During one of the first moments I knew I might love a man (let’s call him Adam), he had a pair of scissors pointed at my head. Moving cautiously, with almost surgical precision, Adam helped snip the tiny threads that attached 14-inch wefts of “kinky straight” Malaysian weaving hair to my own cornrows underneath. Standing in my dorm room, the two of us removed my sew-in weave.
I have been black for 24 years, and I’ve only known what to do with my kinky, coily, decidedly black hair for six of them. Adam’s help with my de-weaving came toward the beginning of the first Year of Hair Knowledge, only a few months after I’d chopped off the remnants of my chemically relaxed hair. At the time, my thick, coarse natural hair only came to ear length when straightened. With a weave, it looked like a less damaged version of the shoulder-length hair I’d abandoned in search of healthier tresses. And because the weave’s texture matched mine, no one knew I’d cut my own hair so short. It felt like the perfect compromise, a convenient way to ease into my natural hair journey while I continued to learn more about my hair’s needs.
Soon after Adam helped me take that sew-in out, I put a new one back in. And so on and so forth. My weave, like the box braids or Senegalese twists I’d had before, wasn’t a secret or a source of shame; it was simply one of many things I did with my hair. The moment with Adam was certainly tender, but it wasn’t transformative or symbolic. I was just grateful for his help with the difficult, delicate task of cutting hair at the back of my head (and his willingness to wade through the maze of my two-month-old cornrows underneath).
But in the time since then, I’ve begun to notice pop culture’s peculiar obsession with weaves as coded personality traits of their own. For black women, hair is never just hair. Yet from movies to Top 40, this style in particular is so often used to speedily connote a (black woman) character’s inauthenticity. Weaves are de facto visual cues for shame in Hollywood’s imagination, less an aesthetic choice and more a marker of a black woman’s inability to Love Herself and Cherish Her Roots™. To have a weave, we’re supposed to conclude, is to be hiding from one’s true self; to be running away from blackness.
To have a weave, we’re supposed to conclude, is to be hiding from one’s true self; to be running away from blackness.
About one year and six weaves after Adam helped me take out that sew-in, I rewatched one of my favorite Sanaa Lathan films, Something New. Lathan, whose status as perma-lead in black romantic comedies makes her face more of a fixture in black homes than hot combs are, plays a successful accountant named Kenya McQueen. Kenya is set up on a blind date with Brian Kelly, a landscaper who turns out to be white.
The lovably cheesy storyline follows their courtship through situations familiar to many black women who’ve been in interracial relationships: having to explain racism and its effects to a partner, struggling with familial expectations and other external perceptions of the relationship, and — of course — several conversations about the mystery that is black women’s hair.
At the onset of their relationship, Kenya rocks a long, silky weave. When they get caught in a downpour in the middle of a hike (Shit White People Love™), she makes a beeline away from Brian, toward the shelter of a nearby tree. Unexpected rain is, after all, the mortal enemy of any black girl who straightens her hair. “Shit, my hair — I’m gonna kill you!” is an actual thing she says. The moment is funny and relatable; I’m no athlete, but sudden torrents have certainly propelled me to run toward cover at near-Olympic speeds in the past. Kenya even tries to break things off with Brian after the outing, convinced things aren’t going any further because he didn’t know better than to not take her outdoors on a date. Instead, the attractive, charismatic Brian ends up staying the night.
The next morning, amid standard getting-to-know-you-better pillow talk, Brian touches Kenya’s hair, and asks, “Can you take this off?”
“It’s not a wig, right? But it’s not your real hair either, is it?” he continues. Kenya is (understandably) livid, and the conversation follows a predictable arc before she asks him to leave and fires him as her landscaper, too.
“I can’t believe you just asked me that. I thought you’d dated black girls before.”
“They had real hair.”
“I have real hair too!”
“So they just sew it in?”
“Something like that.”
While leaving, Brian apologizes for offending her, saying he “was just wondering what [she looks] like completely naked.” Immediately afterward, Kenya consults with her homegirls, who advise her to “have some good old-fashioned sex for once in [her] tired, sappy life” when she details Brian’s surprising girth (at length). She is told to “let it flow,” and finds herself in her stylist’s chair in the very next scene. “Take it out,” she says simply, and moments later we watch as her wefts are snipped off.
When Kenya returns home, Brian is finishing the last bit of landscaping. “You’re gorgeous,” he tells her as she walks up, newly weave-free and suddenly more authentic in his eyes. The scene marks the beginning of their newly invigorated relationship, the moment when we see Kenya “let go” and “let him in.”
In conflating her weave — not a costume or a fake nose or even a wig, literally just hair extensions — with a boundary to be crossed or a wall to be taken down, Brian makes assumptions about black womanhood that are not his to arbitrate. Where the Kenya of the movie’s intro is uptight and controlling, the supposedly upgraded, weave-free version is open-minded and inviting. We are asked to believe that she now deserves the kind of lover who lays his soul bare, because she has done the same with her scalp.
The pesky details here, like the fact that Kenya’s onscreen “natural hair” is itself a weave (just a shorter, curlier one) or the minor issue that having natural hair does not automatically make any woman more “authentically” black or authentically herself, seem trivial. What matters more is that the movie shows us a fantasy in which Kenya’s need for control — and obsession with her tidy, perfectionist image — falls away with every track of Malaysian Remy that gets snipped, and she’s able to receive Brian’s gracious, manly love because of it.
We are asked to believe that she now deserves the kind of lover who lays his soul bare, because she has done the same with her scalp.
To conflate any woman’s ability to fall in love — or worse yet, to be deserving of it — with her hairstyle is always harmful. Indeed, all women have long been subject to an impossible bodily scrutiny that at once demands we adhere to specific ideals (long hair, feminine presentation, thin bodies with the acceptable curves) and chastises us for working to achieve them. Lots of men profess to prefer the “natural look,” but regularly underestimate the amount of labor that aesthetic might involve.
For black women, the stakes of slippery beauty standards are even higher, and the stigma of not achieving impossible ideals is even more layered. Countless song lyrics have derided women with extensions for being “fake” or “not loving themselves.” In the chorus of the recent magnum oafus “Ayo,” human garbage dumps Chris Brown and Tyga brag that “all [their] bitches got real hair.” The song’s music video features mostly non-black women, except for one wig-wearing presumed sex worker, who’s only depicted fellating a police officer. (That both men’s rumored real-life girlfriends do in fact sport extensions is, again, apparently irrelevant.)
These unimaginative references and imagery come laced with anti-black sentiment; after all, women of all races get hair extensions, but movies like Chris Rock’s Good Hair only focus on (and stigmatize) black women. And yet it is wholly possible to love oneself, to love one’s hair, to love a partner, all while loving the versatility and styling options that weaves can offer. They are fun; flipping your hair takes on a whole new meaning when there’s 22 extra inches to toss around. They protect your own hair from the elements, helping it to grow longer and stay healthy even during adverse weather conditions (looking at you, polar vortex). But most important, they are a choice, just like any other. The decisions a black woman makes with her body are hers alone, not necessarily reflective of a man’s influence.
It is wholly possible to love oneself, to love one’s hair, to love a partner, all while loving the versatility and styling options that weaves can offer.
And yet pop culture would have us believe otherwise. What could very well be a simple matter of aesthetic preference, in the vein of ombre versus jet-black hair color, or nude versus red nail polish, is instead depicted as a matter of moral fortitude. To have a weave is to aspire toward whiteness, to be fake; to have natural hair is to be “down for the cause.” If black women’s bodies are the stages on which gendered respectability politics are acted out, then weaves are the (sometimes red) curtains.
And if there is any man who has built his fortune extracting profit from the theater of black women’s lives, it is Tyler Perry. Diary of a Mad Black Woman, arguably one of the playwright/mogul’s most famous movies, features a more subtle invocation of the ~romantic~ de-weaving ritual. When we first meet Helen (Kimberly Elise), the titular character, she is devastated to discover her husband Charles (Steve Harris) intends to divorce her and be with his mistress. After moving back in with her grandmother, the distraught Helen slowly begins to build herself up while falling for a man named Orlando (Shemar Moore).
Because Perry is nothing if not predictable, Helen’s knight in shining armor is a working-class, God-fearing, light-skinned man. The first time she meets Orlando, Helen is curt when she spills a drink on him; her meticulously manicured hair falls well past her shoulders and is clearly a straight(ish) weave. But upon beginning her new post-separation job as a waitress, Helen runs into Orlando again. He sits at a table in her restaurant, warm lighting accentuating his own angelic glow. It is the first moment when Helen’s “mad” character softens.
Her hair now is cropped, curly, and close to her face. Perry wants to convey Helen’s newfound connection to her true self, so the suggestion that she’s taken out her weave to access that self (instead of just, you know, her scalp) is the easiest shortcut. Everything else falls into place afterward, as though the key to happiness is just the right mixture of religion, working-class values, and loose curls. Again, please note that this new, more “natural” hairstyle is also a weave (or lace wig).
(It’s also worth noting that Moore himself wears a lace-front wig for the role of the cornrowed Orlando. Tyler Perry may have committed many sins against the black community, but this cornrow lace-front is easily the most egregious transgression.)
Skip to somewhere around my Year Five of Hair Knowledge. I watched, loved, and reviewed Beyond the Lights, a movie written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Bythewood, the same phenom who brought us the timeless Love & Basketball, is herself a black woman. Beyond the Lights follows Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a volatile biracial popstar, as she falls in love with both Kaz (Nate Parker), the police officer who saves her life, and — you guessed it — herself.
The gentle, sweeping love story is a genuine joy. Mbatha-Raw and Parker have undeniable chemistry, and their characters are complex, always evolving. Noni slowly steps further away from the role of mass-manufactured pop princess and closer toward the self-actualized individual she wants to be. Her looks evolve in kind, pushing her away from exaggerated, revealing clothing toward more standard everyday wear. During an impromptu vacation with Kaz, Noni cuts out her long purple extensions in the bathroom mirror.
Kaz embraces her and her natural curls, playing with her coils and pulling her close for a forehead kiss that grazes her hairline. The scene is warm, easy, the stuff of Shea Moisture-coated dreams. That a pop star would feel more comfortable without her performance clothing and accessories is hardly counterintuitive. This specific scene in this specific film does serve to further this specific plot.
But the trope, as it is employed more broadly, associates black women’s authenticity with not having hair extensions. These scenes so often reduce a complicated trajectory of growth and personal development into one tiny visual cue. It’s a lazy plot device, a character development shortcut more convenient and haphazardly effective than a last-minute Supercuts trim. Of course, films are short — and everyone has their aesthetic preferences — but black women in particular must grapple with so many tangled assumptions about us because of both widely held misconceptions about our hair and Hollywood-specific racism. Like a chemical relaxer, the results are most often damaging.
Like our scalps, sometimes black women just want to breathe.
As much as we know intellectually that our hair is our choice, representation matters. To ask for nuanced depictions of black women’s relationships (and relationships to our hair) hardly seems too demanding. Like our scalps, sometimes black women just want to breathe.
These days, Adam jokes that my various natural hairstyles have made him (almost) not attracted to women with straight hair anymore. I laugh, and remind him that I’ll be trying a straight weave again later this year. He nods, and smiles.
“It’s your hair; I’m just here to appreciate.”
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