Oprah’s Hairy Contradiction

The September issue of O magazine tackles hair as its topic.  Gracing the cover is the perennial powerhouse    herself, killing them in a bright orange wrap dress with an Afro that would make foxy jump back.  Oprah smiles out like a radiant sun complete with waving black rays of hair.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a resident of that fabulous country Afromania, just so my bias is clear from the outset.  Bias aside, Oprah can be commended for putting natural hair in front of her legion of readers, showcasing the growing trend of women of color rocking (gasp) their own natural hair.

And as nods to naturals go, you can’t deny she looks fantastic and makes the Afro ultra appealing.
Afros have come in and out of favor as a hairstyle with its heyday in America arguably centered in the black power days of the ’70s.  After the struggle for civil rights , a new image of blacks rose up, a revolution of the fried died and laid to the side world of the mid century. The Afro was an embrace of black beauty, a rejection of hot combs, burning lye, and a story that says your real hair is ugly.  The afro was not only a return to African hair, but also to African heritage.  It came to symbolize the wider ideas of black power and black consciousness.

Search for Afro now,a days and what you’re likely to find are a host of pictures of people rocking Fake ‘fros.  Peppered in among stars and their fantasy wigs are a rainbow of Afrowigs, mostly cheap costume versions nestled in between pimp and funky disco costumes.  Far from the majesty of Angela Davis’s mane these Afros are clearly for play, for rocking in the stands of your favorite college team, or when you want to show the world just how cra-azy you are.  This once powerful symbol of black pride is relegated to the category of costume, fun and always laughable.
For those unfamiliar with the travails of black hair in a Eurocentric culture, lets just say that curls and kink are not the default image of beauty in America.  Our culture glorifies long flowing tresses, sometimes a bit wavy, more recently fish bone straight. If what happens to grow out of your head is curly, god forbid kinky, you are to go post hast to the nearest salon and get relaxed.  Black women spend half a TRILLION a year on chemical relaxers, weave, and a handful of other methods to tame their unacceptable hair. As late as, well, yesterday braids, dread, and yes, Afros grown pasta few inches were not acceptable hairstyle in the business world, the political world, or in short, the real world.  This process-ha ha- leads lots of women of color to spend many dollars and hours trying to change their hair into something more acceptable, something that fits the common definition of beauty.
Even our superstar artists and celebrities celebrate Eurocentric hairstyles.  Beyonce is glorified for her hair, even appearing in hair ads for loreal, but its not a stretch to guess this isn’t really her hair.  Most stars, like their real world counterparts kowtow to the cultur’s straight hairstyles of the runway, weaving in thousands of dollars of someone else’s hair onto their heads to ply the style.
The natural hair movement is made up of women of color who have gotten off the tresses treadmill to embrace the tuff growing out of their own scalp.  Emphasizing acceptance and appreciation of the many shades of black hair, natural hair girls provided much needed addition to th e choices for black women’s hair.  The natural hair movement has been creating a space where the Afro can be restored to its former glory.  And thank god we have Oprah to champion the beauty of black hair.
But, typical of today’s media and certainly not limited to O. Magazine, the cover has Oprah not rocking natural hair, but a wig that looks like natural hair.  Forgive me for being a bit behind on this– if the idea is to celebrate natural hair, would it not be a nice change if we saw, oh, say, some real hair?  Oprah has enough length to blow out a pretty fantastic fro, especially given that its just for a photo shoot, and doesn’t have to stand up to a day at the beach.  Instead she pops to rock a glorious but fake fog of hair.  Like her buddies at your local Halloween party, she relegates the Afro to fantasy land.
Sure the fantasy of Afros is fun and funky, but the reality of the Afro is something worth celebrating.  Like my black power sisters of the seventies, my Afro is about loving myself as I am, and realizing that beauty, far from narrow, is in each of us just as we are.  It’s also about embracing the beauty of diversity.  I don’t want to live in a colorblind world.  I want to live somewhere where culture makes our world a vibrant, and exciting to live and explore.  For that to happen, we need to begin to feed on a wider diet of images, one that shows different people not as costumed creeps, but as real people living lives as real and reasonable as any other
Susan X Jane

Susan Jane thinks a lot about media and race…a lot. She teaches Communications at Wheelock College, writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way media shapes their sense of self and their ideas and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

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