Life’s Matters: Affairs of the Hair


Hair is the most prominent adornment of the human body. Hair, or the lack thereof, is a hallmark of our shared humanity. We take our hair for granted even as we fuss over it. We spend a lot of time, energy, and money trying to get our hair just the way we want it. How often do we explore those wily strands on top of our head and consider their variety and significance?

Hair types fall along a continuum of tightly-wound curls at one extreme to toothpick straight at the opposite end. Curly hair may fall in loose ringlets or stand in tight spirals. Straight hair may curl at the ends. Wavy hair may be evident if someone’s hair is short and nonexistent when her or his hair is long and heavy. Even so-called “kinky” hair varies from person to person. Hair comes in a wide range of thicknesses and coarseness.

Stereotypically, black babies are born with thick, dark, curly hair; white babies are born bald. Like any other stereotype, the assumption has myriad exceptions. The truth is that is that hair comes in a variety of types and colors regardless of race. There are black people with dark auburn tresses as well as white people with dark auburn hair. Black women and girls often straighten their hair chemically or with a heated comb to assimilate into white society. White women often chemically curl their hair. We can temporarily alter our hair’s type and color as we choose, whether we do so ourselves at home or go for a professional treatment.

Hair color is color-blind when it comes to skin. Natural hair color can favor skin color, but not always. Hair type and color are not loyal to families. Children may have hair that differs markedly from either parent. I saw a family of five at a mall. Mom had blonde, straight hair; Dad had dark brown, wavy hair; and, all three children had golden-red, curly hair.

Stress, some health conditions, medications, and aging can affect hair’s growth, texture, and color. After hair loss from chemotherapy, it is typical for the new hair growth to be starkly different from its pretreatment type and color. I learned recently that, over time, hair growth following chemotherapy sometimes returns to its pretreatment state. Direct sunlight can change hair color, as well as some of the chemicals used to straighten or to curl hair. Hair color and type may change as we age. A child born with almost white blonde hair may have brown hair as an adult. Mature hair is often a variety of white, silver, or gray and may be thinner and shorter than in younger years. Someone as young as twenty may have white hair, while someone as old as 90 may have no gray hair.

The black hair care industry is estimated at a worth upward of two and a half billion dollars, “excluding wigs, accessories, and electric styling products,” in an article by CNBC. Black Americans spend hard-earned money to color, bleach, cut, grow, curl, straighten, shampoo, condition, tame, let loose, and arrange their hair. The selection of hair dyes offers testament to the range of hair colors, sometimes necessitating the blending of two or three colors to obtain the desired shade.

No matter how much time, effort, and money someone puts into her or his hair, some hair vehemently defies taming. Curly hair that will not straighten. Coarse hair that will not smooth out. Brown hair that will not bleach to blonde. The whole range of hair types and colors crisscrosses racial lines. Some black people have thin, wispy hair. Some white people have thick, coarse hair.

Hair is an art form that plays a significant role in self-expression and identity. Black people, as a collective, are proud of our hair and enjoy creating styles to showcase it. We wear our hair as a means of celebration of our identity and zest for life. Most people choose hairstyles that flatter their face and body or that make a statement, ranging from no hair at all to hair that tickles our heels. Black hair is flexible, able to be shaped into a seemingly endless variety of styles. It is limited only by the imagination and creativity of the wearer or the wearer’s stylist.

Hairstyles are identity signatures. Women, men, and children sport styles that showcase their personalities and personal preferences. How people wear their hair says a lot about who they are. Some are fastidious about their hair while others cut, color, and arrange their hair to fit their mood. Still, others ignore their hair and let it run free. What message does the person’s hair convey? Do you imagine she or he is bodacious, elegant, reserved, friendly, playful, stand-offish, hiding, careless, carefree, liberal or conservative values, military service? Is every hair neatly in place or is every hair marching to its own music? Is she or he wearing a hat, scarf or other head covering, perhaps to conceal bald spots or hair loss from chemotherapy, for religious reasons, as an accessory to their outfit, or as of a statement of self-expression?

I wear my hair short and natural. The style flatters my face and body and requires minimal care. I have a haircut every eight weeks to keep it in check. I settled on this style after years of trying to find a hairstyle that worked for me. For a while, I wore my hair dyed a deep auburn, the result of combining two colors, and in short spikes. None of my white coworkers said anything about my hair. When I returned to a hot-comb-straightened style, my coworkers profusely complimented my hairstyle. They apparently did not like the spikes. On one occasion, my stylist did not have the hair dye I wanted, so she used a substitute—purple. The only comment I received came from a white coworker, “Your hair is purple.” They deemed my hair acceptable when I conformed to their expectations. Black-hair biases and prejudice are very real. I will discuss black-hair discrimination in my next column.

Billie Wade is a gregarious introvert whose primary interests are writing, lifelong learning, personal development, and how we all are affected by life’s vagaries. Issues facing black people, women, the LGBTQ community, and aging adults are of particular concern to her. She enjoys open-hearted dialogue with diverse people. She is experienced in human resources employee services administration, chemical dependency counseling, and magazine publishing editorial assistant. The opinions expressed here are her own.

The black hair care industry generates billions–but the U.S. is missing out on the market

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“The Connection Between Hair and Identity in Black Culture”