Straightening Comb

Series Cultural Heritage

The end of the nineteenth century. Producers in the United States advertise with “Black Skin Removers” and “Cures for Curls”. A white skin and straight hair determine the women’s status. This is also the case in our communities. So our women start a massive struggle against curly hair. They have their hair straightened – “ironing the hair” – with a metal comb. While the comb is heated on a kerosene stove, the hair is divided into small patches and cream is added. When the comb has reached the exact temperature, it is run through the hair. The heat straightens the hair. A temporary solution, for the hair curls up again immediately as soon as it gets wet with water or perspiration.

Curaçao, 2003. In Edith’s Beauty Salon Mildred “Shon Mi” Leito-Leito (49) straightens the hair of an aged lady. She uses the same method and with the same penetrating singing smell as almost one hundred years ago. Only the stove has been replaced by an electric heating device. Shon Mi is one of the few hairdressers in the island who still masters the trade of hair straightening trade.. She learned the technique from Edith Donker, the daughter of a mother from St. Eustatius, from whom she took the salon over sixteen years ago.  “Real craftsmanship”, she says. “I am proud that I can do it, for it is not as simple as it seems. A treatment takes, depending on the length and the thickness of the hair, fifteen minutes to an hour. “You should know what type of hair you are working with, says Shon Mi. That determines how hot you must heat the comb. And you should know the heat of the comb. I do not need to check its temperature anymore. I can smell it.” The “ironing” in itself is a work of art. Shon Mi: “Pushing calmly, not too slowly, not too fast and never touch the scalp. Very carefully, the hair may not be burnt. But “ironing” the hair is out, “straightening is the trend. Only elder women and children like to have their hair made smooth. The modern woman with curly hair prefers a treatment with cream that de-curls the hair permanently. Anthony Dickey ascribes the popularity of straight hair to the losses in the cosmetic industry. “By the late 1970’s however, the hair and cosmetic companies, having lost money, began an assault on the psyches of women and embarked on extensive advertising companies lionizing conservative, straight-haired styles”, writes Dickey in “Hair Rules”; the Ultimate Hair-Care Guide for Women with Kinky, Curly or Wavy Hair”.

And the Antillean woman follows the American fashion. She attacks her curly hair with cream and oil treatments and rollers, curling iron and blow-dryer and she is busy getting the right curls in her hairstyle from early morning till the evening.

Has anything changed then? Is de-curled hair still the standard, just like at the end of the nineteenth century, twentieth century? Paul Brenneker writes in “Sambumbu”: ‘Their son was married last month and has already divorced his wife. He was married to a girl with de-curled hair. But she was not a suitable wife, you see!
And: “Man, please move on to let me pass.”
”Why should I step aside?”
“Because you have a brown skin and de-curled hair and I am black and my hair is curled, well?”
“No, but I can’t pass.”
”No excuses. You think that you are superior to those negroes and that’s why that nigger should get out of your way.” “Excuse me, please?”
“Because I don’t want to quarrel I shall step aside, but not because I am black and my hair is curled.”
Those who read the titles of the websites on Internet, do not suspect this. Dickey writes: “For straight hair?” and How do I get completely straight hair permanently?”, “Even so women with non-straight hair…… still retain negative beliefs about their hair.” The author summons women to stop judging hair as “good” or “bad”, but as healthy” or not “healthy”. Elis Juliana has been doing this for many decades in Curacao. In ‘Kabei’ he narrates: The year 1962 is seen as ‘the age of the hair’. The world may be turned up side down, but it is the hair that counts. The fair sex has surrendered to hair styling. You will be astonished if you observe the enthusiasm with which they enter upon a struggle against the hair. …Sometimes the ears contain lots of black spots that were caused when the sacrificed comb slipped.”

Hair-styles have become works of art, creative expressions. All this began with a simple metal comb that was heated and via chemical creams, rollers and hair pieces it opened the channels for an explosion of hair-styles and models. Shon Mi fears that the origin of the hair culture, “ironing the hair” will vanish. “Straightening is not good for the hair of young children. One had better “iron” that young hair. That’s why I would like to pass on my knowledge to pupils of the VSBO/SBO School Maris Stella (School for Preparatory School for Secondary Vocational Education / Secondary Vocational Education, where I work. Maybe I can maintain the trade alive with my classes of “hair ironing”.

‘Sacrifice comb’.
Collection Elis Juliana 2003/NAAM

Paul Brenneker, “Sambumbu” (vol. 6 and 7), Curaçao, 1973.
Elis Juliana,  Kabei   in: Wazu Riba Rondu, no 1, 1967
Thanks to Mildred ‘Shon Mi’ Leito-Leito, Edith’s Beauty Salon, Sandra Lewis Nieuw, Rose Mary Allen.