Over the past few days a totally charming Sesame Street video, “I Love My Hair,” has gone viral. It was written by a White man named Joey Mazzarino for his 5-year-old Black daughter and depicts a little Black muppet girl singing a rousing paean to her curly hair. Never mind that a Black woman named Natasha Anastasia Tarpley wrote an equally charming children’s book of the same name more than a decade ago, or that it took a White man to draw Sesame Street’s attention to this issue. It is a touching testimonial to a father’s love for his little girl. Many Black women left comments on NPR’s website about what a difference it would have made to have had this song in their lives when they were growing up. It was noted that many adult Black women, including our First Lady, still straighten their hair.
Also among the comments were several from curlyheaded White women who had likewise despised their hair and longed for flowing blonde tresses they could flounce like Marsha Brady. One, from the South, spoke of having to endure racist abuse because of her corkscrew curls.
But wait. How many of those silky-haired blondes so envied by their peers actually love their hair? In my experience, dislike of one’s hair is more or less normative among American women. What is supposed to be our “crowning glory” somehow becomes the focus for feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. The term “bad hair day” has become synonymous with a nagging sense that something about us isn’t quite right. We regularly expose our bodies (not to mention our ground water and landfills) to toxic chemicals designed to crimp, relax, darken, lighten, glaze, highlight, lowlight, and otherwise bully our hair into submission so that maybe, just maybe, we can look better and feel better about ourselves.
I know. I endured many nights sleeping (or rather not sleeping) on giant rollers in hopes of looking like Joan Baez. I braided my unruly hair and pinned it up to subdue the frizzies. Then, at age 40, I belatedly awoke to the realization that many of my friends were paying good money to get their hair to do what I was trying so hard to get mine not to do. I went to a good hairdresser and got a flattering cut – and for a few short years, I actually grew fond of my curly mop. But then it started graying, and once again, dissatisfaction set in. I began coloring it, resulting in an uneasy truce that lasted a couple of decades, till I started noticing something disconcerting: My face was aging naturally; my hair was not. After much soul-searching, I decided to “go gray” (which for me meant several months of an ever-widening “skunk stripe” that couldn’t entirely be disguised; no one ever tells you, when you embark upon that 5-week recurring cycle of dying and retouching, how hard it is to escape).
Up until now I’ve been okay with my new “mature” look. Not thrilled, perhaps, but okay. When I saw this cute little video, however, it suddenly struck me that my gray hair might be something not just to tolerate but to celebrate. Why not, after all? I like seeing a head of hair that’s in sync with my face when I look in the mirror. I like being free of the chemical stew, the rigid scheduling, and the not inconsiderable expense required to keep the gray at bay. I like experimenting with new wardrobe colors to harmonize with my silver mane. And of course I still like my curls. Thanks to “I Love My Hair,” I’m actually feeling pretty good about my own natural “do” at the moment.
What has this got to do with smoking? Not much, probably – except that cigarettes are yet another toxic product used by many women to make themselves happier with the way they look and feel. Sometimes something comes along – a song, a poem, a painting, a book – with the power to raise our awareness and reframe the way we feel about ourselves. When I wrote my book, my dream was that it would work precisely that magic for its readers. Just as “I Love My Hair” has helped me feel good about my gray hair, I hope Life After Cigarettes helps women who have smoked not just tolerate a few extra pounds but truly embrace the look and feel of their new smoke-free bodies.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.