Why Did We Ever Commit to the Jheri Curl?
Choosing grease over the fluff didn’t quite work out
We can’t escape the uneven legacy from the 80’s — that the late founder (Comer Cottrell) of the products that left our hair dripping wet— bequeathed us when he passed away back in 2014.
Apparently it’s the 40th anniversary of the infamous Jheri curl and I couldn’t help but conjure up the cultural references to that era when greasy fare was more acceptable than the natural moisture — that can be contained without the humiliation of spending the night with a plastic bag — erected to curtail the slow accumulation of over-priced activators.
My mom sported a Jehri curl — and in pictures — I see that she actually looked quite snazzy. Her black hair cascaded into patterns that seemed to indicate the very best version of whatever activator she was using to maintain “the wet look” — in order to avoid the crippling effects of coarseness.
However her allegiance didn’t last long for obvious reasons.
The scene in Coming to America that hilariously depicts a whole family — drenched in the oily mess of damagingly coiled tresses — has become a mandated favorite — and that is hugely based on the fact that it sums up the disaster of a hairstyle that was formulated to teach us about the very opposite of ourselves.
My relationship with my own hair has undergone massive undertakings due to how easy it is to improvise with varied forms of manipulation. I was forced to keep my hair in corn rows or braids while I was in boarding school. Then my mother gave me permission to perm my hair after I graduated from high school.
I still remember the almost unbearable sensation of burning — that rotted my scalp as slabs of white creme slathered my hair with the bid to gift me with bone-straight hair. It was a life-altering experience — although the process was anything but sentimental. When the burning became too intense — my attendants forced me to be heroic for the sake of what I would accomplish — when I stepped into the breezy arms of the day.
At the time — all I could muster was a rigid smile and the inability to stop tapping my feet in response to the rising temperature on my head. But once it was all over, and I walked out into the sunlight — the effortless way my hair obeyed the wind with each step — suddenly over-powered the reddened crusts on my scalp — that would take weeks to heal.
When I finally moved to the States for college — I had to end my allegiance to relaxers in order to accommodate my narrow budget. I gladly learned how to make my gorgeously chaotic hair beautiful, without the reliance on products that promise to exaggerate the curls or waves that most of us can’t claim.
Back in my day — there were no blogs that catered to the “movement” with elaborate demonstrations of how to “co-wash” or handle a “bad hair day” with grace and practiced patience. I just had the will to make it work — even though my periods of being “natural” didn’t win a lot of fans — as family and friends practically begged me to stop “wasting my pretty.”
Now, the current climate has powered us with the will to publicly laud what we once heralded with stubborn reservation.
Hair bloggers are all the rage and the market is saturated with a plethora of offerings that consistently promise to revitalize our dull and wiry strands into glossier prototypes — without the sting of chemical assistance.
Why did we ever commit to the Jheri curl?
We chose grease over the fluff — because history taught us to defiantly reject the stiffness of hair that doesn’t move — because it represents the level of ethnicity that is still deemed undesirable.
The potency of the products that were used to make Jheri curls “pop” were actually the worst kind, which isn’t shocking if you had the pleasure of breathing in the fumes that made our nostril hairs curl on command.
We committed because we believed in the urgency of making our hair move with shiny accompaniment — and the validation of our worthiness to compete with the best of them.
Black women with hair that doesn’t possess the thrill akin to Tracee Ellis Ross — have to contend with the labels that sound as demeaning as they feel. We have large fluffy crowns that idiotic Black men and non-Black men (a.k.a French Montana) love to use as ammunition against us — in order to unequivocally shut it down.
This tragic habit seems to be working — as most of us resort to any means necessary to get the “length” and “grade” that is required to pass the test of whether or not we’re viable or able to bear children — who will miraculously maintain the baby-haired edges that bi-racial kids sport with parental authority.
Even I caved to the culture of desperately trying to “rejuvenate” my non-existing curls by succumbing to the money-wasting experiment in the form of a “Wave Nouveau” that was supposed to be the more refined version of it’s almost extinct predecessors. That proved to be just as destructive — as my hair follicles perished under the duress of a process that was meant to suffocate them.
I quickly and finally decided that coarseness was best.
One fine morning — as I rode the bus to the gym — I silently chuckled when I found myself sitting behind a passenger who reminded me of a time when smelly and greasy was encouraged for the sake of all the reasons why self-hate can manifest in ways that shouldn’t be tolerable.
Hair is an accessory and we should be able to enjoy it’s durability without limitations or judgement. That is possible when you easily qualify for national and global ad campaigns.
When you have a hair type that can get you disqualified from the army, suspended from high school, or rudely called out on Twitter by an asshole who only dates chicks with “good hair” — the freedom to be comfortably “natural” isn’t as freeing as it should be.
The journey to self-love can suffer major setbacks — but the best part happens when we recover and press the reset button back to the disposition that allows us to hilariously curse the days when frying our hair for points was the norm.
We may have committed, but we are now forever loyal to the fluffiness of pride that doesn’t demand sleek edges or the sexy twirling that can make us feel unfulfilled.
Virgin over grease is the word on the street today — and I’m confident that it will stay that way.