Good Hair; Fair Skin; Feminism Or What?

It all started after I watched Chris Rock’s documentary GOOD HAIR. Now I know. Honest to god. Why do African American women straighten their hair? It is like asking why Indian women bleach their face or use fairness cream. Ideas of acceptable beauty, that is why, to put it simply.  First about the documentary-I had no idea hair is so intimately connected to African-American female identity that even Michelle Obama uses relaxer to manage her hair. There is no other way she could make it so straight. For ignorant little me I always wondered what kind of influence people like Oprah and Beyonce had on the image and identity of African-American women. Never seen Oprah with ‘bad hair’ nor seen Beyonce Knowles with black hair actually. (Although in this image it looks like her real hair.) Apparently it is not just women but African men too who have an opinion on female hair. After all the idea of beauty can be very culture specific and it is what you don’t have that you covet. In this case to be white. Straight, silky hair for African women and fair skin for Indian women (and men).

At one level I guess I am the last person to comment on hair. I was born bald. Then I had to undergo some bizarre Hindu tonsure ceremony at the age of one that made me bald again. As I grew up in middle-class, aspirational, globalising India, when hair colour first came to our parts I decided to go red. Before that we used sparingly use hydrogen peroxide on a lock or two just for ‘style’. But my hair never took to colour rather, colour never took to my hair. It remained black as. I gave up. Until I moved to New Zealand. That first year at university, egged on by my girlfriends, I got red and purple highlights at the campus hairdressers. It was supercool, I thought. Long black, wavy hair with darker highlights. My then boyfriend, generally averse to consumerism, thought it suited me too. But I never thought of straightening my hair. Not even after my sister called me boring. Not even when Indian hair was meant to be coloured blonde/caramel/chocolate/whatever and then straightened with a middle parting. I like my wavy hair. Could not have it any other way. I like being boring too, if that is the term. It is a pretty simple routine, looking after my hair, and so Indian! Oil my hair twice a week, henna every six weeks. Good shampoo, conditioner, serum. Sometime I massage yogurt into my scalp before a wash. No chemicals and rarely the hair-dryer. Of course I indulge in shades of blue-black sporadically, like now in the winter and I do style it for the odd ‘red carpet/cocktail’ event. Because I believe in impeccable, neat appearances; to be pleasing to the self and to others but not enslaved to ideas of beauty. I also like the colour of my skin and sometimes wish it was darker. However it took a long time to arrive at this comfort zone.

Growing up, considered ugly because of my snub nose and weird because of my temperament (you know, asking too many questions, having an opinion and unquantifiable dreams etc), I tried to fit in. To be a good Indian girl. Which means to get high education and marry well. Within that context feminism meant smoking, drinking, wearing mini skirts and being sexually promiscuous. Freedom of thought and expression, challenging the status quo or the inherent ability to choose were not part of the discourse. There was no discourse actually. Nor were there role models. The only ‘feminists’ were single, dowdy looking women whom men and other women poked fun at. They lived in another world, far away from middle India. On the other hand, as my mother insisted, economic freedom was important but only in the context of the family, for the husband and children. Individuality isolated you and community meant caste and patriarchy. So it was a strange place to be. I think it still is, I feel, every time I go back to India or talk to Indians here. Success is equated with beauty pageants and titles, being on television, working for a multinational company, acting in Bollywood films and still being a good Indian girl at the end of the day. Who would be considered successful, Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan or Arundhati Roy?  I can go on about Aishwarya being a product of a consumerist, Indian middle class entrenched in the patriarchy but then Arundhati on the other hand is still from the upper class elite so she can afford to be what she wants. Where does that leave someone like me? Give in or move out.

Non-white women have to create their own paradigms and parameters of female liberation/feminism. It is a constant, continuous battle with the self, your native culture, with the community and the whole wide world. Then there are men. And the media. Images that bombard you with ideas of beauty. Blonde, blue-eyed, super skinny beauty. Or exoticism that underscores the ‘OTHER’. Or losing your femininity completely to become man-like. Hairy armpits, unwaxed legs, a moustache…what do you do? I cam read Bell Hooks. when I did a paper in feminist film theory at university. It took me some time to understand that feminism does not have to be white, it does not have to be anti-world or anti-men neither is it about burning your bra or not threading your upper lip. It is about self-esteem and resisting against the patriarchy. It is about truth, love and empowering your children. It works on a spectrum that gives us the freedom to choose and be. If an African-American woman wants to relax her hair or not, as long as it is an exercise in self-awareness, it is fine. I compare Indian women using fairness creams to African-American women straightening their hair. It is about the capitalist patriarchy and conformity; it is about race and gender politics. I just have not found any discourse or analysis about fairness creams. Yet. ~

PS-Here is some follow up on this post about hair.