Oh, The White Girl Flow.

Here at PostBourgie, slb’s written about the Emmy-winning Tyra show. And I’ve written about nappy hair. So, when the Tyra show does an episode on nappy hair, it’s only natural that we post about that, too.

The online black hair communities have been in heated discussion about the episode since before it aired on May 12. Stop by Nappturality, Afrobella, Black Hair Media, and a couple dozen hair blogs, and you’ll find women (and some men) who have plenty to say about the episode, about Tyra, and about good and bad hair.

For those of you who don’t know what ‘good’ hair is, and didn’t want to sit through this instructional video, here’s my understanding of it: curly, satiny smooth, shiny hair that can be combed relatively easily. ‘Bad’ hair is thick, will break a comb, doesn’t shine, can be rough to the touch if not moisturized adequately, and is so coily that it doesn’t appear to have discernible curl pattern — this type of hair is often called ‘nappy.’ (For the record, I don’t think of ‘nappy’ as a negative or positive word, I use it as a neutral adjective.)

I have to give props to Ms. Banks, who somehow managed to make this episode not about her, like she usually does. Of course, considering she is usually bewigged or beweaved, I suppose it’s not surprising. As Tracie wrote at Jezebel: “TyTy’s stance on the hair issue was confusing, since she’s just about the weaviest person on the planet; in fact, she regularly gives white women weaves on America’s Next Top Model.” Were Tyra to turn the question of natural hair on herself, what could she really say? Nothing much, it turns out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

One segment of the show featured a group of young girls, including a biracial child whose white mother relaxes and weaves up her 8-year-old scalp. And each story was more heartbreaking. One little girl, with the cutest, bounciest twists and little barrettes, only feels pretty when she’s covering her neat twists with a long, blonde, matted and plasticky Hannah Montana wig. Another mixed child, whose mother purposely only dates men who aren’t black, for fear of passing down bad hair, believes that nappy hair is an indicator of ‘lower class.’ All of the girls pointed to a nappy headed mannequin as the one with ‘bad’ hair.

Now, obviously, talk shows trade in extremes. We know that hair issues are more often insidious, and aren’t always indicated by women who claim that their hair is ‘higher quality’ than other black women, because they have ‘the white girl flow’ (a.k.a. straight hair that’s sleek and bouncin’ and behavin’ and is often only achieved by a biweekly trip to the hair dresser).

My father always hated relaxed hair on me. Unfortunately, the one time he was in charge of my hair was when I was a nappy two-year-old. My mother was in Jamaica at the time, and Dad couldn’t figure out what to do with my hair, so he chopped it off (instead of, say, asking his mother or one of his sisters for help). After that incident, he was barred from all hair decisions and had to accept whatever my mother deemed most convenient, which was a relaxer. Now, while there was never talk of good or bad hair in my home, ‘I need a perm’ was a phrase I said or heard every 6-8 weeks, like clockwork. Even my sister, who has the silky, loosely curly hair that many would deem ‘good,’ thought she needed one. Years later, when, with the help of my flat iron, I had mastered ‘the white girl flow,’ or, ‘whipped’ hair, as we said at HU, I never would’ve disparaged naturals, but I still thought mine was the most attractive look.

When one woman on the show suggested that black Americans chemically straightening their hair was simply the next step in genetic evolution, Tyra tried, and sorta succeeded, at being a moderator. She was fuzzily pro-natural, but nonthreatening. When another chemically straightened woman defended her choice to not introduce her newly nappy (and adorable) daughter to others, calling it a symptom of her ‘adjusting’ to her daughter’s appearance, Tyra did call b.s., and asked whether the woman was ‘adjusting’ or ‘ashamed.’ She didn’t outright criticize the ‘good hair’ advocates, aside from expressing concern to the woman who relaxes her three-year-old’s hair with harsh chemicals.

I found that segment particularly appalling, and not just because the mother was doing it wrong (you only apply the cream to the NEW growth, lady, not to the whole head). What I find most problematic is that the girl is being indoctrinated with ‘who you are isn’t good enough’ before she can read, by the one person in the world who should make her feel like who she is, is just perfect. And on the opposite end of the scale, there was a woman who refused to cut her daughter’s butt-length hair, even though the little girl was desperate for it to be cut because she was constantly being teased about it. Tyra managed to reinforce the long hair = pretty hair stereotype, by trying to make the child feel better by complimenting her on it. In that situation, it was pretty obvious that the mother was tying her daughter’s (and possibly her own) worth to how long her hair was.

Tyra’s conclusion was a weaksauce call for ‘choice.’ I don’t say that because women shouldn’t have the choice to do with their hair what they want, but because the aspect of choice was never addressed in the show. The participants came off as pathological or abrasive. And at the end, Tyra did this weird bit about us understanding what informs our choices, which was clearly self-referential, and seemed to be a half-hearted attempt to address her dependence on the lacefront wig.

Forty minutes isn’t long enough to tackle the complex relationship black women have with their hair. Ideally, a few men would have been included in the discussion, because hair issues aren’t just passed down from mother to daughter, and women aren’t the only ones worried about good hair (true story: I once dated a guy who kept one do-rag in his apartment, one in his gym bag, and one in his car, plus, he carried a boar bristle brush at all times so he’d never be caught without shiny waves). And black men are often the first ones to decry a woman chopping: “why would you want to cut off all that pretty hair?” I’ve even heard men claim that a woman’s long hair is the source of her beauty and femininity. If you spend enough time on the hair boards, you’ll encounter thread upon thread of women who are desperate for advice on how to deal with their boyfriends, husbands, brothers, and fathers who hate their nappy hair.

Overall, however, I think Tyra handled the topic admirably. As I told UniverseExpanding when we discussed the contradiction of the most unbeweavable woman, ever, doing a show on natural hair: anyone who suggests that hair straightening isn’t the only option for black women gets an A in my book. There are literally millions of black women in this country who have never even considered giving up their appointment with the relaxer or the hotcomb. I was one of them for a long, long time.


10 thoughts on “Oh, The White Girl Flow.

  1. bitchphd May 20, 2009 at 10:58 am Reply

    I remember when my best gf, having spent all her h.s. years curling her nappy hair with a curling iron (and hating her hair every minute, and occasionally making tongue-in-cheek resentful comments about blond white girls, which was somehow okay despite my white blondeness) went off to college and fell into a circle of friends that included other women with hair like hers (mostly black women, though she herself is p.r. with some african ancestry, obvs)–and the immense relief she *obviously* felt at finally having friends who could school her on how to do her hair, including the natural option. (Her bio mom was p.r. but v. invested in the straightening and high femme, and her stepmom was white). I also remember that once this revelation dawned on her, it was like her confidence and attractiveness skyrocketed.

  2. Kia May 20, 2009 at 11:36 am Reply

    Thanks for the synopsis, because I find Tyra pretty difficult to get through.

    And your point about getting black men involved in the discussion is dead on. I’m sure my father doesn’t even remember the disparaging comments he made about my hair when I went natural the first time around. He is generally supportive and encouraging but those passing remarks shook me in a way that I wasn’t able to acknowledge until recently, and it happened over 10 years ago.

    It took having children for me to re examine my relationship with chemical relaxers. My bi racial daughter’s hair is smooth and fine like her dads but with my curl pattern. A pattern that perming obliterates. By deciding to own my kinky curls and the coarseness that goes with them, I feel more connected with my daughter and her Shirley Temple curls than I would with straightened hair.

  3. t.o.a n. May 20, 2009 at 12:35 pm Reply

    School Daze! Thanks for the memories. Anyway, where to begin? First, as far as Tyra being weaved up, I believe that she said that it is expected from her by the fashion industry. She also said that she makes it a point that when she goes to her camp for girl (forgot what it is called) to wear her natural hair in cornrows (I guess this is how it is under her wigs) so the girls can see her and not the image that has been built through the fashion industry.

    Although I did not see the Tyra show it does not take much to see that this idea of good and bad hair is just the tip of the iceberg dealing with issues of color and race going back to colonial days and reinforced and perpetuated through images presented in the media.( I did not know how persuasive the images in media were to me personally until I took a look back at some videos from the 90s and looked at some of the women (love interests) in them and was very shocked at the range of women I saw in them and contrasted them to the women that I have seen as love interests in newer videos and the image is much more restrictive. The image of beauty had become so much more restrictive and I had not even noticed.)

    As someone who has gone natural twice, once at the beginning of undergrad and then six months before I got married, the idea of acceptance of a person’s hair in its natural state can be a very personal journey, especially when so many things around you tell you that it is bad, both subtlety and directly, or they simply don’t understand it. It really can be much more than hair. It can be about acceptance. It can be a personal journey and I cannot judge a person for her own personal journey.

    That being said, I do agree with Tyra, it is about choice. All women who rock a perm are not self hating and all women who rock a natural are not in touch with and accepting of themselves. I feel free to wear my hair straight curled and flowing past my shoulders or twisted, braded or coiled tight on my head – loving all of the styles and feeling restricted by none.

  4. Kiana May 20, 2009 at 3:18 pm Reply

    I can’t do Tyra either so thanks for the synopsis. Sometimes I think black women put way too much stock into their hair and what it does or does not symbolize. Can I not want to straighten my hair every two weeks just because it’s easier to handle that way? It doesn’t always have to be because I have some deep seeded issue with my natural state like some of the women you describe on the show. Also, I’m not sure if Tyra addressed it but I think the real reason black women have so many hair issues is because this country lauds white as right. Really when we say “good hair” we mean “like white”. If we dissolve the notion that white is the gold standard our hair becomes a non-issue. Unfortunately, this is America and hair is at the bottom of the totem pole when dealing with black/white identity, white privilege, etc.

    p.s. it really annoys me that Tyra decided to wear corn-rolls the day she wants to start supporting natural hair. LOL, I know you said she didn’t make the show about her but clearly that is a statement!

    • shani-o May 20, 2009 at 4:16 pm Reply

      Can I not want to straighten my hair every two weeks just because it’s easier to handle that way?

      Nope. Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, Kiana. Only you can free your mind.

      But seriously…there were two natural ‘experts’ in the audience who made the point that slaves who had ‘good’ hair often had white blood in them, which meant they would potentially have access to better food, education, and not have to work in the fields. So the good hair pathology probably came of that.

      If we dissolve the notion that white is the gold standard our hair becomes a non-issue.

      The woman who said black Americans straightening their hair is a form of evolution also acknowledged that society views whiteness as the default, but instead of challenging that notion, she’s put her arms around it and is holding it close.

      • Kiana May 20, 2009 at 5:35 pm Reply

        I still don’t understand the straightening hair = evolution argument. Do I really have to watch this video to get it? LOL @ free your mind, wouldn’t it be more like free my hair follicles?

  5. ladyfresshh May 20, 2009 at 3:20 pm Reply

    and there it is of course, my first mental reference, spikes school daze

  6. Als May 21, 2009 at 7:51 am Reply

    In the UK, you find that most black men prefer women in weave or relaxed hair. They’ll never approach a natural or loced woman… maybe they find them intimidiated or unattractive who knows.

    One friend of mines, Negerian, with beautiful natural hair, told me that her ex used to always comment negatively on a natural hair.

    I went out with a guy who liked my locs back when natural hair seemed to be the in thing (remember the time of lauryn hill), but when he started going to one of those ivy league universities preferred straight hair. Then he started forcing his then girl friend to relax her hair.

    I worked for 3 yrs in a finance company as the only black and not one of my colleagues thought my hair was odd… well the second black person who started there was the only one to look me up and down as if I didn’t belong here.

    • Jaime May 23, 2009 at 4:58 pm Reply

      Als, it’s so interesting you brought up European blacks and the American blacks. I was shocked to go to Little Senegal in Paris to see a store named “Prestige” with straight-haired wigs in the windows with “So white!” (like it’s a good thing) in lights in the windows! And these hair shops were everywhere!

      And in regards to the reaction from blacks and whites, I recently moved to a very white town and I have always gotten positive responses to my natural hair. The one time I straightened if for a trend, they were all horrified. The only “negative” comments I EVER receive are from blacks. It’s a mindset many need to grow out of.

      It’s not the thought that straight hair looks “better”, it’s completely rejecting your natural standard of beauty. There’s nothing wrong with changing your hair up but we are the ONLY women who can go our whole lives never knowing the natural texture of our hair- in the US, in Europe and in Africa. It’s a shame.

      • Als Simmons May 24, 2009 at 5:51 pm Reply

        It is really a shame..
        Most black women are afraid to go natural because of what other black men and women will think or how they will perceive them.

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