Afro-Brazilian Women, Tight Curly Hair and Black Consciousness

[All links lead to Portuguese language pages unless otherwise noted]

“You can wear your hair loose at my school, but I don't like to because it's dry and looks bad. My hair looks bad.” This statement was uttered by a young girl on the web documentary Raíz Forte (Strong Roots), which depicts how black women in Brazil have historically dealt with their hair. According to the description on the documentary's Facebook page, the idea is to “start a discussion about hair in terms of belonging to and explaining our African ancestry.”

On November 20, Brazil celebrated Black Awareness Day; in honor of the day, we invite you to watch this film whose first-person narrative connects different protagonists’ stories, depicting many years of social prejudices as well as the protagonist's own prejudices.

The three-part documentary begins with an overview of the techniques used to work with the tight, frizzy curls of young black girls and proceeds to show how a number of woman have presented their hair in the face of options available to them during their youth and adolescence. The third and final episode presents experiences from youth through adolescence of a number of women that have marked them to this day.

In an interview on the blog Meninas Black Power (Black Power Girls), Charlene Bicalho, creator of the documentary Raiz Forte, shares her own experience with her hair. According to Charlene, her “roots” were dismissed from infancy through adulthood, and her natural hair was masked in a number of ways, such as braiding, “straightening as salvation for [my] problem,” the consequent brittleness, and dependence on expensive, chemical treatments. Finally, at age 26, she decided to do something that would allow her to once again discover just what her hair was really like. And the result? Charlene recalls:

Charlene Bicalho

Charlene Bicalho

comecei a ser abordada por mulheres negras, em ambientes que eu frequentava, perguntando o que eu fazia para meu cabelo ficar daquela forma. As abordagens aumentavam a medida que o meu cabelo crescia e isso começou a mexer comigo porque eu me via naquelas mulheres, via nelas meu cabelo de anos atrás.  Comecei então a pensar algum projeto cultural onde pudesse abordar essa temática, no intuito de mostrar para essas mulheres que existem alternativas para tratar dos cabelos diferentes das que geralmente são ensinadas no âmbito familiar. Dessas reflexões surgiu o projeto RAIZ FORTE!

Black women began approaching me everywhere, asking what I did to get my hair that way. More people approached me the more I let my hair grow. And this began to affect me because I saw myself reflected in those women; I saw in them how I had been years before. So then I started a cultural project to discuss this topic in order to show these women that there are ways to take care of your hair that are different from the ways traditionally taught . And it was from these reflections that the project RAIZ FORTE [STRONG ROOTS] emerged!

The relationship between prejudice, black women and tight, curly hair is found in many sectors of society and the media.

As expressed on the website Jezebel, in an article entitled “Bombril pads are steel scouring pads. Kinky hair is another thing all together,” Livia Deodato criticizes the comparison of steel scouring pads to her hair:

Aí, quando a gente pensa que todo este mal-estar ficou lá nos anos 80, vem a Bombril [empresa cujo principal produto é palha de aço, pejorativamente associada aos cabelos crespos], ciente da associação preconceituosa criada em torno da sua marca, claro, e lança um concurso para descobrir a nova melhor cantora do Brasil no programa do Raul Gil: Mulheres que Brilham, cujo logo é a sombra de uma mulher de perfil que tem cabelo crespo.

Uggg, just when we think that we left all of this attitude behind us in the eighties, along comes Bombril [a company whose main product is the steel scouring pad pejoratively associated with kinky hair], aware of the prejudice associated with its brand, of course, and decides to hold a contest to discover the best female singer in Brazil on the Raul Gil program: Women Who Shine, whose logo is the shadowed profile of a woman with tight, curly hair.

(The winners of the contest, which ran from June to October 2012, were signers Bruna and Keyla, notably blonde and not Afro-Brazilian).

The blog Cabelo Crespo é Cabelo Bom (Kinky Hair is Good Hair), by reporter Mariangela Miguel, has the same objective as the documentary: to show that tight, curly hair is just as good as straight hair:

Quando o seu cabelo só cresce para cima, como explicar para uma menina de 13 anos que ela não pode nem sonhar com o cabelo Chanel? Quem é o culpado? O cabelo ruim.

Acreditei nisso por muitos anos. Hoje, depois de tantas experiências (que vou fazer questão de contar cada uma para vocês), cheguei a seguinte conclusão: se meu cabelo fosse realmente ruim, não teria agüentado tanto secador, chapinha e química.

When your hair only grows upwards, how do you explain to a 13-year old girl that she cannot even dream of having hair like the girls in Chanel ads? Who's to blame? Bad hair.

I believed that for many years. Today, after much experience (about which I can tell you in detail), I came to the following conclusion: if my hair were really so bad, it would not have been able to handle the frequency of the b blow dryer, straightener and chemical treatment.

Luísa Diogo, ex-Primeira Ministra de Moçambique, no documentário "Mulheres Africanas - A Rede Invisível"

Luísa Diogo, former prime minister of Mozambique, in the documentary “Mulheres Africanas – A Rede Invísivel“, presenting the history of battles and lobbies of the African women in different countries in the African continent. (Click to see the trailer)

“This phenomenon through which women's hairdos go through is not exclusive to Brazilian women,” the blog Colherada Cultural states:

Nos Estados Unidos a questão está tão presente que virou tema de um divertido documentário chamado “Good Hair” (ou “Cabelo Bom”, em tradução livre) (…) [que] mostra como age a indústria de produtos para cabelos voltada aos negros, bem como a ausência quase que total de personalidades negras que assumem os fios crespos.

The question is so frequently debated the United States that it has became part of the documentary entitled “Good Hair,”… [which] shows how hair-product manufacturers act to market to black hair as well as the near total lack of blacks who proudly wear their tight curls.

This topic is also addressed in music. One example is the young psychologist Jessica Sandim, who shares on her blog the song “I am not my hair,” from US singer India Arie, dedicated to:

nós que sempre, I mean, SEMPRE TODA A VIDA, entramos em conflito sobre nossos cabelos, nossa identidade, nosso gosto e a “maldita ditadura da sociedade”…
E também pra você que adora criticar tudo que é diferente.

Those of us who have always, and I mean ALWAYS AND FOREVER, been in conflict with our hair, our identity, our taste and the damn dictatorship of society”
And also for you who loves to criticize everything that is different.

The music stands for refusing stereotypes rampant in society and has been shared in the blogosphere as the “freedom song,” or so says the author of Diário de Bordo, Bordado a Bordô: ”the song of when one already has it, a tribute to the path that is.”


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