Thursday, August 12, 2010

Interlude: Hair

I've wanted to write about my thoughts on Japanese hairstyles as I see it for a while now, especially in relationship to my own experiences as an mixed race African American woman in the States, but I've had so many things I've wanted to write about that this one, not being directly related to a travel destination, has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle. But hair musings kind of fit in with this section of my Tokyo trip, specifically in regards to the high fashion mall that Andrea and I passed through while waiting for new Steph and Ben.

I'm not sure what happened to the pictures I took of the various hair extensions and dyes that I noticed in one of the non-clothing stores in the mall; it's possible I didn't photograph them because these same products, namely hair extensions of wild colors and textures, are so common here. The desire to write about Japanese hair also relates to a conversations I've had with multiple people who have commented on the amount and variety of dyed hair colors that are abundant here, specifically in regards to the commonness of blond and lightening hair dyes. That and curly perms, which are also very common here.

In short, the type and variety of hair changing products, extensions, etc, really surprised me when I first came here. A part of this is because when I was a child, I really wanted Asian, or as my grandmother said, Oriental hair. Having long, straight, black hair instead of the frizzy (albeit long) mess I had on my head was something I remember actually closing my eyes and wishing for.

I think a part of this particular fixation came from my grandmother's desire to give me multicultural dolls as a kid in order to give me dolls that looked “like me”. Unfortunately, being so light skinned, the darker African American dolls she gave me (which I am grateful for, don't get me wrong) didn't really look anything like me, and she didn't want to give me brown haired, Caucasian dolls (though I have light skin and brown hair) so ultimately the best compromise (unspoken) became the Asian featured dolls. And they had hair that was naturally straight. No hot comb needed, no frizzy braids that rapidly became full of painful knots. I never wanted to be a blond, but boy did I want straighter, smoother hair.

Of course I'm sure the other part of my desire for more Asian hair is related to African American idea of “good hair”: ie: the straighter and longer the better – this is a much talked about thing in African American studies and not worth beating to death here, but I'm mentioning it for three reasons.

  1. Ironically, as much as I hated my hair as growing up (and truthfully had an ambivalent relationship with it until I started getting it braided in Grad School, and then later cut it to shoulder length before leaving the country—two great hair decisions), I definitely have “good hair”. My grandmother was incredibly proud that she was able to take me from being a bald baby that seemed to hold the dubious future of NEVER growing hair to having a granddaughter whose hair went all the way down to her touch her butt. My mother had hair that was equally as long when she was younger, but she cut it, a big regret. (note: I didn't cut my hair until after my grandmother died, that's how strongly I didn't want to disappoint her)
  2. I've had more than one conversation with different people (non African American) who have expressed confusion at why Japanese women often go for lighter hair, even blond hair. Until it was directly pointed out to me, it didn't really trouble me or really enter my notice as being unusual. What surprised me was the desire to have curly, full, ie: not straight hair.
  3. The hair extension and attachment products you find here are exactly the same ones you'll find in Philadelphia for the stores that serve African American women. For example: the fake clip-on bun, the clip on ponytail of varying colors and lengths, wigs, weave in hair, etc. The only thing missing is the hair-grease (much to my dismay). Of course, Caucasians in the States do use these products (minus the hair grease, in general), but not nearly as regularly or commonly as far as I have seen. And the push to have lighter hair is common across races in the U.S.

Of course, everyone wants the hair they don't have. I think that's a universal; ask a woman what kind of hair she likes, and it's probably the opposite of the kind she has. At least until she's gotten old enough to develop a healthy relationship with the locks she's got. But in the African American community, the emphasis on “good hair” stems from historical pressures related to oppression, opportunity, and a push or desire for “whiteness” that has always felt deeper than a mere stylistic decision. In fact, one of the major thoughts that popped into my head upon seeing the array of hair changing items ran along the lines of "the people here must hate their hair as much as my folk at home".

Which is kind of ridiculous if you think about it. Why can't a person just want different hair because they think it's pretty, or different, or for some frivolous reason? Like in John Varley's "Steel Beach" where people just had sex changes because sometimes you want to try something new.

But in the States, hair decisions are more serious. At least from my experience. Choosing to go natural, get dreadlocks, braids or the semi-opposing microbraids, choosing extensions or not, going blond or not and how one chooses to lighten her hair all sends a message. For example, when I wore braids, there was a sense of relief that went with it because people as a rule didn't ask me nearly as often what my race was (or assume I was either Caucasian or Hispanic). Braids looked good on me, but they also made my life easier. They sent a message in a language that I spoke and understood without thinking about it or even consciously reflecting on it. In contrast, when I cut my hair, more people automatically assumed I was Caucasian.

I know hair here is also sending a message, but like the Japanese language, this unwritten language is also unclear to me. (unless we're talking about drinking, directions, work, how I like Japan or humidity) But it's interesting. Like does going blond and curly indicate a desire to be more International? More white? (because there is a definite favoritism of the Nordic Caucasian look here, IMO) A generational urge to separate from older ways? What does it mean for Japanese of Brazilian descent? Chinese or Korean? Or is it just a stylistic choice without so much baggage (an option that seems ridiculously freeing)?

I don't really know. But it's something that has been in my thoughts periodically, so I figured it was worth talking about.

Some awesome hair I've seen in my time here: