I’ve written a thing or two about Michelle Obama’s hair, but nothing to match what Erin Aubry Kaplan penned for Salon.com in February and Jenee Desmond-Harris recent article for Time Magazine. For a lot of people (re: non-black people), black women’s hair is like the mystery of the Sphinx. How did it get that way? Why does it change from week-to-week? Is it real? But those are all much too rude and personal of questions to even ask someone. (Not that rudeness stops them, as I get my fair share of “Is it real? Can I touch it?” requests from white and black people alike.) Because of that perceived rudeness, these articles become necessary to answer the questions of the curious and the confused.
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 (the “flip-out,” the “flip-under,” the long-ago abandoned “helmet”). 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.
So you know it. I know it. Most of my readers know it. The author knows it. Hair is treated as a big effing deal by many black women. Sure, one could argue that hair is a big deal for all women and to a certain extent that is true. But white hair has not been as politicized as black hair. No one is going to accuse a white woman of trying to be something she is not because she got a curly perm that day. But if a black woman straightens her hair it can open up a wave of anxiety about conformity, beauty standards, racial pride and acceptance to self-esteem and cries of self-hatred.
Long story short, we got hair issues. But does the First Lady? In her article for Time, Desmond-Harris argues that Michelle Obama’s hair matters for the very reasons I listed above and because of what Ms. Obama represents as the first African-American First Lady.
Does Michelle Obama’s hair, and how she wears it, matter in the larger scheme of how black women view themselves? Do you secretly wish she would rock Malia’s twists one day while strolling out of the White House or do you fantasize about her being attacked by six feet of Yaki? Is it fair to use her hair as a jumping point to discuss black women and their hair in general? Are we asking too much of someone who already has a slew of historical firsts on her plate? And does it bother or concern you if the First Lady is reduced to her physical parts? Like a few weeks back when ever obsessed over her shorts being too short, or when people argue over whether she is classically beautiful or not. Do the aesthetics that make up the outside of Michelle Obama matter?