If your hair is relaxed white people are relaxed if your hair is nappy white people aren’t happy – Paul Moony
This quote resembles how much pressure was put on those non-whites in the Apartheid era when a pencil or comb test was enforced to determine how relaxed or ‘happy’ white people would be around you. Many females and males of colour in South Africa relax their hair. The reason they do this varies but the one reason that is obvious is that they all want straight hair. The desire to have straight hair stems back to the apartheid systems and colonization. Although the systems in today’s society are a lot more subtle, they are still existent. In order to work towards a more inclusive idea of beauty the usage of relaxers needs investigation.
A trip down memory lane
Garrett Augustus Morgan, a child of former slave in 1877 in Paris Kentucky was a African-American male, who discovered the hair relaxer formula by chance while working as a tailor and repairer of sewing machines. He was trying to create a formula that would polish the machines’ needles so their friction would not scorch and damage fabrics as they sewed. The formula landed on a animal fur cloth which Morgan discovered had straightened the fibers. After testing the product on his friend’s dog and his own hair Morgan began marketing his product line in 1913. His invention started a revolution in the world wide Black hair care market. Form more details click here.
The desire to have straight has proven to be the desire of many individuals of colour all over the world for more than 66 years. Today the relaxer which was invented in America is a very popular product in South Africa and is used by males and females.
“Some women have had bad experiences with relaxers, finding that they might be too aggressive, stripping their hair or making it too bone-straight. Scalp burn, root thinning and breakage are also big concerns.” – Khomotso Mathalela, Dark and Lovely brand manager.
Sodium hydroxide mixed with water, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and emulsifiers create the relaxers formula. This formula suffuses the protein structure of your hair which results in the weakening of internal bonds.
Considering the dangers of relaxers it is astounding that the product is still in such high demand in South Africa. The conventional wisdom ‘you must suffer for beauty’ takes on a very literal meaning when considering the risk of scalp burn and root thinning.
Still a contributing factor today
The population registration act enforced the law of the pencil test in the 1950’s. This enforced a mind set around hair and the privileges it came with. This mind set has filtered down from generation to generation and is now the driving force for the hair relaxer sales in South Africa.
Through this method of segregation the hair hierarchy had developed, placing straight hair at the top and non-straight hair at the bottom. The hair hierarchy still persists today in South African society because of life experiences expressed by people interviews (In the video below) and because of many multimedia depictions. Resulting in people still believing straight hair is the ideal.
The hair hierarchy still persists in the twentieth century and is now dominantly due to multimedia depictions.
This TV commercial for Perfect Touch hair spray, claims to be the number 1 hair styling brand in South Africa. Stats from LSM 7-10 groupings state that men and women form the age 15 to 50 use the product.
The advert juxtaposes the two females very strategically. The female with straight hair is getting the job while the black female is made to seem jealous. The advert goes on to imply that in order for a female to succeed in her career she should have to have long straight hair and unbutton her top.
The advert is not inclusive in its portrayal of beauty. In the last image the background music is a halo sound and the camera man includes the black female (With natural hair). This indicates the desire females have to conform to ideas put out in the media of beauty.
South African is a country with a rich history, diverse people and a variety of identities. Females of colour, with a variety of hair types and styles have endured an enormous amount of ridicule which has influenced their identities. African individuals’ celebrated their hair as it communicated their personal characteristics, religion, ethnicity, wealth, marital status, age and geographical origins. This connection changed with the dawn of the slave trade and colonization.
“The slave trade is thus historically important to consider when discussing representations of black women, as it was one of the main catalysts for behavioral and psychological mind shifts which took place, regarding representations and notions of beauty for black women.” – Jenna-Lee Marco
A Euro-centric standard of beauty was enforced, when the hair of many African men and women were shaved off due to colonist thinking of it as ‘unhygienic’. Through this thinking many African individuals were stripped of their hair which was deeply embedded in how they portrayed themselves. Understanding why individuals have desired straight hair for many years is important when reconstructing the hegemonic ideal of beauty.
We can through this shift away from the depiction and perceptions of beauty through the colonists eyes and rather perceive beauty through a decolonized perspective.The aim of the article is not to pass judgement on individuals who do relax their hair, it is about sharing insight on how beautiful natural hair can be despite all the negative messages, in the media, that suggest it is not.