Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Hair Post (Live from Liberia!)

In the whirlwind of preparation, I didn't get the chance to let you all know ahead of time, but I am in Liberia with the Lott Carey Mission School, visiting with students. Please forgive the typos, lack of pictures, and any other aesthetic concerns. I have to type quickly while I have electricity!

I've started and stopped this blog post several times because my feelings on hair range from "I am not my hair" to "my hair is a major part of my image and presentation to the world." I've come to realize that both statements are true.

Last week, a very good friend of mine remarked that he saw a black woman and a white woman seated next to each other on the train. with identical ponytails. He said he was "sad." I immediately responded defensively, "With high dropout rates of black boys, I find it hard to be particularly sad about something like a woman's choice in hair style." I added, rather curtly, "Women across the world from all cultures struggle with the concept of beauty; white women tan, Asian women shade their face from the sun, and black women straighten their hair."

My own hair journey isn't particularly unique. I haven't had a relaxer in over 5 years, and about two years ago, I colored my hair for the first time. Usually, my hair is pressed straight, but every now and then I wear my hair in it's natural wavy/curly state. There is a divide within the natural community about whether pressed or colored hair is natural, and while I respect all sides of the argument, I consider my hair natural.

I'd love to say I went natural in an effort to throw a metaphorical punch at the Western standard of straight, silky, soft, and as my friend says "wispy" hair. But that's not true. I'm natural because it's healthier, it rids me of the (expensive) dependency on relaxers, and I love the versatility of being able to switch from wavy to straight. Plus, natural hair is less irritated by heat and color than chemically processed hair.

Typically when talk begins about people straightening their hair to look white and the cultural/political implications of this or that kind of hair, I reflexively reply that "the style of your hair is a personal choice. It's all beautiful if it makes you happy! It's just haaaaair!"


I landed at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, Liberia. At the time of writing I have seen dozens of Liberian women in the streets, at the mission campus, and of course at the airport. While their clothing ranges from traditional to American and their features are by no means homogenous, one thing is almost universal: they all have some type of hair supplements. Weaves, wigs, braids, long silky ponytails, lace fronts... you name it, it's here. I couldn't believe it! I've always naively believed that in Africa, I could find a strong contingent of women proud to wear their hair in its natural state. Of course I knew that the world has been infected by the belief that straight hair, fair skin, and light features are most attractive, but I desperately wanted to believe that in Liberia (the descendants of freed American slaves!) there was a dedication to tightly coiled, rich, dark and kinky hair.

As I said before, I dismissed my friend's claim that the matching ponytails were "sad." But I'm beginning to understand the sentiment. In this oppressive heat, I can't imagine being so driven to add more hair to what I already have! What would the world be like if the standard was tightly coiled, kinky hair? Or better yet, what if we lived in a world where an Afro, locks, straight hair, curly hair, braided hair, wooly hair, silky hair, and all other types were seen as equally acceptable?

Could this happen? I'm not sure. Is your hair a reflection of who you are or simply a hassle to deal with in the morning? Is it sad that people feel the need to change the texture of their hair? Share. I will share the comments and this post with my brothers and sisters here in Liberia.


  1. Crystal, glad to hear you made it to Liberia safely and I'm even more glad that you wrote this. I do think that your hair can say a lot about you. Regardless of what you're thinking when you dress your hair, somebody else is going to have their own perception. This isn't good or bad, it's just how it is.

    I try not to judge black women in their hair because I know how difficult it can be to maintain. I used to rock an afro myself and it was a bïtch, but I loved it and it was worth all the hassle. I definitely do have a preference for black women to show their natural kinky-, curly-, and woolyness of their hair, but I try to be patient with those that don't.

    Enjoy Liberia. You're winning!

  2. Beautifully written. Get home safe.

  3. Hi, Crystal! Glad you're having such a great time in Liberia!

    What an interesting post! My hair is natural and I like to keep it that way both for the reasons you listed (less expensive, healthier), as well as others (for example, it's easier to travel for long periods of time in remote areas when I can wash and go - critical for my job as an environmental scientist).

    I've also considered the beauty/political ramifications of my hair choice, because I DO think it's important that people recognize that female beauty comes in many, many different forms.

    I do dislike that the homogenization to a eurocentric/western beauty standard that I see in many of the places I've traveled, and hair is a big part of that. My main problems with this kind of homogenization are: a) who DOESN'T love variety? b) it necessarily lays a burden (financial, emotional, time) on those women who do not naturally fit into the homogenous model - and this is sometimes a burden they cannot afford. The amount of money, emotion and time that African-American women invest in changing their hair to suit the model of straightness is, to my mind, an unacceptable burden on our community - particularly when, most often, natural hair would be more beautiful.

    I think that your hair is, in some ways, reflection of who you are just as much as any other part of your outward appearance is - how you choose to dress or how well you take care of your skin, etc. I don't think that it defines you, in any way, but I do absolutely think that it can reflect certain aspects of your personality/experience. How long do you wear it? How healthy is it? What color? Is it dip-dyed? Is it attention-getting and outrageous? Is it curly-but-tamed, or free and natural? Etc.

  4. Interesting post. When I traveled to Malawi, it was weaves, braids, wigs, relaxers or very short natural cuts. When I saw images of Beyonce and Meagan Good in the newspaper in the style section, I thought "Wow, guess there really is a international culture, huh?".
    Similar hair stuff happening here is happening there. It was also interesting to see people assume I went natural to be in touch with my African heritage (not the case).

    While I don't like to think of myself as defined by my hair, I do believe it reflects some aspects of how I approach life. Whenever I would remark about not wanting to swim and do something because of my hair growing up, my mother would tell me "hair should never stop you from enjoying life". So I found going natural makes it easier for me to work out and do water or outdoor activities without being hindered by hair worries. I am also someone who loves to spend my time and my money enjoying activities, so going natural is very budget friendly to my grad student lifestyle which leaves less room for self-care expenses.

    But the act of going natural did mean something special to me beyond convenience and lifestyle. One of my worries about the big chop and going natural was dating and , quite frankly, being attractive to black males. Then I hit a point when I realized that I was letting other people's opinions and preferences affect how I chose to live my life...so I grabbed the scissors. If changing my hair was going affect the people that end up in my life, that just helps me weed out those who don't really need to be there.

  5. I've been struggling with this theme of beauty since I moved to Senegal in August, but as the months went by, I slowly began to question:

    1. How feasible are electric straighteners, "Dominican blowouts", bi-weekly trips to the hair salon, "natural hair products", regular trims and etc, when my host family battles over whether or not to spend $1 on a mosquito net?

    ...Not to group all citizens of West African countries the same way, but from venturing to Ghana, Nigeria, and now Senegal, there is certainly a trend when it comes to personal appearance and looking your best, despite your situation...so why not put a weave in, get braids, of rock a wig for 50cents, if it will look nice and presentable for a month's time minimum? (I remember growing up how my Mom used to cornrow my hair with $2.99/pack of Remy, because it would last longer...)

    These days when I look at the many weaves, wigs, and woven delights, I am starting to notice more and more the art of coiffure, and the beauty behind each person's selection of synthetic extensions...

    In a world where we are desperately trying to hold on to our cultural roots, natural hair may be our [Black-American women] affirmation of our ancestry in America but the women in Africa may be holding on differently...perhaps by still wearing the fabrics and prints of their ancestors...

    Crystal I am so happy for your trip home :-)

    Great post and I'm excited to tune in to your amazing journey!

  6. I loved this post, Crystal. That's very surprising that the women of Liberia are rocking synthetics. I'm happy you're able to experience the culture and write about your journey! :-)

  7. Insightful, to say the least. Enjoy your trip, I can't wait to hear more. You have a definite gift for communicating, stay encouraged (and cool :D)

  8. I understand the natural versus chemical struggle:
    I woke up this morning in the cold and dry New York city weather with my hair feeling brittle and looking wire-ry.
    I have thought about shaving my head several times a day in the last week. This battle is one that I feel in isolation most days but somehow I can not and do not want give into a relaxer. I am not my hair but my hair IS an extension of me that I love.
    I have a dream that one day, there will be an equal or greater number of salons encouraging the nurture of natural hair as there are promoting the perm.
    Thanks for starting the convo...


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