’re heart is in the right place, but please dont presume to paint every black childs experience of haircare with your limited experience with your SIL. while, i for instance didnt enjoy sitting for a long period of time to get hair braided, there was no as you say “pulling, unsnagging, hitting tough knots”. and “well, her name is ebony?” what’s that all about?

  • Meh, people like to second-guess how “I” do PK’s hair, too. Or don’t do it. Or whatever. We need to have a moratorium on mommy drive-bys.

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  • Michelle

    Humboldt, I totally agree with you. I don’t recall any bonding happening when my mother combed my hair. I remember pain, occassional tears, and trying to wrestle away. I remember feeling like my hair was being pulled out from the root when a knot was encountered. Now, my mother took excellent care of our hair. My mother knew about the benefits of castor oil and coconut on hair long before they became popular. What she didn’t know was how to comb it or how to style it. I’m hoping we’re getting to a place where black hair, of all textures, can be embraced and accepted and celebrated so litle girls don’t have to grow up with the same angst we did.