Straightening Our Hair


October 1987 we mailed the 32-page brochure pictured above to 40,000
people, asking them to suscribe to a new radical magazine covering
a wide range of topics and featuring over 35 regular writers from
Noam Chomsky to bell hooks to Alexander Cockburn to Staughton Lynd
to Cornell West to Juliet Schor to Leslie Cagan to Howard Zinn to
 Penny Lernoux to Sheila Rowbotham to Ward Churchill to Holly
Sklar…and more. 

The response to that mailing generated enough readers and funds
to produce the first issue, which we mailed free to another 20,000
or so. We did this with two staff people and an initial bank account
of $40,000. Everybody thought we were nuts. You can’t start
a magazine with less than an initial $400,000, with another million
or so promised over the next 5 years, they said. 

It’s too long and it doesn’t look like a magazine, they
said. In addition, two weeks before sending the first issue to the
printer, we received a letter from a lawyer prohibiting us from
using the name

Z Magazine

, as it already being used by a
Channel Z cable TV guide in Los Angeles. As we were inspired to
use the name by the movie


about a military coup in Greece
where the leader of the resistance was referred to as Comrade Z
(hence, after the coup the letter Z was banned), we changed the
name to

Zeta Magazine

until three years later, when the cable
guide went out of business. 

Needless to say, all of the above were not auspicious beginnings.
However, on the positive side, while we were casting about for cartoons
(a few weeks before deadline), we received a large packet of wonderful
political cartoons from someone named Matt Wuerker, which saved
the day and his cartoons have been appearing in


ever since
that first January 1988 issue. Also, incredibly, once we got going
our regular writers delivered articles on time, cartoonists mailed
in material regularly, and illustrators drew graphics to fit with
various articles. 

To help commemorate these 20 years, we are running a series featuring
as many memorable articles from the past as we can fit in leading
up to our official birthday in January 2008. We are reprinting them
in the original magazine format with the original graphics. In this
issue, we are featuring another of our most requested articles for
reprint, “Straightening Our Hair,” by bell hooks, which
appeared in the September 1988 issue. 

-Lydia Sargent & Michael Albert

co-founders of Z Magazine

Saturday mornings we would gather in the kitchen to get our hair
fixed, that is straightened. Smells of burning grease and hair,
mingled with the scent of our freshly washed bodies, with collard
greens cooking on the stove, with fried fish. We did not go to the
hairdresser. Mama fixed our hair. Six daughters—there was no
way we could have afforded hairdressers. In those days, this process
of straightening black women’s hair with a hot comb (invented
by Madame C. J. Waler) was not connected in my mind with the effort
to look white, to live out standards of beauty set by white supremacy.
It was connected solely with rites of initiation into womanhood.
To arrive at that point where one’s hair could be straightened
was to move from being perceived as child (whose hair could be neatly
combed and braided) to being almost a woman. It was this moment
of transi ion my sisters and I longed for. 

Hair pressing was a ritual of black women’s culture of intimacy.
It was an exclusive moment when black women (even those who did
not know one another well) might meet at home or in the beauty parlor
to talk with one another, to listen to the talk. It was as important
a world as that of the male barber shop—mysterious, secret.
It was a world where the images constructed as barriers between
one’s self and the world were briefly let go, before they were
made again. It was a moment of creativity, a moment of change. 

I wanted this change even though I had been told all my life that
I was one of the “lucky” ones because I had been born
with “good hair”—hair that was fine, almost straight—not
good enough, but still good. Hair that had no nappy edges, no “kitchen,”
that area close to the neck that the hot comb could not reach. This
“good hair” meant nothing to me when it stood as a barrier
to my entering this secret black woman world. I was overjoyed when
mama finally agreed that I could join the Saturday ritual, no longer
looking on but patiently waiting my turn. I have written of this
ritual: “For each of us getting our hair pressed is an important
ritual. It is not a sign of our longing to be white. There are no
white people in our intimate world. It is a sign of our desire to
be women. It is a gesture that says we are approaching womanhood….
Before we reach the appropriate age we wear braids, plaits that
are symbols of our innocence, our youth, our childhood. Then we
are comforted by the parting hands that comb and braid, comforted
by the intimacy and bliss. There is a deeper intimacy in the kitchen
on Saturdays when hair is pressed, when fish is fried, when sodas
are passed around, when soul music drifts over the talk. It is a
time without men. It is a time when we work as women to meet each
other’s needs, to make each other feel good inside, a time
of laughter and outrageous talk.”

Since the world we lived in was racially segregated, it was easy
to overlook the relationship between white supremacy and our obsession
with hair. Even though black women with straight hair were perceived
to be more beautiful than those with thick, frizzy hair, it was
not overtly related to a notion that white women were a more appealing
female group or that their straight hair set a beauty standard black
women were struggling to live out. While this was probably the ideological
framework from which the process of straightening black women’s
hair emerged, it was expanded so that it became a real space of
black woman bonding through ritualized, shared experience. The beauty
parlor was a space of consciousness raising, a space where black
women shared life stories—hardship, trials, gossip; a place
where one could be comforted and one’s spirit renewed. It was
for some women a place of rest where one did not need to meet the
demands of children or men. It was the one hour some folk would
spend “off their feet,” a soothing, restful time of meditation
and silence. These positive empowering implications of the ritual
of hair pressing mediate, but do not change negative implications.
They exist alongside all that is negative. 

Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the social and political
context in which the custom of black folks straightening our hair
emerges, it represents an imitation of the dominant white group’s
appearance and often indicates internalized racism, self-hatred,
and/or low self esteem. During the 1960s black people who actively
worked to critique, challenge, and change white racism pointed to
the way in which black people’s obsession with straight hair
reflected a colonized mentality. It was at this time that the natural
hairdo, the “afro,” became fashionable as a sign of cultural
resistance to racist oppression and as a celebration of blackness.
Naturals were equated with political militancy. Many young black
folks found just how much political value was placed on straightened
hair as a sign of respectability and conformity to societal expectations
when they ceased to straighten their hair. When black liberation
struggles did not lead to revolutionary change in society, the focus
on the political relationship between appearance and complicity
with white racism ceased and folks who had once sported afros began
to straighten their hair. 

In keeping with the move to suppress black consciousness and efforts
to be self-defining, white corporations began to acknowledge black
people and most especially black women as potential consumers of
products they could provide, including hair-care products. Permanents
specially designed for black women eliminated the need for hair
pressing and the hot comb. They not only cost more but they also
took much of the economy and profit out of black communities, out
of the pockets of black women who had previously reaped the material
benefits (see Manning Marable’s

How Capitalism Underdeveloped
Black America

, South End Press). Gone was the context of ritual,
of black woman bonding. Seated under noisy hair dryers black women
lost a space for dialogue, for creative talk. 

Stripped of the positive binding rituals that traditionally surrounded
the experience, black women straightening our hair seemed more and
more to be exclusively a signifier of white supremacist oppression
and exploitation. It was clearly a process that was about black
women changing their appearance to imitate white people’s looks.
This need to look as much like white people as possible, to look
safe, is related to a desire to succeed in the white world. Before
desegregation black people could worry less about what white folks
thought about their hair. In a discussion with black women about
beauty at Spelman College, students talked about the importance
of wearing straight hair when seeking jobs. They were convinced
and probably rightly so that their chances of finding good jobs
would be enhanced if they had straight hair. When asked to elaborate
they focused on the connection between radical politics and natural
hairdos, whether natural or braided. One woman wearing a short natural
told of purchasing a straight wig for her job search. No one in
the discussion felt black women were free to wear our hair in natural
styles without reflecting on the possible negative consequences.
Often older black adults, especially parents, respond quite negatively
to natural hairdos. I shared with the group that when I arrived
home with my hair in braids shortly after accepting my job at Yale,
my parents told me I looked disgusting.

Despite many changes in racial politics, black women continue to
obsess about their hair and straightening hair continues to be serious
business. It continues to tap into the insecurity black women feel
about our value in this white supremacist society. Talking with
groups of women at various college campuses and with black women
in our communities there seems to be general consensus that our
obsession with hair in general reflects continued struggles with
self-esteem and self-actualization. We talk about the extent to
which black women perceive our hair as the enemy, as a problem we
must solve, a territory we must conquer. Above all it is a part
of our black female body that must be controlled. Most of us were
not raised in environments where we learned to regard our hair as
sensual or beautiful in an unprocessed state. Many of us talk about
situations where white people ask to touch our hair when it is unprocessed
then show surprise that the texture is soft or feels good. In the
eyes of many white folks and other non-black folks, the natural
afro looks like steel wool or a helmet. Responses to natural hairstyles
worn by black women usually reveal the extent to which our natural
hair is perceived in white supremacist culture as not only ugly
but frightening. We also internalize that fear. The extent to which
we are comfortable with our hair usually reflects on our overall
feelings about our bodies. 

In our black women’s support group, Sisters of the Yam, we
talk about the ways we don’t like our bodies, especially our
hair. I suggested to the group that we regard our hair as though
it is not part of our body, but something quite separate—again
a territory to be controlled. To me it was important for us to link
this need to control with sexuality, with sexual repression. Curious
about what black women who had hot-combed or had permanents felt
about the relationship between straightened hair and sexual practice
I asked whether people worried about their hairdo, whether they
feared partners touching their hair. Straightened hair has always
seemed to me to call attention to the desire for hair to stay in
place. Not surprisingly many black women responded that they felt
uncomfortable if too much attention was focused on their hair, if
it seemed to be too messy. Those of us who have liberated our hair
and let it go in whatever direction it seems fit often receive negative

Looking at photographs of myself and my sisters when we had straightened
hair in high school I noticed how much older we looked than when
our hair was not processed. It is ironic that we live in a culture
that places so much emphasis on women looking young, yet black women
are encouraged to change our hair in ways that make us appear older.
This past semester we read Toni Morrison’s

The Bluest Eye

in a black women’s fiction class. I ask students to write autobiographical
statements that reflect their thoughts about the connection between
race and physical beauty. A vast majority of black women wrote about
their hair. When I asked individual women outside class why they
continued to straighten their hair, many asserted that naturals
don’t look good on them or that they required too much work.
Emily, a favorite student with very short hair, always straightened
it and I would tease and challenge her. She explained to me convincingly
that a natural hairdo would look horrible with her face, that she
did not have the appropriate forehead or bone structure. Later she
shared that during spring break she had gone to the beauty parlor
to have her perm and as she sat there waiting, thinking about class
reading and discussion, it came to her that she was really frightened
that no one else would think she was attractive if she did not straighten
her hair. She acknowledged that this fear was rooted in feelings
of low self-esteem. She decided to make a change. Her new look surprised
her because it was so appealing. We talked afterwards about her
earlier denial and justification for wearing straightened hair.
We talked about the way it hurts to realize connection between racist
oppression and the arguments we use to convince ourselves and others
that we are not beautiful or acceptable as we are.

In numerous discussions with black women about hair one of the strongest
factors that prevent black women from wearing unprocessed hairstyles
is the fear of losing other people’s approval and regard. Heterosexual
black women talked about the extent to which black men respond more
favorably to women with straight or straightened hair. Lesbian women
point to the fact that many of them do not straighten their hair,
raising the question of whether or not this gesture is fundamentally
linked to heterosexism and a longing for male approval. I recall
visiting a woman friend and her black male companion in New York
years ago and having an intense discussion about hair. He took it
upon himself to share with me that I could be a fine sister if I
would do something about my hair (secretly I thought mama must have
hired him). What I remember is his shock when I calmly and happily
asserted that I like the touch and feel of unprocessed hair. 

When students read about race and physical beauty, several black
women describe periods of childhood when they were overcome with
longing for straight hair as it was so associated with desirability,
with being loved. Few women had received affirmation from family,
friends, or lovers when choosing not to straighten their hair and
we have many stories to tell about advice we receive from everyone,
including total strangers, urging us to understand how much more
attractive we would be if we would fix (straighten) our hair. 

When I interviewed for my job at Yale, white female advisers who
had never before commented on my hair encouraged me not to wear
braids or a large natural to the interview. Although they did not
say straighten your hair, they were suggesting that I change my
hairstyle so that it would most resemble theirs, so that it would
indicate a certain conformity. I wore braids and no one seemed to
notice. When I was offered the job I did not ask if it mattered
whether or not I wore braids. I tell this story to my students so
that they will know by this one experience that we do not always
need to surrender our power to be self-defining to succeed in an
endeavor. Yet I have found the issue of hairstyle comes up again
and again with students when I give lectures. 

At one conference on black women and leadership I walked into a
packed auditorium, my hair unprocessed, wild and all over the place.
The vast majority of black women seated there had straightened hair.
Many of them looked at me with hostile stares. I felt as though
I was being judged on the spot as someone out on the fringe, an
undesirable. Such judgments are made particularly about black women
in the United States who choose to wear dreadlocks. They are seen
and rightly so as the total antithesis of straightening one’s
hair, as a political statement. Often black women express contempt
for those of us who choose this look. 

Ironically, just as the natural unprocessed hair of black women
is the subject of disregard and disdain we are witnessing a return
of the long, dyed blonde look. In their writing my black women students
described wearing yellow mops on their heads as children to pretend
they had long blonde hair. Recently black women singers who are
working to appeal to white audiences, to be seen as crossovers,
use hair implanting and hair weaving to have long straight hair.
There seems to be a definite connection between a black female entertainer’s
popularity with white audiences and the degree to which she works
to appear white or to embody aspects of white style. Tina Turner
and Aretha Franklin were trend setters; both dyed their hair blonde.
In everyday life we see more and more black women using chemicals
to be blonde. At one of my talks focusing on the social construction
of black female identity within a sexist and racist society, a black
woman came to me at the end of the discussion and shared that her
seven-year-old daughter was obsessed with blonde hair, so much so
that she had made a wig to imitate long blonde curls. 

This mother wanted to know what she was doing wrong in her parenting.
She asserted that their home was a place where blackness was affirmed
and celebrated. Yet she had not considered that her processed straightened
hair was a message to her daughter that black women are not acceptable
unless we alter our appearance or hair texture. Recently I talked
with one of my younger sisters about her hair. She uses bright colored
dyes, various shades of red. Her skin is very dark. She has a broad
nose and short hair. For her these choices of straightened dyed
hair were directly related to feelings of low self-esteem. She does
not like her features and feels that the hairstyle transforms her.
My perception was that her choice of red straightened hair actually
called attention to the features she was trying to mask. When she
commented that this look receives more attention and compliments,
I suggested that the positive feedback might be a direct response
to her own projection of a higher level of self-satisfaction. Folk
may be responding to that and not her altered looks. We talked about
the messages she is sending her dark-skinned daughters—that
they will be most attractive if they straighten their hair. 

A number of black women have argued that straightened hair is not
necessarily a signifier of low self-esteem. They argue that it is
a survival strategy; it is easier to function in this society with
straightened hair. There are fewer hassles. Or as some folk stated,
straightened hair is easier to manage, takes less time. When I responded
to this argument in our discussion at Spelman by suggesting that
perhaps the unwillingness to spend time on ourselves, caring for
our bodies, is also a reflection of a sense that this is not important
or that we do not deserve such care. In this group and others, black
women talked about being raised in households where spending too
much time on appearance was ridiculed or considered vanity. Irrespective
of the way individual black women choose to do their hair, it is
evident that the extent to which we suffer from racist and sexist
oppression and exploitation affects the degree to which we feel
capable of both self-love and asserting an autonomous presence that
is acceptable and pleasing to ourselves. Individual preferences
(whether rooted in self-hate or not) cannot negate the reality that
our collective obsession with straightening black hair reflects
the psychology of oppression and the impact of racist colonization.
Together racism and sexism daily reinforce to all black females
via the media, advertizing, etc. that we will not be considered
beautiful or desirable if we do not change ourselves, especially
our hair. We cannot resist this socialization if we deny that white
supremacy informs our efforts to construct self and identity.

Without organized struggles like the ones that happened in the 1960s
and early 1970s, individual black women must struggle alone to acquire
the critical consciousness that would enable us to examine issues
of race and beauty, our personal choices, from a political standpoint.
There are times when I think of straightening my hair just to change
my style, just for fun. Then I remind myself that even though such
a gesture could be simply playful on my part, an individual expression
of desire, I know that such a gesture would carry other implications
beyond my control. The reality is: straightened hair is linked historically
and currently to a system of racial domination that impresses upon
black people, and especially black women, that we are not acceptable
as we are, that we are not beautiful. To make such a gesture as
an expression of individual freedom and choice would make me complicit
with a politic of domination that hurts us. It is easy to surrender
this freedom. It is more important that black women resist racism
and sexism in every way; that every aspect of our self-representation
be a fierce resistance, a radical celebration of our care and respect
for ourselves. Even though I have not had straightened hair for
a long time, this did not mean that I am able to really enjoy or
appreciate my hair in its natural state. For years I still considered
it a problem. (It wasn’t naturally nappy enough to make a decent
interesting afro. It was too thin.) These complaints expressed my
continued dissatisfaction. True liberation of my hair came when
I stopped trying to control it in any state and just accepted it
as it is. It has been only in recent years that I have ceased to
worry about what other people would say about my hair. It has been
only in recent years that I could feel consistent pleasure washing,
combing, and caring for my hair. These feelings remind me of the
pleasure and comfort I felt as a child sitting between my mother’s
legs feeling the warmth of her body and being as she combed and
braided my hair. In a culture of domination, one that is essentially
anti-intimacy, we must struggle daily to remain in touch with ourselves
and our bodies, with one another. Especially black women and men,
as it is our bodies that have been so often devalued, burdened,
wounded in alienated labor. Celebrating our bodies, we participate
in a liberatory struggle that frees mind and heart.