Cassandra Jackson, Professor of English and contributor to the Huffington Post, wrote a fascinating article about the bitter-sweet transition that more and more African-American women are participating in ( Is Natural Hair The End of Black Beauty Culture?). No, I’m not talking about becoming male. I’m referring to their journey from chemically straightened hair to natural fros. It’s a process…both physical and emotional. Hair is laden with symbolic value, especially for African-Americans whose culture and political identity is so tied up with it.
So why is this phenomenon bitter-sweet? Because it means the decline of the beauty shop experience. For decades, African-American women had to spend countless hours, on a weekly basis, tending to their hair. The shop became a Church or community-hall of sorts, where women would gather and share laughter, stories and suffering.
I think women of all cultures gravitate towards communal spaces like beauty shops. For instance, Indian women have the hours-long henna procedures that take place in their salons and Orthodox Jewish women gather monthly in Mikvahs (ritual baths). By virtue of these sites being for women only, they create a sacred, secret place for women to let go.
But I think there’s something else going on that goes beyond the single-sex nature of these gatherings. After all, we’ve always had gender-specific social clubs and gyms. Beauty shops are different because in them we are beautifying ourselves. We are engaging in intimate behaviors and as soon as we walk out the salon, bathhouse, mikvah, where ever, we are changed. When we let others into these intimate practices, we are opening ourselves up in deep, vulnerable and, ironically, empowering ways. Moreover, we are beautifying ourselves in ways that only people within our religion, cultural or social circles truly understand which makes the rituals that much more meaningful — even if that means burning our scalps for straight hair.
I understand Jackson’s bitter-sweet feelings. Hopefully, she and her friends can find other places to beautify themselves in unique and culturally-binding ways.