BURN Baby BURN! Why Are Educated, Intelligent Black Women STILL Perming Their Hair?

Originally posted by Pam Jefferson on Dr. Akilah El’s site

A close friend, tagged me in a link about a U.S. American news feature about Black women and their hair. The story indicated that the Black hair care industry (which is owned by Asians) is a 9 BILLION dollar industry. And regardless of studies that state that there might be a connection, albeit a small one, between perms and uterine fibroids among Black women, sisters are STILL perming their hair. But for devil’s advocacy, let’s just say that the study is unfounded, there’s still the idea that chemicals are being placed on your scalp, you know the piece of skin that covers your brains, for beauty purposes. Something doesn’t seem so right about that. I mean, if you leave the perm on a little too long, then you’ll get chemical burn? Where they STILL do that at is my question.

Considering the health implications, I wonder why are Black women still perming their hair?

Is it because they think men won’t find them attractive without their straight hair?

Is it because they want to assimilate into white culture?

Is it because they think natural hair will be hard to “keep up?”

Is it because they have low self-esteem?

Have they really internalized racist and white supremacist ideas that Black [read: African] features are not beautiful?

If anyone knows the answer to these questions, I’m all ears.

My niece is obsessed with Beyoncé like so many other little Black girls (that’s another blog for another day). With her Bey fan fare also comes the fascination with Beyoncé’s unbeweavable hair. Mind you, I’m not knocking Queen Bey – there are few women in the industry with the exception of Oprah, who worker harder than she does. However, I do get concerned about the images my niece idolizes, especially after she told me something on skype one day about my fly hair being “nappy.” Now, had I not been halfway across the globe, I probably would have snatched her little sassy self up. But at the same time, I know that unfortunately she’s only a product of her environment and sadly most of the images little Black girls are exposed to, even in middle class homes, reflect another culture’s ideal of beauty.

Thanks to the genes on my dad’s side of the family, my hair is pretty thick. While the women on my mother’s side had long hair, it was also pretty thin. Growing up in the South, it was almost IMPERATIVE that little brown me had my hair straightened. My mom’s reason was so that it would be easier to comb and maintain my hair. So I began getting my hair straightened with an old fashioned hot comb probably as early as 4 years old. Then at the age of 7, I went to the “big girl” hair dresser and received my first perm. I’m certain that you couldn’t tell little 7-year old me NOTHING with my shiny new flowing hair. Mind you, my hair was thick and long minus the perm, but those good ole chemicals gave my hang time that extra POP.

Over the years, as I was influenced by the hairstyles of my hip-hop heroines, I was so pressed to get my hair in the “hard” hairstyles. You know hard as in there was so much gel, hair spray on your finger-waved, wave-crimped hair, that you could barely sleep at night. And even if you did, it was hard as a rock so it probably would not have moved out of place anyway. When I look back at pictures in my old photo albums, I can see the natural digression of my hair’s volume, length and health. While my hair was still thicker than most, it was in no way near the same proportion that it was in my younger years. Clearly my Salt-N-Peppa hairstyles were taking their toll.

After my mom finally allowed me to cut my hair during my Senior year in high school, I began rocking a cute little symmetrical bob that I wore at different lengths during my college years. I remember my reaction to my college roommate who came from New York and was a light skin sister with locs. I thought she was sweet but definitely bohemian. By the life of me,  I couldn’t understand why someone with “good hair” would intentionally make her hair nappy. No need to go in an uproar about my use of good hair, it’s intentional and a joke…but she does have the kind of hair that most Black people would identify as “good.”

At some point during those college years, I decided that I’d build up the courage to go natural myself. I made the big chop in 2001. And it wasn’t something that I did gradually – getting braids or twists until my hair grew long enough to cut it off and still have something to work with on top of my head. I literally went to the barber and chopped it ALL off. My decision was probably more of an act of defiance against standard beauty norms than anything else but I didn’t realize how healthy of a choice that I was making nor how liberated I’d feel as a result.

13 years later, I’ve worn my hair in every natural hair style imaginable – fades, locs, twists, flat tops, nappy fros – and I can’t imagine ever going back to the pain of the perm. Yes natural hair takes a lot of work but so does permed hair which requires curling irons, hair dryers, blow dryers and more. That’s the nature of the beast of Black women’s hair, wherever we are around the Diaspora. My hair has an attitude and an mind all its own. It’s bold, audacious and it’s naturally me.

I’m excited about the new natural hair “transitioning” movement. I’m also tickled by sisters who excitedly ask me how long I’ve been “going natural.” My response: “Baby I’ve been natural for a long time.” There are natural hair salons in most major cities, there are countless of lines of organic products that smell yummy and are totally healthy. Most of these healthier products are manufactured by Black people unlike the billions of dollars that are going outside of the community into the bank accounts of the Asians who monopolize the Black hair care industry.

I’ve heard of all kinds of reasons why women still perm their hair – natural hair is too hard to manage, they need to look “professional” in their careers, if they work out, it will “sweat out,” they don’t have the face for it, etc… At the end of the day, all of the reasons aside, most women are simply AFRAID of the crop of hair that they born with. We’ve been so conditioned to accepting Eurocentric standards of beauty, that we literally have an aversion to the hair that the Creator gave us. I think the reason why most Black women won’t go natural is simple – they are scared of their hair being too nappy or God forbid, too short. The number of women I see on the daily wearing horrendous weaves is a testament of that. I try not to judge women  that I encounter who wear their hair permed or long weaves down their back. But I can’t help but secretly send them affirmations to embrace who they are in their natural essence. And I’m not suggesting that everyone with a perm is battling with some esteem issue, most of my girls who still perm will say that they think it looks better aesthetically. But my question to most of them is how do you know how look if you’ve never tried anything else.

Then there are some women who go natural and think that they will look like the big curly hair sister on the TV commercial. Well the reality is that all of our hair is different. No Black person has the same texture, curl pattern, thickness or length. Since that is the case, my my bush may look different from yours and her twists may look different from mine. When people ask me what products I use, I try to explain that their hair may still not look like mine but going natural is not about looking like someone else as much as it’s about expressing your individuality. That’s the essence of truly self-representing an authentic you.

Despite my family’s initial reactions to my going au natural, I’m happy that they’ve finally come around to the light side. I’m even pleased by the decision of my niece’s parents to have her hair done in more natural styles and pray that they keep the chemical relaxer as far away from her a possible. Hopefully that’s a rites of passage she can bypass.

As more products are developed and as more mainstream celebrities (Solange, Lupita, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Tracee Ellis Ross) wear their hair natural, I’m hoping that most of my sisters follow suit.

Simply Natural,



Shingai Shoniwa | Photo Credit: Jamala Johns | lecoil


My Really But Not Really Anonymous Blog

So for the past several months, I’ve been obsessively discussing my “anonymous blog.” Mainly, it started as a joke following some facebook post in which I held back from making some blatantly provocative statement for the sake of not hurting any of my real life friends’ feelings. Then, I gave it some thought. I had several more public conversations about starting an anonymous blog. A few months later, here I am…Elle Siwel, the personality behind my really but not really anonymous blog.

“But she’s a boi.” So what? Why can’t she be a soror too?

A wedding photo from a gay couple who are members of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. Their wedding pictures went viral and sparked a conversation about LGBT issues in Black sororities and fraternities.

Just had a conversation with a woman in a sorority (won’t name the organization or state whether or not the person is a soror of mine) about girls who pledge sororities who are masculine of center. Her thing is that if they are identifying with manhood, why would they want to be in a sorority. I tried to tell her that just because someone is masculine of center, if the individual is not a transman and/or identifying as a man, they are well within their right to want to be a part of a sisterhood/sorority. Her point: If someone identifies more as a man, why would they want to be in an organization for women. My point: As straight, cis-gender women, we can’t dictate the barometer for femininity/masculinity in assessing whether or not someone is suitable for membership into our organizations and if someone identifies as a woman, that’s all that matters – who cares what clothes she’s wearing and how masculine her mannerisms are?

Then she asked whether or not I think it would be OK for an Omega to walk around with “nalia” in heels and a weave and lipstick. Good question, which forces me to think about something that my straight privilege otherwise wouldn’t have to be bothered with. So my response after pausing was that ideally, if Ru Paul wanted to become an Omega and wear nalia, he should be able to pledge at a grad chapter and do so.

At the end of the day, her point is not an individual’s sexuality but how they identify and whether or not that identity is in alignment with an organization’s principles.

My point: Sisterhood does NOT mean FEMININITY.

If Janet Mock wanted to pledge at an alumnae chapter of my sorority, I would welcome and embrace her with open arms. If a dude who is feminine wanted to join our sorority, maybe not so much. I’d probably recommend that he join a frat or start another organization.

Times like these force me to reflect on my heteronormative, cis-gender privilege. Prior to conversations had with one of my besties who identifies as a same-gender loving Black man, I had never even heard of the term “cis-gender.” I also have friends who identify as queer who have issues with many of the terms and multiple identities coming out of contemporary queer communities. Sometimes it’s confusing. And, it’s a lot, I’ll be honest in saying that, but our society is changing. There is more language, coming from a space of agency, that allows people to identify how they choose to identify as opposed to being entrapped by the labels that others place on them.

For one of my close friends/little sisters/mentees, Bakari Jones, the founder of the Bois of Baltimore, while she largely identifies as a “boi” she also is clear about her identity as a Black woman and not a transman. She shared with me in a recent conversation that the Bois of Baltimore start most of their conversations when gathered by having folks introduce themselves and their preferred pronoun. I can dig that. The only pronoun that has really caused me to pause was when another queer friend told me that the person she was dating identifies as “they/them.” Um….yeah I feel you, and I’m trying as hard as possible to push my own limitations but um, come on “y’all” (plural) that’s a bit much. But maybe that’s me being singular-normative as well. But I digress.

Getting back to the issue of Black Pan-Hell members (and while we’re on the subject, we can start an entirely different debate related to Black people identifying as “Greeks” and how backwards, Eurocentric, and confusing that is but I’ll save that for another rant and another day) times are changing. People are more comfortable  with openly expressing their identity on college campuses (thank Goddess) and I believe some traditions should be upheld and others should evolve to reflect more progressive attitudes in society, as long as they do not distort the mission our illustrious founders created when they established these organizations over a hundred years ago.

For now, these are my thoughts. I’m continuously engaged in conversations with my LGBT friends whose identities range from one of end of the spectrum to the other, asking questions, sharing my views, and listening and learning. This is one of many moments I’m sharing in hopes that it will provoke more thought, change and acceptance. At the end of the day, the gay community can’t end anti-gay oppression in the same way that Black people can’t end racism –  the responsibility to change anti-gay attitudes is on the straight people of the world in the same way that it’s up to white people to end white supremacy.

Hopefully there are more open and honest conversations being had about LGBT inclusion/participation in sororities and fraternities and this is a small step in that direction.

– Elle Siwel

Note: The conversation was not about whether nor not queer people should have the right to join Black fraternities and sororities but her arguments were against individuals who identify as another gender (or expressing an alternative gender) having the right to join a sorority (in the case of masculine of center women) or fraternity (in the case of feminine of center men).


HBCU Digest | No Country for Gay Greeks? 

EBONY | Love is Love: A Kappa Man Speaks on the Viral Video Controversy