India’s Biggest Export | Hair Weaves

Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-ChiefLast Modified: 17:45 PM EDT,  7 November 2009

Though this post is about Hair Weaving in America, you will have noted that the featured photo is actually taken in Guinée Bissau by Ferdinand Reus. Africans and people of African descent across the globe continue to struggle with their self-image in relation to the dominant culture. In America, because of the relative proximity of slavery and the accelerated desire by the Black community to assimilate, straightening and weaving of hair has reached the level of a fine art.

Because we are inundated by images of Black women with long, flowing tresses, this has come to symbolize the norm. But when I see images of African women with super straight hair it is always disconcerting. The controversy of this topic took me back to my childhood before we expatriated to Africa. I remember as a child my father's absolute abhorrence of a particular manifestation of self-hatred within the Black American community.

Because my mother came from a "bourgeoisie" background, which meant, among many other things, that the females of her family routinely chemically straightened their hair; he felt that by not allowing this type of "white man's foolishness" into his household, he was liberating her and by proxy us, from the enslavement of the multi-billion dollar hair care industry.

Mom and Dad

I have included a pictures below of my parents just before we moved to Yoruba State, as well as a photo of me when I was a girl. I look at my pictures and I see the young girls on the show, and by a large I see myself, minus the self-hatred. This is not to say that I didn't have other issues, and perhaps, as my memoir/blog explores and expounds upon, many, many issues. However, one of those issues was never color or hair until I started working in the modeling/entertainment industry.

Anyone who has visited my Facebook page and seen pictures of me, will undoubtedly notice that I used "hair augmentation" to achieve the long, straight, silky hair that is preferred by the industry. Much has been written about the struggle that Black entertainers and models encounter when they do not conform to the Eurocentric standards of beauty. I too, decided, it was better to work than to starve, and therefore began to judiciously employ the use of hair augmentation via wigs and weaves.

However, as a child and young adult, I did not have to suffer the pain, long hours, and great expense required to achieve these "mythical" looks. This is not to say that we did not spend a significant amount of time grooming, but we followed in the age-old African tradition of sitting between our mother's legs, as she tilted back our heads, and carefully ran a comb down a farmer's row, then proceeded to oil and braid. Once we moved to Africa, she transitioned this task to a number of skilled braiders, of whom, Mama Niyi was my favorite.

In fact, because of my father's diligence, he did by and large spare us from the indignities of wanting to "look white" or "to be white", and because of the brutalization of Blacks which we witnessed first hand and through the television during the height of the 1960's American Civil Rights Movement; there was nothing to recommend embracing a culture that clearly despised and routinely denigrated all things African, Afrocentric and of African descent, which encompassed the Black American Community.

I recall with a sense of bitter irony, how it was my desire to be more "black" and to fit in with the Black American culture that first compelled me to put a chemical straightener in my hair. I was in college when I got my first relaxer, because my mother would not permit me to relax my hair prior to my departure from her house. I remember how devastated I was when after this first relaxer, I lost all my hair, and subsequently had to shave my head bald.

After this, I rarely, if ever relaxed my hair because my hair which is already fine, would literally melt from the harshness of the relaxer. I have hair similar to my mother's and it has taken her years to get back to the place where she was in the picture. Now, at sixty-seven, my mother is finally comfortable with the fact that her hair can't take a relaxer, and that she is most beautiful when she wears the hair that G-d gave her.  Blogs like "Gorgeous Black Women, Bald Beauty", are a wonderful resource for the breadth and depth of African beauty that is separate and apart from the Eurocentric ideals pushed in this country.Ayanna as Child

Upon our return to the States, my mother briefly succumbed to the use of chemical straighteners as she returned to the work force and once again began to interface with her family who definitely did not approve of "nappy hair". I never realized until shortly before my grandmother's death, how long and thick her hair was as a result of her Native American ancestry. Though it fell nearly to her waist, it was not silky, and therefore remained hidden beneath a succession of wigs until her death.

I, on the other hand, lost my desire to chemically straighten my hair after twice loosing and shaving my head bald. Throughout the remaining years of college, I either wore my hair cut short in a natural or in braids. After graduation and once I moved to Miami, was when I discovered the limitations of my natural hair styles. In order to secure work, I often donned wigs or had weaves put in, while underneath my hair was usually shaved close or braided.

During the interim periods between jobs, I would take my braids out to let my hair "breathe", usually by wearing a wild-blown Afro, but this look could never secure me "gigs". Once I stopped working as a model entirely, I ceased to wear weaves, and began to cover my hair all the time with African head wraps. This often led to speculation by some that I was either a Militant Black Nationalist, a racist, or a Muslim.

Six months ago, I decided that I would try an experiment where I removed my head wrap which I had worn nearly continuously for five or six years, to put in a weave. The public's reaction was immediate and exuberant as I went from "unseen" woman to a desirable vixen after just four hours in the stylist's chair.

During this adventure, the one thing I refused to compromise about was the use of a chemical straightener. I got clip in strands of hair to augment my natural hair which was then blown straight and flat ironed. My weave was done by a Habeshanet, without the use of a chemical straightener.

I find Habeshanet stylists willing to style natural hair without complaint, and they seem to assiduously try and deter clients from using chemical straighteners, especially if it will damage their hair. This is unlike many, NOT ALL, Black American stylists, who will immediately encourage you to get a relaxer, "just so the edges will lay down"; but in reality, it is because they are either not skilled at styling natural hair, they don't like their own hair and by default yours, or because it takes too much time and effort which cuts into their money.

Needless to say, my new, long, loosely curled weave evoked public fawning and adoration, which made me laugh because I had not changed one bit, and had they run their hands through my hair, they would have discovered this.  Chris Rock brings comedic humor to bear on this sensitive and psychologically damaging issue in his movie Good Hair.

As I write this, I have once again cut my hair short similar to my profile picture, and either wear it flat ironed or curly. Either way it is natural i.e. not chemically straightened, and it is easy to take care of. But, it was challenging to find a stylist who would cut my hair off as requested, which though long, was damaged from years of wearing traditional head wraps.

Working as a model and living in Miami, where surface worship is a premium, had I not long ago slain the dragon of seeking and needing approval of my appearance from the outside world, I would have perished. So I persisted in my search until I found a stylist, a Habeshanet named Astar, who not only cut my hair short, but styled it in a fierce look, and continues to do a phenomenal job with my natural hair care.

I am who I am. And as I recently had to inform a young man who wrote me to tell me how "hot" my body looks; I, and every human being, are more than our bodies. Our bodies are designed to help us make it through this physical journey called life, and are specifically designed for, and uniquely adapted to planet earth. The man who wins my heart, is the man who stimulates my intellect, among other things, for the brain truly is the biggest sexual organ.

Through the protagonist of the short story, The End of the Glittery Reign, (Part 2) one can feel some of the challenges that women in America have to contend with to achieve or even approach "standards" of beauty that are truly fictional. So this post is less about "black" hair, "good" hair, or "bad" hair, but about hair in general, and women's self-esteem in particular. It is because of our collective low self-esteem, that the beauty industry thrives, and weaves have become an international, multi-billion dollar phenomena, driven in large part by American consumers.

These consumers range from the ordinary to the mega-stars, Caucasian, Latinos, and Blacks, women and men, who have been forced by the entertainment and modeling industries to "augment" their appearances in various ways, most often through hair; which in most cases, is the hair of East Indians.

Indian Woman with Long Hair

The videos below provide a unique insight into this strange and twisted issue that plagues American woman as a whole, and Black American women in particular. Since many people who visit and read my blog are from countries with lower populations of Black Americans, I felt this would be a good piece to feature. African women, are often seen as exotic, sometimes taboo, and supremely desirable. In every country but America, my personal experience is that I have always felt most beautiful when I am authentic and natural. I have my father and mother to thank for grounding me in this area.

The Tyra Banks Show below focuses on the issue of "Good Hair, Bad Hair". It is the sad but true legacy of slavery and racism in America. When a person has no roots, they cannot weather the storms of life. When a person doesn't know who they are, they will try to be anybody. When a person stands for nothing, they will fall for anything. Platitudes spoken throughout the ages, yet ever true even with repetition.

And since this is such a heavy topic, I thought I would end on a humorous note.