Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: black hair

Body Beautiful

Not long after you’ve created your profile on an internet dating website, you begin to notice certain archetypes among the selection on display. There are the people who have clearly been burned in the past: “I don’t want someone who PLAYS GAMES!” they whine. “I want someone who KNOWS WHO THEY ARE, WHO HAS A GOOD HEAD ON THEIR SHOULDERS, WHO’S NOT GOING TO STAND ME UP, LEFT WAITING FOR THEM, SITTING AT THE STARBUCKS, ON CHURCH STREET, BY MYSELF LIKE, A DOUCHE!” Poor dears don’t realize that their catharsis about past dates may scare off future ones.

Then there are the middle-aged people who have a picture twenty years old (I see this more with straight people than the gays). Soft-lighting, SEARS portrait backdrops, feathered bangs, handlebar moustaches or linebacker shoulder pads: it doesn’t take a student of fashion history, hair styling or photographic technology to recognize a picture is from 1983. You learn to be weary of those whose pictures are too flattering, all sucked-in cheeks and airbrushing, while conversely a sad-sack screenshot taken in a basement, lit poorly by an IKEA desk lamb, is just as troubling.

It has long-bothered me that some people define their potential date’s race (and let’s be clear, they almost always want ‘white’). No matter how politely they try to put it (“Sorry, dudes, only interested in white guys. No offense!”) the idea of pre-emptively rejecting a whole group of people based on their ethnicity makes me pretty uncomfortable. Then, there is the added concern of how you would feel to see yourself eliminated from meeting a potential date because of something like that. The person who wrote the profile might defend themselves by saying “But I’ve saved him the time of messaging me!” but it is completely acceptable to ignore messages from those you’re not interested in. (And as though you’re such hot shit that you’re getting so many messages you have to cut them down! Bitch please.) Rather, there’s a power thing going on here, and it is not in the favour of ethnic minorities.

Lately, another dating requirement has caught my eye: guys who look like body builders (recognizable by their pictures of flexed arms or peeling off t-shirts to display rippling abs) always seem to be after other body builders. They make their preference clear in a myriad of ways, some subtle and some obvious. First, for their interests, where other people put things like ‘Indian food’ and ‘The New Yorker’, they proceed to list every single physical activity they do and have ever done, from jogging to white water rafting. They will often write of going to the gym regularly and how they would like to find someone to go with.

When they describe who it is they would like to date, they have a number of codes: they are interested in meeting guys who are “healthy”, “athletic”, “in shape”, “physically active”, who “take care of themselves” and “share their interests” (presumably, white water rafting). You look at the pictures of their broad bull-like shoulders and pectorals like melons, and you look down at your thuddingly-real-person physique, and think “Forget it.”

They might as well write “Look, I spent a lot of time on this body. It was hard work, okay! So you damn well better have also spent your free weekends pumping iron and drenched in sweat if you’re going to message me, because why would I settle for anything less?”

I may be being too hard on them. But, along with Gaston from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, my feelings about narcissistic body builders were largely shaped by the incredible book The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste by Jane and Michael Stern, which tells you everything you’ve ever want to know about lawn ornaments, Hawaiian shirts and the Gabor sisters. Their history of body building is a dead-pane riot:

“Body building is both an art and sport, but not quite either. It would be more of an art if everybody who participated aimed for a different kind of body—if, for instance, one body builder created a huge left arm and a minuscule right one with a fabulously well-developed hand, and another one specialized in spindly thighs atop bulked-up calves. That would be interesting art…

As a sport, it is pretty silly too, because it is devoted to the cultivation of muscles that have no purpose. It does not demand the talent to run or hit or jump, and there is no test of skill on court or field that requires carting around so massive a physique. Unlike gymnastics or ballet, which also require a fabulous physique, body building involves doing nothing other than standing in front of a crowd and flexing arms, stomachs, and buttocks in synch with music.

Participants sometimes justify it as a sport because of all the hard work that goes into developing a perfect body. But this is strictly conceptual, as it is a process spectators do not see. It would be like showing the car that won Le Mans without showing the race. The activity body building most resembles is dog showing. In both cases, the most handsome wins.”

Maybe some body builders actually like the process of ‘building’ their bodies, get pleasure from all that lifting and grunting. If it makes them feel good and learning all the technical names for muscles is how they want to spend their time, great! But if they are doing it because that kind of body attracts lovers with the same, then body building is like black hair extensions or boob jobs: you’ve literally objectified yourself, turning your body something for another’s pleasure rather than your own.

It got to the point where I no longer would look at the profiles of men who categorized their bodies as “athletic”. But while researching for this post I discovered some guys who went against the grain. “I’m as interested in the mind as the body,” one hunk wrote. Another, “I don’t have a type, so don’t hesitate to message me!”

I realized I was as prejudiced as the body builders I mocked. Perhaps body building, while being more extreme and time-consuming, was just another way we presented ourselves in the most attractive way possible, not so different from my shaving and choosing a cute t-shirt for a first date.

Still, I’d take Aladdin over Gaston any day.

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‘Good’ Hair

White women complain about their hair. Ones with straight hair curl it. Ones with curly hair straighten it. They dye it, obsess about the length, and buy conditioners allegedly chock-full of the essence of the rainforest. But there is no comparison with black women.

I knew that black women’s hair was a big deal, but I had no idea how big until watching Good Hair, the 2009 documentary narrated by Chris Rock, who claims he was inspired to make the film by his toddler daughter’s innocent question, “Why don’t I have good hair?” Very quickly, we learn that ‘good’, in terms of black hair, means straight, smooth and shiny. ‘Good’ hair essentially means white hair. And black women will do anything for it, from burning their scalps with chemical relaxers to sitting for hours as real-hair is sown into their heads. And money seems to be no object: a good weave costs upwards of a thousand dollars, and the black hair industry is worth an estimated 9 billion dollars.

The film doesn’t waste any time getting to the politics of all this styling. As an interview subject explains that all every single famous black women straightens her hair or wears a weave, a montage of silky-tressed Beyonce, Oprah, Condeleeza Rice and Michelle Obama proves this to be the case. A group of teenage girls reach the conclusion that they would not feel comfortable going to a job interview with a curly, “nappy” ‘fro. And a clip of Charlie’s Angels-era Farrah Fawcett, flipping her famous feathered bangs, is immediately followed by a black interviewee with very similar blonde-dyed waves. I was shocked by footage of a six-year old getting her hair chemically straightened (shouldn’t that not be allowed?), and the trouble that weaves cause even after they’re in: you can’t wash them yourself, you have to go back to the salon to have them tightened every month or so, and many women don’t ley them be touched, even during the act of love-making. Like breasts implants, which I’ve heard lose erotic sensitivity for the women they’re attached to, getting weaves in your hair seems like admitting that a part of your body is no longer for you. As the Rev. Al Sharpton says, in a very Al Sharpton-y way, “How can we overcome our oppression when we’re wearing it on our heads every day?”

While Rock presents the largest black-owned hair styling company, he spends a lot of time on the argument that the black beauty industry largely benefits white and Asian-owened companies and stores. The documentary becomes borderline racist when Rock targets Chinese and Korean storeowners who sell long, straight weaves for black women, and tries to get them to buy a bag full of black hair (obviously, Afro wigs). Rock gets somewhat offended when the store owners say nobody wants hair like that, but as Sharpton had previously explained, if it’s black women who are doing the buying, and the overall culture which is influencing, you can’t really blame the sellers individually.

While many of the interviewed ladies talk on and on about the process of getting their weaves put in, they draw blanks when Rock asks them where they are from.

“It’s human hair,” a couple of them say.

“Yes, but who was this human? Where are they from?”

Truth be told, I had never considered where all this real hair was coming from, and the answer startled me: India! Young women in India will grow their thick hair as long as they can, cut it off for free in religious ceremonies, after which the temples sell the tresses to North America at a huge profit. There’s so much money in the Indian hair trade that there’s even an illegal black market: women have to watch out for men who will cut their hair off while sleeping or at a dark movie theatre! Thinking about black women importing weaves from India in order to have hair which is more white makes one’s head spin.

There’s two paradoxes in Good Hair. The first Rock points out when he mentions that, despite benefiting large white-controlled beauty companies and Asian-owned business, the beauty industry employs untold numbers of black hair dressers and barbers in every single in North America, who would see their livelihood disappear if more women embraced the natural look the movie appears to promote. Somewhat related, the look of ‘good’ hair is often not simply white hair on a black person: the film displays all the fantastical colours, patterns, shapes and heights that black hairstylists artistically create. While chemical straightening and weaving may have started with trying to look like Farrah Fawcett, by this point it can be seen as a launching pad for whole new, and black-specific, looks.

The irony is if I was a black woman I think I would like an Afro. Not a big one, a cute, compact one, like Macy Gray (who the film could have interviewed, as I read previously that she was advised to straighten her hair if she wanted to sell more records).

But I am Caucasian. I do not know what it’s like to grow up bombarded with imagery which equates beauty with whiteness.

African-Americans have created so much which has influenced and shifted North American culture, through music, language, comedy and fashion. The rhythms of the black church can be heard in the President’s speeches. Black men have influenced white men, through the athletic jerseys, hoodies and close-cropped hair which seem essential for white rappers (think about that term; white has to be added to rappers as black is the assumed). It’s a shame that there’s not more discursive space and appreciation for the beauty natural black hair.