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Hair: History, politics, fiction

Outer Joins
Hair: History, politics, fiction
By Melissa Lewis • Issue #3 • View online
I find it easiest to write these by uniting them in a theme, particularly one that recurs for the week. This week it’s hair, that shingled protein inevitably signaling something to other people about us, even in its absence or concealment.

The thing itself
A magnified cross section of a hair strand
I’ve only read the Wikipedia article on hair and have a hard time finding literature I trust, but what seems safe to say so far is that a hair strand is typically composed of the three layers annotated in the image above (medulla optional, for reasons I’ve yet to read), and that the cortex is the holder of melanin, a category of pigment largely driving skin and hair color.
A famous poet refers to this in one of his better-known works as melatonin in a way that in no way suggests it’s an artistic decision, and I’ve never had the heart to correct him on it.
He may’ve figured it out by now, but I refuse to look it up.
Hair politics
I know from creeping on social media that a numerical hair categorization system exists, but knew nothing of its provenance until I listened to the 99% Invisible episode “The Hair Chart.”
This is the chart, developed by Oprah's stylist of 18 years.
This is the chart, developed by Oprah's stylist of 18 years.
The episode starts with an explanation of how a hair hierarchy emerged in the United States:
Thick, kinky hair was long considered a sign of health and wealth in parts of Africa. But in the United States, skin tone and hair texture were used to divide enslaved African people. Lighter skin and straighter hair could mean more privileges, like working in the house and not in the fields. This idea of “good hair” and “bad hair” all evolved during slavery, explains Ayana Byrd, co-author of the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.
The episode also explores straightening methods since the early 1900s, many of which have been expensive and even dangerous:
In the 1920’s hot combs were used to straighten hair, and then came a hair style known as the “conk,” […] The conk was the name of the style but it as also the name of the relaxer itself, which was made using a harsh chemical called sodium hydroxide, or lye, which could cause serious burns.
One hundred years on, though, hair style is still a matter of professional and academic discrimination, as people are told their hair is unprofessional or a distraction. But I found stories from the last few years reporting that sales for straightening products are declining, and that large beauty companies are now moving into products directed at natural hair. From the LA Times, last year:
In the 1990s and early 2000s, [natural hair care] companies catered to and were largely run by a small community of black women embracing their natural hair. But with 71% of black adults in the U.S. wearing their hair naturally at least once in 2016, according to research firm Mintel, natural hair has now hit the mainstream. And with black consumers spending an estimated $2.56 billion on hair care products in 2016, it’s no surprise others are eager to edge into the market.
Investment from beauty industry giants has helped natural hair products move from specialty stores to the shelves of major retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart and CVS — making it easier for customers to get their hands on what were once niche products.
But it’s also forcing independent black-owned companies to compete with corporations that long ignored the natural hair market, resulting in sometimes uncomfortable changes for customers and business owners alike.
What I'm reading
I’m in the middle of What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, a collection of short stories, and just read what I think is my favorite. It’s harrowing in its strangeness and specificity, and luckily, it was also published in The New Yorker:
“Who Will Greet You at Home” | The New Yorker
I’ll let you read it to suss out its tie to the theme!
If you made it to the end, hooray, thanks! I know time is precious for all of us and completing anything feels like a feat for me now. Please let me know what you like or dislike, or even just something you’d like to learn more about. You may’ve subscribed because we’re both programmers, and yet I don’t know where I can quite fit that topic in yet. I’m sure it will, though; I keep thinking about programming and software engineering principles as I watch season 2 of Westworld. More integration tests, y'all.
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Melissa Lewis

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