Viola Davis: Why Black Women Are So Attached To Hair
"I am not my hair" - India Arie
When Viola Davis stepped out onto the red carpet at the Academy Awards on Sunday, I immediately smiled, rushed to my phone and tweeted:
Viola had ditched her wig for the special occasion and had showed the world that she is comfortable enough in her own skin to sport her natural tiny-fro.
Though she didn’t win Best Actress, she definitely made a memorable statement that had the Internet buzzing Monday morning, and black women—like myself, who’ve struggled with a love-hate relationship with my hair for years—felt encouraged to follow suit.
Davis told InStyle the encouragement came from her husband. She said, “My husband wanted me to take the wig off. He said, ‘If you want to wear it for your career, that’s fine, but in your life, wear your hair. Step into who you are!’”
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Davis took her husband’s words another step further and debuted her natural hair on the cover of this month’s L.A. Times magazine.
Many women can relate to Davis’ hair complexities. Throughout the years, I’ve worn every hairstyle a black woman can wear—weaves, cornrows, wigs, relaxed hair, natural hair—all in pursuit to define my image. At one point, I had become so dependent on weaves that I refused to stop wearing them even though my real hair was badly damaged. It took a long time for me to become comfortable enough in wearing my real hair so that I could get it back to being healthy.
Davis’ bold move made me question: Why are we so attached to our hair? Why do we let hairstyles define how we feel and who we are? Why are we willing to spend thousand of dollars on hairstyles and engage in hair grooming practices that may or may not be harmful to our bodies (that’s up for debate)?
Like many of our practices, we can turn to history for the answers.
Black women’s hair grooming techniques can actually be traced back to West African societies where hair was considered a social indicator. In their book, “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in American,” journalists Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps describe the social and cultural significance of black hairstyles in various West African tribes like the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yurbuba, (During the 1400s through 1800s, these were the people who filled the slave ships that sailed to the “New World.”)
They explain that a woman with long, thick hair was seen to demonstrate “the life-force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity, a ‘green thumb’ for raising bountiful farms and many healthy children.” Long hair was admirable and what every woman wanted. Furthermore, more elaborate hair designs signified a person’s class status and role in the community.
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In these societies, women were responsible for the presentation of their hair, making sure it was kept clean. Neglected and messy hair implied that a woman had no morals. Because of grooming standards, women spent hours on their hair. The process could last several hours, sometimes several days. For this reason, hairstylists were considered very trustworthy.
Today, a growing number of women are ditching the “creamy crack” to go natural—a trend that suggests one grooming technique is better than the other. I say, whether your hair is relaxed or natural, the goal is for it to be healthy. And for you to not be dependent on a certain look to make you feel good about yourself.
Viola Davis shows us that we are not our hair.