Hair Straightening

In Western culture, long, straight hair has traditionally epitomized both feminine beauty  and  sexual  desirability. This  aesthetic continues to shape  how  women of other cultures process and  style  their  hair.  Although concerns related  to  self-worth, success, and attractiveness affect both genders, women of all backgrounds have felt greater  pressure to maintain a socially acceptable appearance. This  was especially  the  case  for African  American women, whose  femininity and  sexual identity were often  measured by the length and texture of their  hair.

Unable to  straighten their  hair  during slavery,  black  women covered  it with scarves, kerchiefs, and straw hats to protect their scalp from the scorching sun. Inside plantation homes, domestic workers wore tight braids  and cornrows inspired by traditional African  hairdos. Since  hair  was considered the  most  telling  feature of African ancestry, mixed-race African Americans relied on straight hair and  fair skin  to find jobs  and  protect them  from  harassment. In response to racially and culturally biased  assumptions about black  hair,  white-owned companies during the  antebellum years marketed hair  straightening products to free black  women in the  North. These products advised  black  women to wash their  hair  and  apply a hair  straightening solution before  using  a garment type  iron  to  flatten  it out. Such  techniques only damaged the hair, further leaving behind burned scalps and often  permanent hair loss. Slave or free, African Americans recognized the impact straight hair had in signifying  freedom, economic opportunity, and social status.

These concerns influenced the  styling  decisions of  black  women into  the 20th  century. With  the  rise of new  beauty  standards and  commercial hair  care products, black  women used  a host  of styling  techniques, including wrapping, waving, straightening, and  hair  pieces.  While  each  allowed  black  women greater styling versatility,  hair  straightening had  the  most  controversial appeal.  At a time when  many  black  women had  trouble growing  thick  healthy hair  due  to  scalp diseases, stress,  and  harsh chemical treatments, hair  straightening with  the  use of the  hot  comb  and  later  lye-based relaxers  placed  additional strains on  fragile tresses.

The  best-known styling  tool  for straightening black  hair,  the  hot  comb, was sold by department stores  as early as the 1870s. A reconfiguration of earlier metal combs made  by the  French, black  hairdressers perfected its use  by sectioning the hair, applying  heated oils, and moving  the heated comb  often  from a stovetop or other heated chamber from the base of the scalp to the ends  of the hair before reversing the  process. While  not  the  original  inventor of the  straightening comb, beauty  culture pioneer Madam C. J. Walker popularized its use  with  her  introduction of the shampoo-press-and-curl method of straightening hair, which  later became the foundation of black  hairdressing. She and  other beauty  experts  such as Annie Turnbo Malone were among the first to use heated pressing irons  and metal  hair  rollers;  however, they  insisted that  such  techniques were  not  an  attempt to imitate  white beauty  standards, but rather to offer black women a chance to create  and meet  their  own beauty  ideals.

At a time when  millions migrated to urban areas  seeking  social and  economic opportunity, African  Americans straightened their  hair  as a sign  of upward mobility and  acclimation into  modern America.  This  included black  men  who  were no  less influenced by prevailing notions of beauty. With  the  use  of tonics, pomades, and homemade kits, black men  also experimented with hair straightening. In an attempt to look hip and stay in touch with urban trends, some  applied  large amounts of hair pomade and water to hair before going to bed wearing a wave cap, while others tried the cold soap wave, a process in which  shampoo was left in the hair  and  later  tied down  with  a cloth,  or do-rag, to produce sleek waves. Others sought more  permanent solutions with  the  congolene, or conk  for short. Made of potatoes, eggs, and  lye, the conk  was designed to straighten the hair for longer periods of time, the effects of which  were no less damaging. Burning the scalp and often  permanently damaging the hair follicles, the conk  was made  popular by entertainers of the early 20th  century, including Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, and Nation of Islam leader  Malcolm X.

By the mid 20th  century, both white and black-owned companies introduced the first permanent relaxers.  These chemical-based products, almost  all of which contained lye, promised straightened tresses  for longer  periods in place of heated combs. Despite their  growing  popularity, relaxers  required additional maintenance, with  touch-ups done  every four  to  eight  weeks  plus  the  cost  of professional  application or supplies. By the  late 1960s,  many African American women favored  natural styles over straightened hair.  With  the  natural style, such  as the Afro,  they  embraced their  African  heritage and  growing  identification with  the politics  of Black Power.

Whether temporary or  permanent, the  practice of hair  straightening elicited widespread debate and  public  discussion across  the  black  community. In some circles,  straightened hair  symbolized modernity and  middle-class status, while others equated it with self-hatred and  shame. Black civic leaders  often  took  sides on  the  issue,  castigating women who  opted to  straighten their  hair  in  favor of Caricature showing African trying  to look  white.  Such  feelings  of inadequacy were often  rooted in negative messages given to black women about their hair in the media and popular culture. Print  advertisements often  urged  black  women to  straighten their  hair  to  gain social acceptance in an attempt to adopt a standard of beauty  that  was difficult  if not impossible to achieve. This  was especially the case for poor  rural  women who with  less access  to hair  salons  or the  money  for their  services,  continued to rely on the time-honored practices of wrapping, braiding or tying down  the hair with colorful scarves for a more  polished look.

In the midst of ever-changing images of beauty in the 21st century, hair straightening  remains a popular styling option for women of all backgrounds continuing to define  mainstream ideals of beauty  and success.

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