Jenee Desmond-Harris – Wed Sep 2, 5:15 pm ET
When the First Lady attended a country-music event in July without a single strand of hair falling below her jawline, the blogosphere exploded with outbursts ranging from adoration to vitriol. Things settled down only when her deputy press secretary clarified that there had been no First Haircut. In the aftermath, a didactic post on MichelleObamaWatch.com proclaimed that anyone "familiar with the amazing versatility of black hair" would have known that the new summer look was simply "pinned up." (See pictures of Michelle Obama's hairstyles.)
Many Americans have dismissed this hair hubbub as simply more media-driven noise - like the chatter about Michelle Obama's sleeveless dresses, J. Crew cardigans, stocking-free legs or, for that matter, recent (shocking!) decision to wear shorts in the Arizona heat. But for African-American women like me, hair is something else altogether - singular in its capacity to command interest and carry cultural baggage. The obsession with Michelle's hair took hold long before Inaugural Ball gowns were imagined, private-school choices scrutinized or organic gardens harvested. It's not that she's done anything outrageous. The new updo wasn't really all that dramatic a departure from variations we've seen on her before (the "flip-out," the "flip-under," the long-ago abandoned "helmet"). Still, her hair is the catalyst for a conversation that begins with style but quickly transcends outward appearance and ultimately transcends Michelle herself - a symbol for African-American women's status in terms of beauty, acceptance and power. (See pictures of Michelle Obama's style evolution.)
The hair buzz heated up right after the Democratic National Convention. Websites dedicated to black hair posted and reposted a Philadelphia Inquirer article addressing what was presented as an urgent question: Were the silky strands that moved so gracefully with each tip of her head during her Denver speech straightened with chemicals or with heat alone? How exactly did she metamorphose what we know was once tightly coiled hair?
The choice many black women make to alter their hair's natural texture has undeniable historical and psychological underpinnings. It has been attributed to everything from a history of oppression and assimilation to media-influenced notions of beauty and simple personal aesthetics. But one thing is certain. For the many who wear straightened styles like Michelle's, the decision is deliberate, and the maintenance is significant. A stylist hypothesized in the Inquirer article about the steps taken to attain her look, and a firestorm of online comments followed, including these two:
"Chemicals, hot comb, round brush and dryer ... same effect, different methods. I could see it being a big deal or inspirational if she were natural and wore it in natural styles."
"Girl, ain't no braids, twists, afros, etc. getting into the White House just yet ... LOL."
This could have been read as a lighthearted exchange about beauty and style. But it actually reflects a serious and clamorous debate. A growing community on sites like Nappturality.com urges black women to reject curl-relaxing methods, calling them "taking the easy road" and "conforming" to white aesthetics. Meanwhile, talk-show host Tyra Banks just announced via Twitter that she will abandon her weave and don "no fake hair at all!" for her show's season premiere. Mixed in with the supportive response to the former supermodel's decision was skepticism about whether she could be attractive with what she describes as her "out and free" look.
For black women, hair has classification power (witness the connection Don Imus made between hair and sexual promiscuity when he referred to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos"). Just as blond has implicit associations with sex appeal and smarts (or lack thereof), black-hair descriptors convey thick layers of meaning but are even more loaded. From long and straight to short and kinky - and, of course, good and bad - these terms become shorthand for desirability, worthiness and even worldview. (See pictures of Michelle Obama's fashion diplomacy.)
The notion of natural black hair as being subversive or threatening is not new. When the New Yorker set out last summer to satirize Michelle as a militant, country-hating black radical, it was no coincidence that the illustrator portrayed her with an Afro. The cartoon was calling attention to all the ridiculous pre-election fearmongering. But the stereotypes it drew from may be one reason that 56% of respondents to a poll on NaturallyCurly.com say the U.S. is not ready for a "First Lady with kinky hair."
Some black women note that Michelle's choice to wear her hair straightened affirms unfair expectations about what looks professional. On Blacksnob.com a reader empathized with Michelle's playing it safe in the White House and outlined her own approach: "Whenever I start a new job I always wear my hair straight for the first three months until I get health care. Then gradually the curly-do comes out." Another echoed the practice: "I wait about four to six months before I put the [mousse] in and wear it curly ... I have to pace myself because it usually turns into a big to-do in the office." (See the 50 best websites of 2009.)
The amount of money black women spend on hair will be explored in Chris Rock's upcoming comedic documentary Good Hair. "Their hair costs more than anything they wear," he said. Which helps explain the recent news out of Indiana University that black women often sacrifice workouts to maintain their hairstyles.
One might think having a black First Lady who is widely praised as sophisticated and stylish would represent a happy ending to the story of black female beauty and acceptance. Alas, our hair still simultaneously bonds and divides us. "There is no hair choice you can make that is simple," says Melissa Harris Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton. "Any choice carries tremendous personal and political valence."
Even though I'm biracial and should theoretically have half a share of hair angst, I've sacrificed endless Saturdays to the salon. It is unfathomable that I might ever leave my apartment with my hair in its truly natural state, unmoderated by heat or products. I once broke down at the airport when my gel was confiscated for exceeding the 3-oz. limit. (See 50 essential travel tips.)
I'm neither high maintenance nor superficial: I'm a black woman. My focus on hair feels like a birthright. It is my membership in an exclusive, historical club, with privileges, responsibilities, infighting and bylaws that are rewritten every decade.
Not once when I've seen an image of our First Lady has it been lost on me that she is also a member. I don't see just an easy, bouncy do. I see the fruits of a time-consuming effort to convey a carefully calculated image. In the next-day ponytail, I see a familiar defeat.
A black family at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue signifies a shattered political barrier, but our reactions to Michelle are evidence that it takes more than an election to untangle some of the unique dilemmas black women face. Thanks to her, our issues are front and center. It feels a lot like when nonblack friends and colleagues ask those dreaded questions that force us to reflect and explain: whether we can comb through our hair, if we wash our braids or locks and the most complicated of all - why it all has to be such a big deal.
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