Oct. 10, 2007 — -- This month fashion magazine Glamour takes on "the secret things making you fat" and "perfect pants for every body" — pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for the glossy monthly, but the magazine also finds itself embroiled in a nasty controversy about culture, beauty and race, touched off by, of all things, a discussion about hair.
In June, then-associate editor Ashley Baker spoke to a group of about 40 lawyers at the offices of Cleary Gottlieb in Manhattan. The idea was that Baker would offer the "dos and don'ts" of corporate fashion, so far so good. But, when Baker got to a slide showing a black woman sporting an Afro, it read "Just say no to the 'fro." Outrage ensued.
"African-American women who chose to wear their natural hair have been stigmatized over the years," said Venus Opal Reese, assistant professor of Aesthetics and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. And that's why Baker's statement touched a nerve.
In the firestorm that followed, Baker was forced to resign. Glamour's web site sports a front-page response from editor Cindi Leive that reads, in part "Glamour did not, does not, and would never endorse the comments made; we are a magazine that believes in the beauty of all women."
The magazine has offered apologies all around and promises to convene a panel on "women, beauty and race" in the near future.
Natural hair for black women is kinky "when the curl is so tight it's hard to comb through," said Reese. Children who were the product of mixed-race unions often had lighter skin and hair that was soft and wavy. "It's pretty basic. It has everything to do with the institution of slavery and the whole notion of good hair and bad hair."
For years, black women used chemically rich relaxers on their hair along with hot-iron presses to achieve a straighter, what some would call "whiter," look. Then along came the "let it all hang out" '60s and many black women decided to grow their hair as a political statement. The huge, head-framing Afro was popularized by black power icon Angela Davis.
But the '60s gave way to the '80s and a glossier, Jheri curl look took hold. Think Michael Jackson circa "Thriller." That was followed by braiding and weaving in the '90s and up to today.
Willie Morrow, of San Diego-based California Curl, has developed dozens of hair products for black women. Morrow, 68, said some women come in for treatments every two to three weeks because "they don't want to see any kinky hair sprouting. They want hair like Halle Berry."
For some women, however, this isn't just some frothy fashion issue. It has been serious business. Over the years corporations ranging from MCI Communications to American Airlines have been sued because black women said that they were fired for wearing their hair in braids or dreadlocks.
Texas' Reese interviewed 200 women about the issues surrounding hair in the black community. The resulting work of performance art is titled "Split Ends."
"There is a huge concern among the women that I talked to about how they will be perceived based on how they wear their hair," Reese said. She said that also extends to her own life.
"You have short hair and you get a weave and all of a sudden people start smiling at you, it's like instant affirmation. … When I wear my hair blown out in a 'fro, people relate to me like this wild woman. … People are going to position you based on what they bring to the table. There's ways to silence you without saying a word if they see you as Angela Davis and not Beyonce."
But some black women believe this is much "hairdo" about nothing.
"The conversation is over among black people … the debate about sellouts and self-haters. It really doesn't matter unless you're white. … This country is as diverse as it has ever been. All you have to do is look at pop culture examples. You have smoothed down styles to people with a shapely Don King thing going on," said Callie Crossley, a Boston-based television and radio commentator
Crossley sports the same short, natural-hair style she's worn for years. "I'm a black woman. I'm a proud black woman. It felt to me at the time, years ago, that if you wore your hair in a certain way you were making a cultural assimilation. I think that time is long past."
As it turns out, you may be seeing more 'fros in the future.
"The trend that I am seeing most is people are embracing the natural state of their hair. They realize they do not have to get a relaxer. Women are starting to retain the natural curl patterns of their hair," said Lance McBrayer, a stylist who serves a predominantly black, female clientele at G2O Salon on Boston's high fashion Newbury Street.
So, it turns out that showing up for work sporting an Afro, dreadlocks or kinky hair is actually more of a fashion do than don't.