When I was a kid, my mom, my sister, and I had a tradition, a ritual. Sundays were wash days, the one day a week where we washed our hair. It was a time-consuming process — combing out all the tangles sometimes took up to an hour. On Sunday nights we tuned into WAMU’s “The Big Broadcast” for classic episodes of “Gun Smoke” and “Dragnet” and started the process. I grew up in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood. So, throughout my childhood people who didn’t care to appreciate my hair called me a lion, told me I would look prettier with straight hair and that I should just try it sometime. My hair was called messy or frizzy. People asked if they could touch it or play with it. My hair was labeled difficult and exotic, something interesting or something foreign to be converted.
It’s been a few weeks since the now infamous Oscars slapping incident, but I find myself still thinking about how Jada Pinkett Smith must have felt and how White audiences might not have understood why such a joke particularly stung.
Jada Pinkett Smith has alopecia, a condition involving sudden hair loss that may be temporary or permanent. This condition is more common in women than men. She’s spoken about her alopecia before, and she often talks about taking care of her hair as a ritual and needing to find some spiritual expression from her choice to fully shave her head.
And I know this is the case for many Black women. For us, hair care is a ritual, it’s habitual, difficult, sometimes tiring. But it’s rewarding and part of our self-expression.
I think people know what natural Black hair looks like: it’s curly; it can be springy or kinky or coily. But what creates those curls? On average, Black people have fewer total hair follicles than White people. Research on a cross-section of Black hair reveals a flattened elliptical structure, which gives rise to curls. Black study participants also had more "broken" hairs, meaning hair without a root. And Black hair has more knots and more exogenous lipids, which might be why it swelled less upon exposure to water compared to the hair of White and Asian participants.
All of these unique qualities of Black hair mean Black haircare requires both a monetary and time investment. Meanwhile, we’re constantly told that our hair could be prettier and more manageable if it were straight, if it conformed to a Eurocentric ideal. A survey of Black women found that 74 percent of respondents have at some point felt frustrated with their hair and that this frustration may translate to feelings of negative self-esteem, as was the case for 41 percent of respondents. Sixty percent of respondents reported having chemically relaxed/straightened hair. This number has been decreasing in recent years as we begin to embrace the beauty of natural hair. But those who still straighten their hair put stress on and potentially damage their hair, which could lead to what is known as traction alopecia.
Traction alopecia is one of five types of alopecia, caused by a continuous pulling on hair roots. It affects one-third of Black women, which is largely attributed to the prevalence of hair straightening and cultural styling practices such as weaves, cornrows, and dreadlocks.
This conversation started with a slap at the Oscars, a moment that quickly became about two Black men and not a cruel remark made about Pinkett Smith and her hair. I hope we all recognize that Black hair is meaningful, spiritual, and a form of expression. More than anything, I hope we stop telling Black girls that they could be so pretty if only they straightened their hair.