Story by Ruby Sutton
Photos by Jonathan Schell
Kianna Green wakes up, walks to her mirror and sighs. Her hair roots are tightly curled while the ends are wavy, the results of her relaxer wearing off. She takes a deep breath before reaching for her flat iron. The Grant senior, who is half black and half Japanese, feels much more attractive when her hair is straight.
“As I grew older, I wanted to have prettier hair,” Green says. “When I was younger, I didn’t feel pretty when my hair was curly.”
Sylvia Jackson is a Grant alum who graduated in 1994. Today, she works as a hairstylist in Northeast Portland. As young African American woman, she remembers the days of waking up and spending hours before school getting her hair ready. Her work day is spent styling the hair of several women each day. For Jackson, the beauty standard for African-American women is a heavy load to bear.
“The stories that I was told were Cinderella and Snow White. There was never the little black girl with kinky hair,” Jackson recalls. “So what did I want? The hair they had because they were the ones getting the kisses by the princes and they were the ones getting carried away on the horses. You’ll always have that.”
Women’s hair and its different styles are at the forefront when it comes to the culture of beauty. But for young women of African descent, things are trickier. Take a look at everything from fashion magazines to television shows and you’ll notice a beauty standard that celebrates straight hair. It’s a standard that creates confusion and conflict for some, especially during a time like high school when developing a strong identity is critical for girls’ self esteem.
Sridevi Nair is an assistant professor of women’s studies at Portland State University. She teaches a course called “Women of Color in the U.S.” and she describes as reprehensible the effect that standards of beauty have on young black women. Nair says: “Instead of teaching ourselves and our young women to revel in our bodies and beauties, we’re trying to mainstream everyone to a very artificial standard, which has a long history in racism and classism.”
The clash of standards for black girls around beauty is nothing new. Being attractive usually has something to do with long, flowing locks. Straight hair is seen as the epitome of beauty. Nair says the expectation that all women adhere to this standard of beauty has been around for quite some time.
“It exists as a result of the whole beauty industry boom, which is definitely gender biased,” Nair says. “Women have always been under pressure to achieve impossible beauty standards. And African-American women within that are under pressure to achieve a degree of closeness to normative white femininity to be considered attractive.
“Much of this is packaged under guise of ‘looking professional’ these days,” she says. “And this trend is disturbing because no one is talking about the financial and psychic cost.”
For black women, the texture of natural hair varies. It can be kinky, curly, nappy or thick. Changing that texture can be a big task. The most common methods black women use to alter the appearance of their hair is through the use of relaxers, which are chemical treatments; flat irons that use extreme heat; and hair extensions.
Straightening black women’s hair is expensive, time-consuming and damaging to the hair itself.
Freshman Tori Sibley describes her natural hair as nappy and kinky. She currently has singles or braided extensions, and prefers her hair in this style because she can wear it down without it looking like “a big afro.” She says her hair is really important to her because it defines her. “Say that I get my hair shaved,” she says. “Your face changes. If I didn’t have hair, I wouldn’t feel beautiful.”
She admits that she sometimes feels like that when her hair is natural.
Senior Kiara Blake, on the other hand, has learned to love her natural hair and prefers wearing it curly. Despite having grown up in a primarily white community and feeling pressured to straighten her hair, within the last year Blake broke away from the standard. Her new look, she says, more fits her personality.
She says her natural hair is much easier to manage and describes its texture as “tight curls, not kinky, thank God.”
In the midst of making the switch to natural hairstyles, senior Nicole Johnson has not used a relaxer since her sophomore year. She says she is the only person in her family without one. Johnson grew tired of constantly wearing her hair straight. “I saw other girls wearing it curly and I was like, ‘Why can’t I do that?’”
Johnson knew it would be a long and tedious process but decided that being able to wear her hair natural and feel good about it was worth it. She says by summer, her locks will be at their best. “Everyone in my class asks me to wear my hair curly,” Johnson says. “Everyone is used to my hair straight and they’re tired of it.”
Although natural hairstyles seem to be increasing in popularity within some segments of the black community, Nair says the negative connotations associated with untamed African-American hair are still too great to allow a noticeable shift. “Straight hair is still seen as a sign of professionalism and an attitude of ‘seriousness,’” she says. Curly hair still has associations of ‘wildness.’ Girls and younger women may be exempt to some degree, but that changes with age.”
Nair describes the media as portraying images of whiteness as the norm, and non-whiteness as a secondary presence. And although black women are gaining in notoriety on television, in the movies and in ads, they are portrayed in a way that still does some damage.
“If we look carefully, black and other women of color who appear with natural hair are often represented by stereotypically lighter-skinned and thinner models,” Nair says.
Often, these women are shown as glamorous, carefree and decidedly middle-class. “They do not reflect the experiences of real women of color in the U.S. today, or their living conditions,” she says.
For Kianna Green, attaining the perfect look means sitting the eight-and-a-half hours in a salon chair getting a relaxer treatment known as the Japanese Straightening System continuously applied in order to make her naturally curly hair lay as flat as her white classmates.
Green describes her untreated hair as a curly, tight, tangled mess. She likes curly hair that is more wavy but not her own because it gets too puffy. She also believes that having straight hair makes morning routines much easier.
She recalls growing up and always dreaming of having straight hair. She says the pressure to have “good” hair is much stronger in the black community and feels that “if you ask anyone, they say that straight hair is prettier.”
Stylist Jackson says: “There are a lot of issues around our hair and just regarding who we are as a people because we were brought to this country.” Jackson feels because young people want to emulate what they see and the images displayed throughout America are primarily of white people, black youth are subconsciously being influenced.
For senior Cheyenne Lever, nice-looking hair is just as important as a well-assembled outfit. “I feel like it’s just really important to us as a culture because it’s a part of our dress, it’s something that goes with our outfit.” Lever used to have a relaxer but chose to grow her permanently straightened hair and embrace her curls. Lever’s hair takes a total of two-and-a-half hours to flatiron as opposed to the 15 minutes she spends on it when it’s curly.
Those kinds of experiences leave Jackson hopeful. “I think people are trying to go back to their roots,” Jackson says. “Society has always told us that our hair wasn’t good enough, our skin wasn’t good enough and I think people are not buying that anymore. They are expressing themselves through their hair.
“People come in and sit in my chair and they say, ‘Oh, I have the most awful hair!’ and it’s like, ‘No, you have hair,’” Jackson says she tells her clients. “You’re unique and you’re perfect just the way you are.”
FROM THE WRITER
I first straightened my hair was when I was six years old and I have been doing it on and off ever since. Let me start by saying there is nothing wrong with straightening your hair. Or braiding your hair. Or dyeing your hair. Or shaving your hair. Or getting extensions.
As long as you are doing it for the right reason – for yourself.
From a young age, I felt it was necessary to chemically straighten and flat iron my hair in order to be viewed as attractive by both the world and myself. Growing up in a primarily white community, straight hair was the norm even among girls with my skin tone. Many of us, starting in middle school, used a flat iron on a daily basis.
My parents were never too concerned about my hair. Throughout my childhood, it was generally pulled back or braided to ensure that I could be active and play without worrying about it. However, I quickly learned that not everyone viewed hair this way.
I have a vivid memory of visiting the African-American side of my family and my aunt stroking my head and saying “it looks like no one loves you.” Over time, I became much more aware of how older girls who resembled me wore their hair and thinking that I should imitate them in order to be beautiful. I remember watching the black girls on the
Disney channel with their long, perfectly straight hair and thinking that if my hair looked like theirs I would be just as pretty.
Ironically, the overuse of my flat iron during sophomore year resulted in my hair being so damaged that it had to be drastically cut. This put me even farther from my goal of having long, straight hair and forced me to reevaluate what I really wanted and why.
I realized that the pressure to straighten my hair had not come from friends or family or even boys. It dawned on me that I had been spending all this money and effort on straightening my hair to conform to the image projected by the media.
I’ve come to realize that my hair does not define me, but rather is a part of me. This is not to say that I will never straighten my hair again. It’s just comforting to know that I can choose to wear my hair natural and still feel confident.
So if you step out of the shower, throw some mousse in your hair and let it air dry, I support that. If you’re tired of the hassle that comes with having curly hair and you’d rather wear it straight, fine. Just make sure that you are doing it for no one’s satisfaction but your own. If you are happy with yourself, that’s all that matters.