Hair Raising

by Reihan Salam

Over at The Times Literary Supplement, Carol Tavris reviews Rebecca Herzig’s provocative new history of hair removal in the United States, and I was particularly struck by this passage:

When, Herzig wonders, does a practice cease to be unpleasant and become cruel? Many would answer “when it is involuntary”, but that begs a crucial question: What is “voluntary”? Americans bristle at the idea that spending thousands of dollars and enduring excruciating pain in the pursuit of beauty is anything other than an exercise of free will; on the contrary, many assert, it is an expression of freedom and “liberation”. American women, Herzig observes, readily agree that other women are governed by social norms and pressures to conform, other women are dupes of advertisers and marketers, but they themselves are independent. They wax the hair off their genitals and elsewhere to enhance sexual pleasure, please their partners, and feel attractive. How, Herzig asks, “might we understand the prevalence of practices that are repetitive and expensive, at best, and not infrequently messy, painful, disfiguring, and even deadly?”

Though I have yet to read Herzig’s book, Tavris’s review brought to mind one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, Chris Rock’s Good Hair, a funny, playful, but at times very dismaying film about how African-American women think about their hair. One of the central findings of the film is that for many black women, natural hair is seen as not just undesirable but as unprofessional. That is, to wear one’s hair naturally, and without expensive treatments, is to not expect to be taken seriously. I found this strangely poignant: to simply be is unacceptable. Many young women believe that you have to spend money on elaborate grooming, and to pay a kind of toll, to navigate the wider world, and to command respect. Granted, one could say something similar of women in many different cultural contexts, not just black women in the United States. Herzig’s point, I suppose, is that as the normative beauty ideal has moved towards hairlessness, virtually all young American women find themselves in a similar bind, albeit one that is perhaps less-pronounced for non-blacks. 

Why should we care about these social norms and pressures to conform? Should we campaign for a return to female hairiness, or should we insist on the celebration of natural hair? I recognize that we have bigger fish to fry as a society. But I do think it’s worth reflecting on how these grooming practices can be economically burdensome, particularly for poor women, for whom the desire to command public respect can be of more immediate and pressing importance than for those who are better off.   

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