When the First Lady attended a country-music event in July without a single strand of hair falling below her jawline, the blogosphere exploded with outbursts ranging from adoration to vitriol. Things settled down only when her deputy press secretary clarified that there had been no First Haircut. In the aftermath, a didactic post on MichelleObamaWatch.com proclaimed that anyone “familiar with the amazing versatility of black hair” would have known that the new summer look was simply “pinned up.”
Many Americans have dismissed this hair hubbub as simply more media-driven noise like the chatter about Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses, J. Crew cardigans, stocking-free legs or, for that matter, recent decision to wear shorts in the Arizona heat. But for African-American women like me, hair is something else altogether singular in its capacity to command interest and carry cultural baggage. The obsession with Michelle’s hair took hold long before Inaugural Ball gowns were imagined, private-school choices scrutinized or organic gardens harvested. It’s not that she’s done anything outrageous. The new updo wasn’t really all that dramatic a departure from variations we’ve seen on her before . Still, her hair is the catalyst for a conversation that begins with style but quickly transcends outward appearance and ultimately transcends Michelle herself a symbol for African-American women’s status in terms of beauty, acceptance and power. The hair buzz heated up right after the Democratic National Convention. Websites dedicated to black hair posted and reposted a Philadelphia Inquirer article addressing what was presented as an urgent question: Were the silky strands that moved so gracefully with each tip of her head during her Denver speech straightened with chemicals or with heat alone How exactly did she metamorphose what we know was once tightly coiled hair The choice many black women make to alter their hair’s natural texture has undeniable historical and psychological underpinnings. It has been attributed to everything from a history of oppression and assimilation to media-influenced notions of beauty and simple personal aesthetics. But one thing is certain. For the many who wear straightened styles like Michelle’s, the decision is deliberate, and the maintenance is significant. A stylist hypothesized in the Inquirer article about the steps taken to attain her look, and a firestorm of online comments followed, including these two: “Chemicals, hot comb, round brush and dryer … same effect, different methods. I could see it being a big deal or inspirational if she were natural and wore it in natural styles.” “Girl, ain’t no braids, twists, afros, etc. getting into the White House just yet … LOL.” This could have been read as a lighthearted exchange about beauty and style. But it actually reflects a serious and clamorous debate. A growing community on sites like Nappturality.com urges black women to reject curl-relaxing methods, calling them “taking the easy road” and “conforming” to white aesthetics. Meanwhile, talk-show host Tyra Banks just announced via Twitter that she will abandon her weave and don “no fake hair at all!” for her show’s season premiere. Mixed in with the supportive response to the former supermodel’s decision was skepticism about whether she could be attractive with what she describes as her “out and free” look. See pictures of Michelle Obama’s Jason Wu dress.
See pictures of Sasha and Malia Obama at the Inauguration.