Monday, October 18, 2010

"I love my hair": Sesame Street gets it right (but Mattel and Disney aren't there yet)

I spent years hating my hair.

My mother, whose hair was bouncy and thick and beautifully wavy, was able to manage my unruly mane only by cutting it short once the curls started transitioning into kink. It stayed short, a modified afro, until I was old enough to wrestle with it myself, when I was about 14 and started growing it out, shaving it up the back into a classic '80s "muffin cut" until the top grew long enough to reach my neck. I used chemicals to beat it into submission in high school -- they didn't take, leaving my hair brittle and splitting, but just as kinky as ever. I grew it long, but thought it was too wild to wear down, and kept it "leashed back" in a ponytail or bun. My hair wasn't biddable. It was "bad."

In fact, it wasn't until I was in my mid-30s, after my youngest child was born, that I really started to like my hair. Three months postpartum, about a quarter of it fell out and then grew back in, silver and nearly straight. Finally, hormones had achieved what every hair product on the market could not: I loved my hair. And when the curls reasserted themselves again, I realized that my hair had been good all along, kinks and all.

I saw this Sesame Street segment on YouTube the other day, and wished that it had been on in the 1970s, when I watched the show as a child:

In an age where children's self-esteem is carefully guarded and maintained, why is this clip important? Because, in spite of our "Everyone is special!" mantra, people of color still divide themselves -- and their kids -- into two camps: Those with bad hair and those with good hair.

The idea that Caucasian hair -- long, straight or a little bit wavy, tame -- is "good hair" and natural, African-American hair is "bad" is everywhere. As I pointed out in March, in a post I wrote about race for's Child Caring blog, even Disney reinforces it: Tiana, the wonderful, stubborn, driven, smart heroine in Princess and the Frog, has strong African features and biddable "princess" hair. Mattel's renewed focus on a black Barbie is another example: All of truly ethnic characteristics were "whitewashed" to create a "user-friendly" black character whose only ethnic trait is the color of her skin. And it didn't even work: A Louisiana Walmart offended parents earlier this year by cutting the price of black ballerina Barbie dolls to nearly half that of white ones. (The retail giant insisted the black doll had been marked down because it wasn't selling well, not because of its skin color.)

Sesame Street gets it right with this segment, and I can't wait to have my kids watch it. My nearly 4-year-old son has my hair, an unruly explosion of kink and curls that he wears wild, like a preschool rock star. My 6-year-old daughter inherited her father's African-American hair texture, tightly wound zigzags of soot-black softness that I shape into tiny, two-strand twists and thread through beads to make it hang the way she longs for it to. It shines and bounces, but still, while people compliment her twists and say how cute she looks, they routinely reach for my little guy's curls and lament that "the boy got the good hair."

I've tried, but I can't seem to convince her that her hair is "good," too. Maybe a mainstream muppet will have more clout than Mama.

Readers, please share your hair stories in the comments! Do you remember being told you had "good hair" or "bad hair"?


Alicia said...

I saw this video last night for the firs time and love it. It's such a great song and I love what it might to for little girls who wish their hair was different.

Anonymous said...

I remember my (white) mother sighing that she didn't know what to do with my "wooly" hair. And my (black) aunt sighing that my hair was so "good" compared to her own, not-biracial daughter's. I stopped straighteing it a few years ago and now I love my curls.