Am I a Purist?

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My cousin and I. I’m on the right, don’t front on the socks kid.

Yesterday, we Parlour ladies hit a screening for Chris Rock’s Good Hair, which Kenrya has already broken down so I won’t rehash the thesis here. I thought the film was funny, but like CNN’s “Black in America” I wasn’t looking for the rebirth of Jesus, if you will. Entertain me, show me where faux hair comes from, like that KGB commercial, and send me home, thanks. The rub came after the show, on the way to Anjels Salon, when I was speaking to a longtime buddy of mine about the histories of our own hair.

The conversation began with her saying that she’s switched between perms and natural hair throughout her life. It’s no big deal to her. Then I replied that I’ve never had a perm – ever. Never wanted one, to my knowledge (unless I cried for it as a child, but I doubt it…). She replied with, ‘Oh, you’re a purist! It’s OK, honey.’ In hindsight, me saying I’d never had a perm might’ve sounded judgmental but I hadn’t meant to be. Still, her calling me a “purist” made me want to cut her and I couldn’t place why.

Here’s my hair story: my four cousins, one girl, three boys, would visit my parents house during the summer when we were all around six-ten years old. I am from California and summer is hot as Hades so we had a pool in the backyard and my cousins and I would all go swimming. My female cousin and I, six and seven years old respectively, both had a bunch of hair for little people and after a romp in the water, it was my Mom’s job to make us look presentable. While doing my cousin’s hair was a breeze because she had a perm, mine was, let’s just say, not as cooperative. I had hair down my back and while most people’s hair gets smaller when it’s wet, mine? Not so much. Naturally, Moms takes me to our beautician and says, in a thundering voice, “Perm her!” To Mommy’s surprise, Ms. Gwen, my beautician fo’ life, says no and lists all of the reasons why I don’t need any chemicals and suggests we just blow dry my young hair “really hard.”

From blowouts, though I wouldn’t know that term until I moved to New York and discovered the Dominican hair scene, to presses, my hair was washed and straightened every two weeks on a standing appointment, you know how we do. Then I reached college and couldn’t afford my standing appointment, read: Moms stopped paying, so I adopted my older sister’s hair practice of wearing my tresses natural and wavey. Honestly, I rocked a lot of tight buns and ponytails held together with Pro Styl gel, the black girl’s pride and joy, because my hair was curly at the top and then wavey at the bottom because of it’s length. I didn’t love it. I wanted it to look like ol’ girl from Ally McBeal. After college, I moved to Brooklyn, New York and found a ‘natural hair movement.’ Who knew my hair was such a political statement? Of course, I’d thought about and discussed the idea from a distance in my university African-American Studies courses, but I’d never thought less of folks who permed their hair. Do you boo.

But suddenly, natural hair vs. permed hair became a thing in my adult years. I distinctly remember an old girlfriend cutting her hair super short and when I asked her how she kept her hair so straight since she was exercising every other day, she kind of looked away and said she’d permed it. I could tell she felt guilty, because she’d not only had natural hair, but when she got a weave, the pieces she sewed in were thicker and coarser than her own mane. I thought her guilt was weird, though on the surface I knew where it was coming from. I am sure I told her, “Do you boo.”

However, being called a “purist” last night hurt my feelings because I can honestly say that I don’t judge women with straight hair.

Socialization, money and freedom have always played a role in why I really don’t use any long-term chemicals. Well, that and my hair’s finicky. Example, I dyed it with Jazzing once, it was frizzy for the next six months and I had to deep condition it every week until it returned to it’s curly form. But back to my reasons:

A) Moms – and Ms. Gwen – never gave me a perm growing up and I was fine without it, so I never got one when I had the choice. I hadn’t been brought up perming, so I never even thought about it.

B) Perms are expensive and I needs my money.

C) I don’t like being enslaved to anything that costs and takes up my free time. I love being pampered but I HATE going to the salon and waiting, and waiting, and waiting… and I don’t want to have to do that every other week. I want to get in the shower, wash/wet my hair and leave.

So if I’m a “purist” because I’ve never had a perm and love my freedom, what does that make people who have tried the creamy crack? Dirty and diseased? Compromised? Wannabes? I refuse those terms, though that’s really what “purist” suggests, because even if you get a press, especially in California, black women want the same straight, blow-in-the-wind hair as a result. In that respect, we’ve all been brainwashed by 400 years of conditioning. Because whether you use a flat iron or a jar of destructive chemicals, everyone’s subscribing to the white standard of beauty and quietly saying that their natural state isn’t accepted in mainstream American – not mention global – society. If this is the case, then I’m not really a “purist” at all. I’m a compromised wannabe as well because of my years in Ms. Gwen’s chair. I like my hair straight, at least once a year, and understand that it gives me a different appearance both physically and socially. For example, when I interviewed for my last job with a mainstream business magazine, I talked myself into blowdrying and flat-ironing my hair, by saying, “Do you really want this job or not?”

Ultimately, I’m still don’t think I’m a “purist” and I’ll cop to being institutionalized, or at least understanding my oppressive socialization. And if wanting to shower and leave my hair is curly a statement, so be it. Actress Tracie Thoms, said it best in Good Hair:

“I always thought it was funny that if I leave my hair the way it grows out of my head, I’m making a statement.”

What do YOU think?

Last 5 posts by Hillary Crosley

  • Khalilah

    I don’t think you’re a purist but someone who believes in the philosophy, “do you boo”.
    I recently texturized my hair because working out, sweating in my head, and pressed hair do not mix. (especially when you have dry, coarse hair) I was sad to let go of my “natural” hair but my hair is much healthier now because I’m not putting as much heat on it trying to keep it straight.
    So I say to the author and other ladies, find out what works for you with your hair and go with it. If you want to be a “purist”, then do you boo. And if you decide to be fried, dyed, and laid to the side, do you boo. (I love that term.)

  • Fa

    I really like this post, and I love it that black women are talking so openly and frequently about our hair. I have been having conversations like this with my cousin who is mixed race and, like me, has curly hair. Our conversations discuss perms in a manner that questions their safety because of the chemicals, and also challenges the idea of hair perming in an attempt to be able to “manage” black hair. However, we both realize that we come from a certain privileged stand-point, in that we have not had to deal with kinky, coarse hair and so we never had the desire to perm nor would our mothers let us growing up. I think that black women should continue these discussions so that we are more honest and open about why we wear our hair certain ways, and the political and social meaning behind them.

  • Shawna

    Great article! I completely agree that we have all been brainwashed to a certain extent….but hey there is power in admitting it right?..lol