Is cultural assimilation ever funny? Yes, says the irreverent Jen Wang of website Disgrasian. “Normally…the things non-white people do to look like white people because that’s what’s considered beautiful are sad and sometimes dangerous,” she argues. There’s one exception, though—Asians with perms. Wang said that trend, which peaked in the early ’90s, is hilarious.
After posting a photograph of herself with permed hair as a high school sophomore on Facebook, Wang’s friends of Asian persuasion confessed that once upon a time, they’d too chemically corkscrewed their manes to fit in. But Wang wanted more than their word that they’d committed this cardinal hair sin, she wanted photographic evidence. That’s what prompted her to launch the new Tumblr “Fuck Yeah, Asians With Perms!” If you’re Asian and have a photo of yourself with permed hair, you’re urged to submit the pic to the site.
When I first visited “Asians With Perms,” I expected to find the other photos as funny as I found Wang’s high school shot, but I wasn’t prepared to see pictures of children—some who looked like preschoolers—with permed hair. Why were kids that young having their hair processed? Was the pressure to fit Western beauty standards so fierce back then that parents imposed these standards on their children? Then, I remembered that I was only about 5 years old myself when my mother first straightened my hair. To be fair, she didn’t make this decision solely for the purpose of assimilation. After all, following my first relaxer, she still styled it in Afrocentric ‘dos like braids with beads at the ends. Considering that she’d cut my hair very short when I was in preschool to avoid having to wrangle it every morning, I know that she relaxed it, in part, to make my coarse coils lower maintenance. But, of course, straightening my hair also functioned to make me a more socially acceptable child in my mostly white school district and in U.S. society generally, much in the same way that perming Asian hair in the 1980s and early ’90s functioned to make Asian Americans more palatable in white society.
In retrospect, Wang feels that Asians with perms is something to poke fun at today because “everyone wants hair like ours now anyway.” Unlike African hair, Asian hair has long been idealized, but that doesn’t mean that Asian Americans have altogether stopped perming their hair. Today, Asians with permed hair simply opt for a more natural look—silky waves rather than the big crinkly curls that swept the 1980s. Type in “permed hair” in Flickr.com’s search engine, and you’ll see a number of pictures of Asians with artificially texturized hair. To boot, there’s the whole issue of hair lightening, which is standard in some circles of Asians. Like perms and relaxers, people of color who lighten their hair often face charges of selling out (See this post on Beyoncé).
Even in 2011, “ethnic” hair remains serious business. Style of hair may not only result in one being called a sellout, but also in one being deemed unprofessional or too black or Asian-looking. Because of this, many of us with so-called ethnic hair aren’t yet ready to join in with Wang and laugh at the ways the pressure to assimilate has influenced our styling choices. Perhaps that day will come when cultural baggage isn’t quite so entangled with hair baggage.