Note from BW of Brazil: Hearing the word Brazil outside the country conjures various images for foreigners. For people who have never been here, what often comes to mind is the beautiful beaches, the beautiful women, futebol, poverty, corruption, and unfortunately, a lot of violence. Those who have come here a few times often delve a little deeper. Some love the food. I know more than few people who love the nature side and take advantage o many areas that often adventurous rock climbing. We also know that tens of thousands of men come to Brazil to participate in the notorious sexual tourism market. I could go on and on about the image of Brazil to non-Brazilians. But one thing that most foreigners are still slow to catch onto is that Brazil is a place where the European standard of beauty reigns supreme and this rejection of anything reminiscent of the fact that Brazil enslaved more Africans than any other country in the West is one of the many reasons that it also one of the most racist countries on earth.
From the time one is a child in Brazil, they learn that, if they are of recent African ancestry, they must do all they can to try to whiten their persona. This process of whitening can be practiced in a number of ways. Refusing to classify oneself as negro/negra, or black, is one. Another is to distance oneself from activities of African origin. Another is to date a whiter or much lighter person to increase the possibility of having “menos negro” or less black children. And for millions of women (and men), “doing something” with their cabelo crespo, or kinky/curly hair, is one of the most important things one can do to become “a little more acceptable”.
The men usually deal with the issue by simply cutting their hair very close to the scalp. For the women it’s a little complicated as they often undergo a number of literal processes to tame hair that shows a little much of their families’ origins. There’s the escova proggressiva, known as the Brazilian Keratine Hair Treatment outside of Brazil, a powerful chemical treatment that’s led to many girls and women seeing clumps of their hair falling out. Then there’s the chapinha (flat hair straightening iron) that supposed to tame those wild strands and eave the hair as straight as paper, because you can’t walk out of the house with your hair looking “like that”!
The dictatorship of whiteness and straight hair has been an ongoing topic on this blog which is why seeing so many women of African descent boldly choosing not to submit to an unwritten rule that is imposed culturally by choosing to wear their natural hair knowing how society frowns on this is a major paradigm shift. Below, three more women share their stories.
Kinky/curly hair and the politics of resistance
Written by Dandara Cha
You may have noticed that more and more people, especially women, assumed their natural hair. This is very noticeable in the big media, a space where black actresses have begun to gain prominence with their crespas e cacheadas (kinky/curly and curly) locks, but it is even more representative and noticeable on the streets among real women.
To this process of changing the artificially straight hair to the natural texture of the locks, we give the name of “transição capilar” (hair transition). This transition can last from months to years depending on the purpose of each person, and in general, it is a painful and beautiful process of personal acceptance.
A lot of people assume that this wave of natural hair is a passing fad, but it’s not what it seems. This is a manifestation of a reflection that we have made regarding the discourse of races in our country, part of a national history that textbooks don’t tell and that, finally, now, has gained space for discussion.
This story begins to be told even in the period of slavery, when slave-owning whites maintained a patriarchal and domineering relationship over enslaved blacks. The rapes of black women by Portuguese were common in the senzalas (slave quarters) and generated mestiça (mixed race) children. In the belief of the senhores da casa grande (white masters of the big house), helping the next generations to be less black was a charity.
In the middle of the twentieth century, when we remembered the stratospheric increase of European immigration to Brazil, historically justified by the First World War and by internal policies resulting from the abolition of slavery in our country (1888), the yearning for a way of making the population increasingly white.
If you remember well what you studied, you probably remember that newly abolished blacks were considered ethically, intellectually, and evolutionarily inferior, a justification used for enslavement. Which meant that a country that had the black biological majority could not be good. Then began a process of an attempted “embranquecimento” (whitening) of Brazilian society from the increase of the white population.
The results of this policy for the nation, you already know: our people have become, not increasingly white, as they supposed, but increasingly mestiço. And while other colonized countries built a history of well-demarcated racial tribes, the Brazilian population mixed in pursuit of erasing the traços negros (black traces) evident in Brazil.
As a remnant of this not-so-beautiful story, we have identified the jokes and unfortunate comments based on the black traits in general: the broad nose has become defective, as well as the thick mouth and dark skin. Cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair) then, one of the main phenotypes of Afro-descendant genetics, has become “cabelo ruim” (bad hair), a socially accepted joke for a long time.
Whoever identified themselves as the object of joke, however, did not laugh. Then began the race for cosmetics and aesthetic interventions that would remove from the individual the image so unwanted of black ancestry. Thus, straightening became popular, and later the progressivas, which crowded the salons of crespas and cacheadas desiring to become more “presentable”.
To deny curly hair was more than fad, it was a clear picture of the eagerness of black people to get away as much as possible from the marginal, ridiculed image that blacks occupied. In this way, it was possible to become “um pouco menos preto” (a little less black) or, as it was later coined, “embranquecido” (whitened)
In the 1970s, however, we finally began to observe a political move towards the defense of identidade negra (black identity), as well as the challenge of institutionalized racism in Brazilian society. The fruits of this bloody and difficult struggle are still slowly emerging and result in the innumerable (but still smaller than we would like) conquests of the resistência negra (black resistance).
One of these conquests, closely linked to the identity of the group is precisely the beginning of appreciation of the curly texture. The progressive and still slow conquest of black self-esteem, as well as a demarcated social space, directly reflects how we see fashion and aesthetics. And this is where black resistance influences the tendencies in the form of capillary transition.
The formalities of struggle that originate the growing wave of natural hair are beautiful and result in freer individuals, conscious of their own identity, but not everything is flowers. Despite the big, difficult steps taken by the movement in search for recognition and equality, those who assume their Afro-descendant phenotypes end up facing very unpleasant situations, ranging from daily jokes to exclusion from the labor market, and embarrassment of all kinds. Assuming natural hair ends up being a lot more painful than it should be.
This, however, has not prevented people from facing their fears and crooked looks in search of their own identity and representation for a massive slice of our population.
We at Coolmeia bring together some reports of women who have gone through this process and now continue to resist with their belos cabelos naturais (beautiful natural hair).
Amanda Eduarda Vaz Gomes, 27, of Uberlandia, Minas Gerais
“My niece and beautiful goddaughter, Manu, at the age of four, didn’t accept her curls and talked about straightening. She saw her mother, her godmother and her grandmother with “straight” hair and it was no use saying that they were chemicals, that our real hair was not like that. She didn’t believe it, she had no references. Then I decided to start the transition for her.
As my hair grew, she didn’t ask straightening anymore: now she had a reference, she accepted herself as beautiful as she always was … Over time I saw that the transition was also for me, to accept myself as I really am.
It is quite true what they say: the transition begins from the inside out. It’s not easy to see your hair with two textures, but it’s necessary. This period is a period of acceptance, of breaking standards imposed by society and becomes our absolute truth.
There is a dictatorship that preaches that only cabelo liso (straight hair) is beautiful. Your family says that you are beautiful, but your hair spoils it (it’s hard to be black in a white family) and this will impregnate you with rejection for what you really are. It hurts, leaves you devastated.
I know a lot of people will say that they prefer me with straight hair (whoever says that, I’ll dismiss, okay?). And what has changed? The opinion of others does not matter to me anymore, today I feel beautiful the way I am in the natural. Today I have freedom, I am no longer a hostage of the escova and the chapinha, today I can dance without fear of the escova being ruined, I can bathe in the waterfall, in the river and with my husband without any fear…
It’s such freedom that the only thing I can say is … Today I am free!”
Dandara de Oliveira Souza, 18 years old, Feira de Santana, Bahia
“Many things have happened. Like everyone who goes through the transition or is already assuming their hair, whether crespo or cacheado, we don’t find support everywhere.
First of all, in the family, not everyone helps. For example, I hear from my mother the phrase “when are you going to get back to your normal hair?”. Hence, I think that if my crespo is not normal, being that I was born with it thus, I do not know what the concept of normal is anymore!
Another difficult field is the job market … I’m taking a technical course of buildings and at any given time we need to train. My main area of operation is works, and since I need to wear a protective helmet, one day I heard that it wouldn’t fit on my head.
There were numerous situations of abuse in places because they think I am a nanny of my cousins (although being a nanny doesn’t justify any form of bad treatment). But what comforts you in all this is to look in the mirror and see your original self, without changes and alterations. It’s not just hair: it’s confidence, self-acceptance, self-love, strength and endurance.”
Graziele Lima, 17, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais
“I started using chemicals in my hair at only 11 years old. My mother was never in favor of it, it was because I really wanted to. I didn’t like to see my classmates being called beautiful because they had straight hair and I didn’t, I wanted to be treated that way too.
Then I decided to straighten it. The first time was strange, but I had liked the result. So, I put in chemicals again and again until I was 15 years old. That’s when I decided to go into transition for two reasons: first, my hair was damaged by chemicals and, second, I didn’t recognize myself anymore, I was already feeling ugly, wanting to be me again.
So, I spent a year and two months in transition, one of the most difficult periods of my life. It was hard to get used to the two textures, the comments that I was ugly with that high root and straight tips, but what gave me the strength to continue was to see the many other positive comments and incentives, before and after photos of girls who have been through the same thing…
At that time, I was invited by a friend to be her maid of honor and I accepted, of course. She wanted them all to have straight hair and I didn’t see a problem in using the escova once for a special occasion that would make her happy.
When the day arrived, I and the other bridesmaids got together with the bride. The hairdresser who took care of me said in a scolded tone: “Wow, what a voluminous root, this is going give me a lot of work!”. So, she washed my hair normally and used the escova. I smelled a strong chemical smell, but she assured me it was not.
We got ready and went to the wedding. The next day, I washed my hair and noticed that the root was straight. I asked other experienced hairdressers and found out that she had put hydration formaldehyde to lower the volume. I went into despair, it only came to mind ‘1 YEAR AND 2 MONTHS THROWN AWAY!’.
That’s when I decided to cut it and it was the best thing I did! Time passed, and I came back to love myself again. When I hear comments that I look beautiful, or when I tell my story and inspire someone, I am very happy.
I’m coming back to who I really am. Even with the comments that it was for fashion, or that straight was more beautiful, I don’t care. I am currently at 1 year and 6 months since the cut and don’t regret the decision.”