Released in 2009, Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair explores the politics and money behind the Black hair care industry.
This past summer the New York Times featured an op-doc by Zina Saro-Wiwa entitled “Transition.” Her six-minute documentary highlights her personal transition from braids to natural over the course of a seven-month period. Showcasing a movement among Black women who embrace their natural hair instead of using chemical straighteners, she discusses the politics of hair and gender. While watching this documentary, I identified with every minute of her experience. I have had natural hair for the past two years but Saro-Wiwa’s piece caused me to think about hair as an expression mental health among Black women.
Her journey begins with “the big chop,” the process in which all the chemically straightened ends are cut off. This can be done after at varying stages of the transition process; shaving off all of the processed hair or waiting for new growth and then cutting of the permed ends. Her choice to shave her head brings up emotions for her and seems to lower her self-esteem, saying things like: “God I can just see myself getting uglier” and “This is not attractive.” After leaving the salon, she looks to a friend for support asking, “do I finally look gorgeous?” Her discomfort is apparent. Her choice to transition has forced her to confront her real hair. Whilst on her own journey, Zina documents other Black women with natural hair and collects testimonials on why they chose to do so. There are a range of reasons: “I forgot what my hair looked and felt like,” “I was pregnant and I wanted my curls back. Freedom,” “I didn’t want anymore chemicals in my hair. I had bad experiences with perms.” These testimonials and her project help her take a closer look at her own experience. With the growth of her natural hair came a realization of her natural self. Seeing her own curl pattern debunked her presumption that natural hair was always dry and brittle. This experience not only changed how she related to her hair but changed the way she felt in herself.
Hair is an expression of ourselves and unlike clothing – which we choose – hair is inherently unique, no matter what we do to it. There are many factors that influence how we view and identify with our hair. Social factors like the media and history can nurture or inhibit our choices on how to express ourselves through our hair. Despite a growing movement in the United States to embrace our hair, Black women are almost always shown with straight hair or long or wavy weaves in the media. The juxtaposition between Black women role models and Black female self self-esteem can be confusing. Empowering young women to choose how they wear their hair can further strengthen the Black community in embracing our diversity.
by LaKeisha Jefferson