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Black hair: embrace it

WASHINGTON DC - JANUARY 21:  First lady Michelle Obamwaves as presidential inaugural parade winds through nation's capital January 21

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: First lady Michelle Obama waves as the presidential inaugural parade winds through the nation's capital January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Updated: March 1, 2013 6:59AM

There’s been much ado about Michelle Obama’s new “do.”

The talk, chatter, buzz and tweets over the first lady’s new bangs and bob headlined the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration marathon.

Alas, it’s 2013, but in politics, women, particularly first ladies, still don’t get taken seriously. Last week, the media targeted the superficial, the shallow — the “look.” Michelle Obama’s red ball gown (move over, Nancy Reagan). Her jewelry (boho-style diamonds set in bangles in 18-karat oxidized gold, it was duly reported). Even her eyes (especially when they roll).

As the Obamas enter a second term, the Mrs. offers up a substantial portfolio as first lady, from her admirable advocacy for our war veterans to her championship of healthy eating. All the talk, however, was about her hair.

The day after the inauguration, I googled “Michelle Obama Hair:” 96,200,000 hits. White America is fascinated by our hair, but African America is conflicted. Too many black women are still prisoners to a Eurocentric standard of beauty. For centuries, we have struggled with shame, resentment and follicle envy as we try to fry, press, burn and weave our way to the glossy, wavy manes. The word “nappy” still trips over our tongues.

To get ahead, to get a man, to be taken seriously, many of us believe, the straighter the better. We aspire to “good hair” and shun our beautiful, kinky “bad hair.”

Gymnast Gabby Douglas’s record-breaking performance at the 2012 Summer Olympics was overshadowed by a furor over her hair.

In 2011, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin pointed to a perennial and pernicious excuse we cling to. Black women avoid healthy exercise, like swimming and running, so we don’t sweat out the hair, she said. It is a major contributor to our high rates of obesity.

Some black women reluctantly choose chemicals and hot combs over natural hair, fearing it won’t be accepted in professional settings.

It’s a legitimate concern. I have spent a lifetime reeling through the classic stages of black hair angst: the press, the perm, curl, ’fro, extensions and, now, dreads, which I have worn for more than a decade. Strangers approach me on the street and inquire: Are you a singer? A dancer? In the theater? They never guess doctor, banker, lawyer or journalist.

That’s why so many of us break the bank to go straight. Black hair care is a $9 billion-a-year industry, comedian Chris Rock asserts in his 2009 film, “Good Hair.” Most of that goes toward the lye, dye, weaves, extensions and every other trick to transform our hair into what it can never be.

So last week, as women of all shades were cheering on Michelle Obama, I recalled a college graduation photo that showed her cap perched on top of a magnificent bundle of thick, bushy curly black hair.

Obama is one proud African-American woman, for sure. I would love to see our revered black first lady go back to nappy. Now, that would be something to talk about.

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