Who needs a Narnia-style wardrobe when you can drop into an alternate universe just by visiting the drugstore?

I simply stand in the hair-care aisle, facing an escarpment of shampoos, conditioners, gels, and sprays with brand names I”€™ve known since girlhood: Pantene, Garnier, Head & Shoulders, and”€”God help me”€”Herbal Essences.

Then I twirl 180 degrees and find myself in an exotic, if very tiny, foreign land.

I”€™m talking about the “€œblack hair”€ shelf.

Something called “€œQueen Helene Cholesterol Hot Oil Treatment”€ sounds freaky enough, but what the hell is “€œDr. Miracle’s “€˜Feel It”€™ Formula”€? The scalp appears to be an area of particular concern. Making something called “€œshea”€ into butter turns out to be a primary industry.

For products purporting to increase one’s attractiveness, stuff for black hair often comes in plain, even hideous, packaging that makes it look more like long-defunct brands of car wax.

A shockingly large number of chemical hair relaxers boast”€”no pun apparently intended”€”of being “€œno-lye.”€ And some of these potions and pomades supposedly have, er, magical powers.

“€œHair is to black women what weight is to white ones.”€

Black hair is in the news, what with African-American Olympics viewers reportedly more focused on gold medalist Gabby Douglas’s hair than her gymnastic prowess. Gabby’s hair, you see, is “€œnatural,”€ not “€œkept.”€ She’s supposed to “€œrepresent”€ better. She desperately “€œneeds some gel and a brush.”€

(Were these the same folks who denounced NBC as “€œracist”€ for running a commercial with a gymnastic monkey right after the network announced Douglas’s win? Or the ones who demanded Don Imus’s scalp after he called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “€œnappy-headed hos“€? God, let’s hope so.)

Thanks to the Gabby Douglas story, many non-blacks are learning for the first time that hair is to black women what weight is to white ones and that “€œa large number of black women don”€™t work out because of their beloved hairstyle.”€ It’s also a major reason why so many African-Americans never learn to swim (with fatal results).

Every few years, the subject percolates back up into the general public’s awareness. A little movie such as Barbershop posts breathtaking ticket sales and introduces whites to the central role these neighborhood hangouts have long played in African-American life.



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