Untangling the Truth Behind Real Hair

21 Oct

‘Real hair’ is a unique phrase that has always held a special purport among black American women. I’m now a junior in college, and I still remember the school yard whispers of “nappy-headed” or “bald-headed” or “she need to get a perm” that drove many young girls to spend painful minutes with corrosive relaxer in their hair, hours getting braids put in or spending money on clip-ons and weaves.

Real hair became the enemy, something that had to be tamed and conquered. What else was my generation to believe? What did we see when we watched television? When we went to the movies?

After school, my friends and I would always rush home to watch Fresh Prince of Bel-Air since we all loved Will Smith, and we paid attention to the type of girls he wooed and courted. They never had kinks or a fro, but straight, relaxed hair or perfectly tempered and tamed curls.

Long and straight was the only acceptable way to go, and if you dared to sport a different style, you were exposing yourself to taunts and teases.

We were being imprinted with a skewed perception of beauty, and we weren’t even aware of it. One of the girls Will ceaselessly pursued was his childhood heart throb, Jackie Ames, who, ironically enough, was played by a young Tyra Banks.

Earlier this week, Tyra Banks, in a moment of honesty and liberation, walked out on the set of the revamped Tyra show without a weave, a wig, braids or a clip-on. After a week of publicity and hype, she showcased her natural hair in all its glory. For people my age, this held weighty significance since her character, Jackie Ames, was often a model of perfection and beauty during our most formative years. We admired her swishy, straight, perfectly dyed hair and strived to emulate it in every way possible.

I was a part of that generation of young women who hid their natural hair under the tyranny of perms, braids, and weaves, and it never occurred to me that my real hair might be considered beautiful.

So to see Tyra going natural on live television in front of millions of fans put another crack in the wall of distorted ideals we had grown up with. It didn’t tear it down, but it at least put a small hairline (no pun intended) fracture in the wall that we had put up around ourselves and our natural beauty.

Am I and other young women like me ready to finally go without weaves or perms and wear our natural kinks and curls with pride?

The sad truth is no.

Black women have years, possibly generations, to go before we feel free to do that, and the cause is rooted in a vicious web of racial history and cultural assimilation. But because of what Tyra did on Tuesday, we’re a bit closer than we were before to untangling the web that still holds many of us captive.

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