AFRICANGLOBE – Note: So what is this thing about “Brazilian hair”? Is it somehow different from other hair textures? Is it somehow “better” than other hair textures? Better yet, exactly what is “Brazilian hair”? What comes to mind when one hears the term “Brazilian hair”? Is it simply the hair textures of Brazilian people? OK, let’s be real. This writer has had many contacts with people from other countries, including from the United States, and this is a topic that comes up from time to time, particularly with African-Americans.
Among African-American women, hair texture and length is a huge issue and between regular straightening treatments, weaves and wigs, many spend a small fortune on maintaining what they consider an attractive mane. I remember several years ago watching Black Hair, a documentary highlighting the Korean-American dominance of the African-American hair industry. According to this documentary:
“Koreans have come to control virtually every aspect of the multi-billion dollar, Black hair care industry, from manufacturing to distribution to retail sales, while simultaneously employing tactics to put African-American merchants and wholesalers out of business.”
But beyond the business aspect of the Black hair industry, what does the fact that African-American women spend in the neighborhood of $9 billion annually on their hair say about perceptions of beauty in the Black community? In the few years of the Black pride and Black Power movements in the United States, Black American women were throwing away their hot combs and proudly rocking full rounded afros most often associated with Angela Davis and the Jackson 5, affirming the legendary words of the iconic James Brown, “I’m Black and I’m Proud”. But since that short period in time, the majority of African-American women returned to straightening their hair and wearing all sorts of hair accessories so that they could be seen as having “good hair”, as comedian Chris Rock documented in his 2009 documentary of the same name.
So where does Brazilian hair fit into this? In a collaborative piece entitled “A message to the African-American community on stereotypes about Brazilian women”, Mark Wells remembered the words of an African-American friend on why he liked visiting Brazil: “A brotha can go to Brazil and find a sista and not have to deal with that nappy-ass hair!” Now, while it would be easy to simply dismiss this comment as simply one man’s opinion, as the aforementioned documentaries on the Black hair industry will attest, if African-American women spend upwards of $10 billion per year on their hair and we can assume that a principal reason for the pursuit of “good hair” to be attraction of the opposite sex, one could argue that the opinion expressed by Wells’s friend was not simply an isolated case.
In comments I’ve heard from African-Americans over the years, the perception is that “Brazilian hair” is long, thick, curly and silky, in essence, the type of hair that many women seek to attain by wearing weaves and hair accessories. Google the words “Brazilian Hair” and it becomes apparent from the many vendors claiming to sell this particular type of hair and we see that the so-called Brazilian hair continues to be in high demand.
So then what happens if a woman who in fact has this highly-valued “Brazilian Hair” decides to shave her head as a means of rejecting what she perceives to be “enslavement to a beauty aesthetic”? Is it possible that having this type of hair can actually be a means of being objectified? This may be hard to imagine for a woman in pursuit of this type of hair by any means necessary, but consider the other side as told by a woman who felt that her hair subjected her to just that.
Why I shaved My Head
I do not know how to start this text. Because typed words don’t do justice to the feeling that has come over me now.
My name is Stephanie, and I spent years being a slave to aesthetics impositions.
Being a Black woman has these things. You are not a woman, you are a Black woman. And to fit into the world of “women” some impositions are defined. The imposition that affected me the most in these 20 years of my life was the imposition on my hair.
I straightened, stretched and damaged my strands for about 5 years. I denied who I was, I hid my ancestry, I sought the praise of those who insist on not seeing us as the standard of beauty.
It’s necessary to say that because of not having hair so crespo (kinky), that WONDERFUL hair that grows upward, to the side and catches everyone’s attention with its magnitude, I had certain privileges. But let’s not forget that I’m Black, my hair is not straight, and although I have received some “amor branco (White love)” because of my embranquecimento (whitening or mixture), I was never treated as White. I suffered discrimination indeed with my hair full of curls, enough to make me hide them for such a long time.
When I freed myself and decided I would not give in to that aesthetic imposition, I managed to finally figure out how much I loved myself.
For years I straightened my hair, and from so much straightening I forgot how I really was. Who I was. Of what I represented. I didn’t even remember the texture of my hair, or how my mom would sit me in a chair after bathing to comb it. I could not remember how it was to be able to get into a pool or take a shower without worrying about how others (or worse, myself) could see who I was behind the flattening iron. And when I finally had the courage to look at myself in the mirror, natural, curly, NEGRA (BLACK), I loved what I saw.
I started to wear my hair as resistance, as a political symbol, as a representation of who I was. And from there, there were 5 more years.
About 1 year ago, after going through a traumatic episode of sexism and sexual harassment, I had a glimpse of myself. Of whom I was and what sexism said I was. I thought so much of myself the owner of me, as free, but in fact there were so many invisible shackles holding Black women that at the time it seemed to me almost impossible to free myself from it all. That White man, trying to own my body, trying to tell me what I could or could not do as he ran his hand over me, causing people who were around to laugh at my anguished and frustrated attempt to scream at him I was my own owner and that he could not touch me, it all exploded inside of me and I felt like screaming ENOUGH!
I was already active politically, I’ve already fought against oppression, against harassment in public transport, against all of this injustice that falls upon our bodies. But I wanted more! I wanted to scream to the world THIS IS MY BODY! GET YOUR HANDS OFF OF ME!
I found my solution in understanding that the greatest aesthetic standard for defining how a woman should be in Brazilian society expresses itself in transferring our “femininity” to our hair. So I decided I would shave mine.
I needed almost a year to summon the courage. I researched, read stories of women who went through the same decision, I discovered that I could donate hair for women with cancer, to scalped women, to clean up oil spills in the sea, I talked to my fiancé, with friends, with partners in social movements and every day I was more sure I wanted to go bald.
When I finally got summoned the courage, I talked to some people and they brought me the contact of a woman with breast cancer that would make her own wig (MUCH LOVE < 3) so that I could make a donation, I waited a week to say goodbye to strands that were part of my life, and finally managed to give up the most aesthetic imposition on a woman’s life.
Not just because I’m screaming “who runs this body is me”, not only because I was able to help a person in a difficult time and not only because everyone liked it and said I’m beautiful. I feel pretty. I feel complete. I feel free. And there are not enough words to explain how much it has changed me. It’s almost like the incredible feeling of wearing my curls again after years of straightening. It’s like deciding that my hair has an owner, and no one can teach me what to do with it. I feel free, I feel happy, I feel like a new woman.
After shaving my head I looked in the mirror, natural, bald, NEGRA, I loved what I saw.
My name is Stephanie and I’m a free woman.
If any of you reading this text are considering doing the same thing, my advice is: do it! Free yourself! Reinvent yourself! Be who you want to be! Be happy!
By: Stephanie Paes