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In a world where weaves, wigs, extensions, clip ins, you name it, have become the norm amongst black women in the U.S. and abroad, you may ask yourself, why can’t black women just grow their own, long hair? Daily we see black women vying to fulfill their fantasy of having long, thick, healthy hair, and spending millions to acquire it.
Articles, upon articles, in the media, address the question, many providing half‐truths, and some downright myths. The truth lies in asking the right question in the first place. The question is not, “Why can’t black hair grow long?” It is a proven fact that black hair will grow and grow, and grow.
Swept-back hair is a romantic long hairstyle for men that has experienced renewed interest following the success of the British BBC series, Poldark. Indeed, Ross Poldark is a good-looking fellow and some of us have been inspired by the style. According to Guinness World Records, the current world recorder holder for the longest hair is Xie Qiuping of China. Xie Qiuping’s last haircut was in 1973, and now she holds the record with 16 feet. This is Georgia Sebrantke. According to the 1987 Guinness Book of World Records she has (had?) the longest hair in the world.
The challenge is, retaining the hair you grow. A black woman’s hair is always “starting over,” so to speak, due to dryness, breakage, and excessive shedding, therefore leaving them dependent on hair purchased from our European, and Indian counterparts, to fulfill their “long hair” fantasy.
So the real question is, “Why can’t black women “retain” the hair they grow?” Well, it’s a proven fact that their own hair will actually grow from their scalp, but the problem is, they’ve just got to keep it! And therein lies the problem. Science has revealed, that black hair tends to be more dry and brittle, and that can cause it to fall out and/or break off. But fortunately, there is a solution, and it’s based on a scientific fact, so many overlook…iron. Yes, iron! Iron deficiency, is one of the most prevalent of all vitamin deficiencies amongst the human population. And it is extremely prevalent, amongst women of African descent. “Ahhaaaa”, you say?
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Studies show that “iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide.” And according to WebMD, a review of 40 years of research shows that iron deficiency has a much closer link to hair loss than most doctors realize, and it may be the key to restoring hair growth, Cleveland Clinic dermatologists said.
“We believe that treatment for hair loss is enhanced when iron deficiency, with or without anemia, is treated,” Leonid Benjamin Trost, MD; Bergfeld, MD; and Ellen Calogeras, RD, MPH, write in the May issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Study researcher Wilma Fowler Bergfeld has been doing this for years. And she’s finding that whatever the cause of hair loss – for both women and men ‐‐ having too little iron in the blood makes it worse.
“Though they are others things you can do nutritionally and topically to stimulate, and promote your hair growth, as well as maintain overall healthier hair, adding iron, in the right balance, could make a world of difference. Iron deficiency can cause hair to be very dry, brittle and prone to breakage; couple that with styling, manipulation, poor hair care, chemical treatments, and poor nutrition, the hair is not going to be in optimal shape to maintain the right ph, moisture, and elasticity, to keep it from breaking and shedding unnecessarily, and it will be less likely new hair will even grow.
You tell us, do you think black women have an issue with hair growth? What vitamins, if any have you used to combat against breakage?
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Do you have a question about history? Send us your question at [email protected] . com and you might find your answer in a future edition of Now You Know.
Though hair fashions may change season to season, the association between women and long hair is an ancient one.
It dates back at least to ancient Greeks and Romans, and according to archaeologist Elizabeth Bartman, even despite the Ancient Greek ideal of a “bearded, long-haired philosopher,” women in that society still had longer hair than men regularly did. Roman women kept their hair long and tended to part it down the center, and a man devoting too much attention to his hair “risked scorn for appearing effeminate.” The Bible carried on the tradition. Anthony Synnott, a sociologist who has written that hair is a personal symbol with “immense social significance,” found these implications in, for example, St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Doth not nature itself teach you that if a man have long hair it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her.”
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“[It is] almost universally culturally found that women have longer hair than men,” says Kurt Stenn, author of Hair: a Human History.
But the reasons why that tradition started out—and why it has endured—are harder to pin down.
Hair is highly communicative, says Stenn, allowing individuals to send “messages of health, sexuality, religiosity, power” on first glance. It can be an expression of individual and group identity, and the the more attention a person (often a woman) is expected to devote to it, the more it can say. The scholar Deborah Pergament has written that hair’s cultural and historic implications can be legally significant. “Inferences and judgments about a person’s morality, sexual orientation, political persuasion, religious sentiments and, in some cultures, socio-economic status,” she notes, “can sometimes be surmised by seeing a particular hairstyle.”
Stenn, a former professor of pathology and dermatology at Yale who was also the director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, believes that health is perhaps the root cause of hair’s significance. “In order to have long hair you have to be healthy,” he says. “You have to eat well, have no diseases, no infectious organisms, you have to have good rest and exercise.”
Stenn also notes the practical difficulties of long hair: “In order to have long hair you have to have your needs in life taken care of.” So long hair is also a status symbol, especially when it comes to complex hairstyles that require someone else to help you do them, which “implies you have the wealth to do it.” It’s no coincidence that short hairstyles like the bob came into fashion during the 20th century, in regions where women were beginning to push back against the idea that they needed to be taken care of.
And, the implications of hair go the other way too. Men (especially highborn men, who likewise had the time to care for it) have sometimes worn their hair long, and free Gothic warriors in Italy in the beginning of the last millennium were known as capillati or “long-haired men.” But, in general, their hair was expected to be shorter than the hair of women in their societies. Historian Robert Bartlett has noted that in 1094 “Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury refused to give ashes or his blessing to those young men who ‘grew their hair like girls’ unless they had their hair cut.” Even in the mid-20th century, after women with short hair were less surprising, American men and boys had to fight for the right to grow out their locks.