Hair Weaves Tangle Self-Image for Black Women

This past winter, I noticed something very unsettling while I was visiting my family in St. Louis.

Almost all the black women I encountered were sporting lavishly long hair weaves, fake locks that can add length and volume after being sewed or glued to the scalp. Weaves come in straight, curly and kinky textures. But most black women with weaves wear them to extend and straighten the appearance of their naturally coiled and nappy hair.

Everywhere I turned, from the church to the mall, black women suited up in this straight-hair uniform. Was I missing something? I thought. Would my close-cut Afro set me too far apart from other black women?

Natural, kinky hair -- which is most associated with blackness -- has also been tied to inferiority in the United States. We can thank entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, the late 19th century inventor of the hot pressing comb -- literally a comb-shaped iron -- for the subsequent years of black women burning their disobedient hair into submission. Still today among African Americans, there exists a strata between those with "bad hair" and "good hair," the latter being hair that is most in sync with the dominant culture.

Walk into any pharmacy and you'll see a deluge of harsh chemical products that promise black women unnappy hair. Many believe this is a demonstration of self-loathing.

The January 2007 copy of Essence magazine I picked up didn't help. "Look Beautiful in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s . . . Real Women and Celebs Share Beauty and Health Secrets," the cover read. Featured were three celebrities with flowing, bouncy weaves and another woman whose silver hair was visibly straightened to suppress the real curl underneath.

Essence had made it clear: There was no way to be nappy-haired and beautiful at any age.

Myopic Beauty Image

This perplexed me because around St. Louis, so many everyday women who have no celebrity stakes to claim were subscribing to this myopic image of beauty wrapped around these hair weaves that, by the way, can take hours to glue onto the scalp and cost hundreds of dollars.

I wanted to walk in their shoes and understand them, so I decided to get a long, straight wig. Without the labor-intensive process, I achieved the luscious locks of a weave so I could learn what the non-celebrity woman had to gain from emulating the straight hair of non-African woman.

After several days of wearing the wig and interviewing black women, I found that the straight-hair phenomenon has little to do with a need to fit into mainstream social settings. Rather, these long weaves may reflect our desire to try on a different feminine persona that has historically been appropriated for white women.

Throughout time, weaves and wigs have served as costumes for black women to put on when they want to look sexy, such as in the 2006 movie "Dream Girls" that's loosely based on the 1960s rise of the Supremes, a Motown sensation.

In the opening scene of the movie, before the Dreams enter their first big show, they shift their poofy, European-hair wigs around. Finding a perfect fit, they then put on a killer show. As the Dreams become more successful and switch from mostly black to mostly white audiences, their hair get-ups become longer and bigger. The Dreams begin to look like white women in black face. And when one of the members gets kicked out of the band because of her hefty appearance, she quickly reverts to wearing an Afro.

Buying a Wig

I knew my hair was being mistaken for my femininity upon entering the Asian-owned beauty-supply store in my predominantly black neighborhood where I went to buy my wig. Perhaps because the elderly Asian sales lady kept saying: "Oh you pretty . . . with the wig." Malena

It became even clearer once I returned home with the long, black, straight wig in hand and saw the label name Nikita. Even the manufacturers figured that by wearing this wig, I was to transform myself into another woman.

A few weeks later, I moved to New York and met an actress and professor of aesthetic studies at the University of Texas-Dallas. Venus Opal Reese has interviewed hundreds of black women in researching this hair transformation.

During the opening night of her one-woman play "Split Ends," which takes an in-depth look at black women and their historical tangle with hair, Reese bombarded a small stage wearing a skimpy dress and a Tina Turner wig just as wild as her flailing arms. Seconds later, the wig flew off and fell to the floor. As the crowd yelped with laughter, Reese hurried to pick it up, and kept waving the hair in her hand as if still attached to her swirling head.

"Being a woman is a performance," she said in the skit. "It's a full-time, thankless job."

Dressing Up in Drag

Her point was to show that by wearing weaves and wigs, black women are dressing up in their own drag, whereby they can become the type of woman they aren't otherwise expected to be. Black women weaving up has so much to do with our need to feel feminine and strong at different points in our lives, Reese argued later in a phone interview.

"Hair is a navigator," she said. "It's a negotiator, it's a deal-breaker."

I'd say. In a world where black women are constantly blunted by racial and sexual discrimination, it makes sense that we'd begin adopting counter-representations of ourselves.

That's what the wig did for me. It gave me the freedom to be aloof, to flirt and to smile without fear of not receiving smiles in return.

I made several outings with the wig. During one trip, I went to a mall. The weave made my confidence soar. Heading there, I drove faster than usual. And every time I reached to pick up my cell phone, I dramatically tossed my hair back and said "Haloh!" roaring and perky like a valley girl. I was ready to explode onto the mall scene and attract all kinds of men.

As I entered the sliding doors, my hair swooshed about my face and I loved it. And after some time, I noticed that I was moving around like a butterfly, flighty and irregular. I couldn't stop giggling like a school girl and tossing my hair lightly back as I rolled my eyes sensuously around while talking.

The wig had changed me; with it, I felt excited to become Nikita, who I assumed was a fun-loving white woman.

I believed I could seduce with my hair without thinking men wouldn't return my vibes because I was too black. Whatever that feeling -- call it femininity if you like -- I had more of it. And while I hated the persistent itch of the wig and those fluffy bangs scratching my eyes, for the first time, I saw clearly the power of weaves.

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