With weaves, stars let their hair down

The Baltimore Sun

On the covers of magazines, in music videos and on movie screens, more and more beautiful black faces are staring out at us.

Beyonce. Sanaa Lathan. Ciara. Jennifer Hudson. Naomi Campbell. Tyra Banks.

They are of all shapes and complexions, showing off the magnificent breadth of beauty among African-American women.

But look closer. There's a sameness there -- one unifying trait for many black women in the public arena.

Long, flowing -- often artificial -- tresses.

At a time when more and more women of color are choosing to wear their hair in its natural state -- and still others are opting for sassy short cuts or other fashionable styles -- it's hard not to notice a disproportionate number of black celebrities, models and television personalities sporting hair weaves.

"I cannot help but see the preponderance of black women on TV being marked as beautiful and having long, straight hair," says Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California.

"It seems to have started happening in conjunction with music videos," says Kathleen Johnson, a hair-care educator for Dr. Miracle's, a multicultural hair-care company. "It seems as though you look at all these music icons, and all these girls have long hair. You see one of them, you see two of them. And before you know it, every one of them has a hair weave."

What gives?

"In my experience," says Robin Walker, a Chicago-based image consultant who works with television news anchors and other personalities to perfect their looks, "vanity has really not been a part of it. It's the flexibility, the convenience and the consistency."

Many of Walker's clients wear tracks of hair weave for uniformity. No matter the weather, the time-crunch or the capriciousness of bad-hair days, women in the limelight need to look the same way all the time, she says.

"There has to be a level of consistency," Walker says. "And a bad-hair day will bring their image down in a heartbeat. Makeup we have more control over. Hair, not the same."

Janise Nelson of West Baltimore gets annoyed by her unpredictable hair, too, and can understand why some women might want to eliminate that factor.

Nelson, a billing clerk who wears her hair in a loose, relaxed style, says she often has to resort to ponytails when styling techniques prove fruitless in the morning.

"Stars can't be caught out there like that," says Nelson, 28. "At least nobody really cares in my office what my hair looks like, except me."

But some black hair experts say the practical aspects of wearing tracks of artificial hair are outweighed by the social and health-related drawbacks.

"It makes me think of what a regression this is from the times of the '60s and the '70s, where it was as if we were finally getting in touch with natural hair," says Johnson of Dr. Miracle's. "It was, 'Look at my Afro. Oh, it's so beautiful. I have Afro puffs. I have cornrows. Look what I can do with my hair.' All of a sudden it's like everybody went back. This stuff is sewn and glued into your hair. I'm really kind of concerned about that. I'm looking at the television and the videos and I'm saying, 'What are we saying to these girls?'"

Jacobs-Huey, author of the book From the Kitchen to the Parlor: Language and Becoming in African American Women's Hair Care, says discussions about beauty and hair among black women are -- like our natural tresses -- full of twists and turns.

"For black women, the debates really sometimes get cast as good hair or bad hair," she says. "I really think it's a lot more complicated than that."

Many very visible women have to contend with professional standards of presentation in the workplace. Some have time and scheduling constraints. Still other black women carry baggage from their childhoods -- painful hot combs or perms, for example -- that shape their views.

"It's really simplistic to reduce it to questions of beauty, and to say that anyone who wears a weave subscribes to European standards of beauty," says Jacobs-Huey, who wears her hair naturally.

A hair weave often is more flexible than many relaxed styles and more efficient than most natural ones, says Walker, the image consultant.

"If you have to get ready in 20 minutes and you have to look a certain way, then natural hair is probably not going to work for you," she says. "And if you can't dance 'cause you're worried about sweating out your hair, can't swim ... can't go out in the rain, life is limiting."

But Johnson, the hair-care expert, says glued or sewn-in weaves are damaging to the scalp, causing dryness, itchiness and breakage.

"The scalp is basically being smothered. So it's kind of like your hair is dying underneath the weave," she says.

In addition, the popularity of hair weaves among celebrities might be damaging to something far greater than just the scalp: a woman's psyche.

"A great deal of the weaving now is taking place in teenagers. They want to imitate Rihanna. They want to imitate Ciara. They want to imitate Beyonce Knowles. And I'm finding that eventually what's happened is there's a lot of damage being done to their hair," Johnson says. "But even more than that, after awhile the weave is being used as a fashion crutch instead of as an accessory -- where we become so dependent on it that you are not comfortable looking at yourself in the mirror with your natural hair anymore.

"African-American hair is amazing as far as the range of versatility that it has. I feel like we're cutting ourselves off at the knees by not maximizing the use and potential of the natural hair by using all this hair weave," she says.


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