The Big Idea: Michele Tracy Berger

Hair matters, in a lots of ways we (or, well, I, a balding middle-aged white dude) don’t often think about. But Michele Tracy Berger has, and has made it central to her novella, Reenu-You. She’s here now to talk a little about hair, about culture, and about her work featuring both.

MICHELE TRACY BERGER:

What if a visit to the salon could kill you? What if a hair product harbored a deadly virus? My Big Idea is about viruses, the politics of beauty and unlikely female heroes.

Hair and hair culture is often unexplored territory for many speculative fiction writers. Despite the wonderful world-building of the genre, the social economy of hair maintenance, styling and product manufacturing is rarely discussed. This is a shame as there is a rich story in conversations of hair and haircare, as they often embody the complexities of the U.S.’s racial legacies. In Reenu-You, hair is the catalyst which sets the stage for conflict, friendship, desire, misunderstanding and an epidemic.

We follow two characters, Kat and Constancia. While different in many ways, these women share an experience of haircare; they both use a new product called “Reenu-You”. Within days they find themselves, along with other women of color, covered in purple scab-like legions— a rash that pulses, oozes, and spreads in spiral patterns. They are at the epicenter of a mysterious virus spreading throughout the city.

I’ve been interested in hair and what people make of it since I was a little girl. Beauty practices reveal a lot about what is acceptable and encouraged in a culture. There’s pain and joy in how many African Americans (and other people of color) experience their hair.

Let’s start with joy. Black people experience the aesthetics of hair as a space of creativity and innovation (e.g. ‘the Afro’, ‘the fade’, ‘cornrows’, ‘braids’, ‘the weave’, etc.). Growing up in an urban African American community, talking about, reflecting on and styling hair was a particularly important and fun aspect of my young adulthood. Beauticians held high status in my neighborhood. They nimbly moved from therapist to healer in a blink of an eye. I thought they were magical. They were like modern day shamans whose tools were metal hot combs, big pink rollers, slippery, translucent gels, and hair oils that smelled like exotic fruits from faraway lands.

But there’s pain, too. Black and brown kids often encounter the words nappy, kinky, and wooly, as pejoratives. Faced with this judgement, many internalize the belief that their hair is bad, or unmanageable. Most Black people have had to think critically about their hair, how they feel about it, how their community feels about it, and how dominant culture feels about it. I did.

I understood at an early age that there were unspoken rules about hair. “Good hair” was straight and bouncy, like the women in commercials.

I was usually in the camp of having “good hair”, frequently getting stopped on the street by people telling me I had pretty hair. These comments made me deeply uncomfortable, but, gave me a kind of social power, too.

What’s the origin of these ideas? Beauty standards, in this country, have historically favored long, straight hair stemming from dominant norms. Slave owners often referred to enslaved people’s hair as “wool”, like that of an animal.

These dominant norms were imposed on enslaved people and over time inculcated long-standing ideas about social status and worth. Straight hair (and lighter skin) over time became intertwined with a rigid definition of beauty. These societal standards and individuals’ experiences shape the complicated factors that play into why some minority women use relaxers.

In my novella, the product Reenu You seductively promises an all-natural, healthy chemical-free fix to its customers –it’s billed as a hair tonic.

Although no viruses have popped up yet in women’s hair products, there’s a long and troubling history about the safety of hair relaxers. At the turn of the 20th century, the African American press reported that white-owned companies were perhaps not producing high quality hair products for their primarily Black clients.

The idea for Reenu-You developed as I watched the 1990s ‘Rio’ scandal unfold. The World Rio Corporation released a product known as Rio, billed as a natural hair relaxer. Rio was marketed almost exclusively to Black women, as an alternative to traditional relaxers.

Soon women around the country were reporting horrible reactions to Rio including itchy scalps, oozing blisters and significant hair loss. A class action lawsuit revealed that there was nothing natural, at all, about Rio. At a closer look, Rio contained a number of highly acidic chemicals!

These lawsuits continue to pop up. Presently, L’Oréal is facing a class action law suit that claims several of its hair relaxers produce harmful conditions. Also a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, documents that many beauty products “targeted toward Black women are less healthy”.  Hair relaxers are at the top the list. In fact, researchers are investigating the possible connections between hair relaxers and occurrences of lupus and fibroid tumors.

Currently the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the hair care or cosmetics industry.

Reenu-You digs into the uncomfortable space of hair and identity, leaning into all of its potential for joy and pain. I wanted to play with the trust we have as consumers about the safety of our most intimate products and raise questions about who is valued as a consumer and patient.

The stakes are higher in the novella than in the Rio case. I’m hoping Reenu-You will create more awareness about these real-life beauty horror stories.

I hope readers will carry the characters and their stories with them. The next time they visit a salon or are about to use a favorite conditioner, hair gel or dye, they might consider, what’s really in these products?

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Visit Berger’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

15 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Michele Tracy Berger

  1. I cant even imagine what the world would look like if cultural beauty expectations disappeared. Was talking with someone from the caribbean and they grew up in a culture where they were shamed because they had darker skin than the average dark skin on the island. What the hell is the matter with people. Theres so much of it and its so unconscious that the idea of a world without it seems like a singularity, an outcome so radically different that we cant even predict what it would look like.

  2. In an age where huge companies have us breathing in god-knows-what fragrant hell everywhere we go (I expect a Febreeze underarm deodorant soon) it’s not far-fetched to realize hair products, which in the Black community is a market worth billions, have been and are weapons of mass destruction. Michele hit on all the reasons why in her blog, and I’m excited to see how the class-structured hair wars plays out against a sci-fi backdrop. Good thing is that now more folks have found out it ain’t a perm, it’s a temporary.

  3. My niece has recently started a career as a beautician and has been whining about not having anything new and interesting to read. I feel a need to send a copy of this her way.

  4. So much about hair style is odd.

    Men and boys have more limited options for their hair, though that’s changed some (maybe) with Millenials and after. If most boys or men have hair that’s too long, it doesn’t meet a dress code. If it’s shaved completely, you might be a skinhead. If it doesn’t fit in the male norms, it’s too girly or too gay, and so on. As an example, men can have a short ponytail if it’s done in a very prescribed way, but a long ponytail or outside that norm? Or two ponytails or twin braids? Aside from old traditional Native American Indian hairstyles, not used a lot now, can you think of an example of “a white dude” with two ponytails r braids? If he’s a boy, he’s going to catch a lot of problems for it, right? (Maybe less so now, maybe not.)

    Women and girls face this too. Remember what a big deal it was when Sinead O’Connor and Grace Jones shaved their heads? The buzzcut / crewcut in G.I. Jane? Lt. Ilia’s bald head in ST:TMP? A “manly” hairstyle that’s likely to have a woman or girl labelled as a lesbian, a dyke? Hmm. Why do we all get so weird over what is “guy’s hair” or “women’s hair”?

    I have an odd relationship with my own hair. I’m white and blond and male. As a kid, I had straight hair, I think, though it was nearly always cut so short, it might have been wavy even then. But right around puberty as a tween / pre-teen, my hair became very wavy. Ever after, it does its own thing, which limits the length and styles my hair can have to look “manly.” (In college, when my hair was longer, it was so wavy and full that I once got misread from behind as a woman. This bothered me, as I was really struggling then with my sexual orientation, and it happened enough that I went back to much shorter hair.) Any length on it at all, and the ends and this whole area in the middle go wavy or slightly curly. I wish I had straight hair, but I have to go with what will make my wavy hair look good. — And personally, it bugs me when my hair’s too long, over my forehead and ears and neck. So I’ve never had it truly long, but I sometimes wonder what a ponytail would be like.

    That doesn’t even get into men’s mustaches and beards, haha, and the cultural perceptions about masculinity or neatness or naturalness around men’s facial hair.

    My mom had prematurely grey hair, and after she got dissed very badly by a woman who absolutely refused to believe I was my mom’s son instead of grandson, when I was around 10 or so, my mom tried dyeing her hair. Boom! Sales at the art shop went up and she was perceived as younger, more friendly, positive, powerful, etc. She dyed her hair ever after. This was an effect we all (mom, dad, grandmother, myself, friends) noticed and my mom commented on it sometimes to people. My dad was prematurely balding, even in his 30’s. I’ve been lucky and take after my uncle and grandpa on my dad’s side, and so far, I still have a full head of hair, only slightly less in front, so it looks like I won’t go bald until I’m very old, but that will likely happen, as it has with most men on both sides of my family, though not all.

    We can be very glad that powdered wigs haven’t come back in as the thing, you know? Hahaha.

    But hair relaxers and other common products? Oh, yeah. Definitely a thing. Women and now men have a ton of goop marketed at them. (Hair gel for guys now, hair tonic / hair oil in my granddad’s day.) Hair products to straighten black people’s hair? Or wave or curl white people’s hair? Or a white person with a fro? Oh, my. Or how about dyed hair?

    One of the most interesting things I’ve ever seen was some random young guy who had what looked very much like Neelix’s hairstyle from Voyager. I did not get to talk to him and ask about it. He was catching flak from his manager over it, and there were customers, so unfortunately, I didn’t get to put in my praise for what I thought was daring and cool. It looked remarkable, and it was not summer for scifi con season.

  5. Sorry to be picky but where you write “legions” don’t you mean ‘lesions?’ Looks interesting though.

  6. “What if a visit to the salon could kill you?” I have so many strange allergies, including to some chemicals, that it very well could – or at least make me very ill. I first became aware of the horror of hair products reading the label on a bottle of name brand conditioner. One of the principal incredients was formaldehyde.

  7. This book could do a whole lot of good and I hope it does!
    I’m seeing more and more women and girls of color proudly wearing their hair in more natural styles and IMO it’s wonderful (so sorry – I know there’s a proper term for this trend but I feel like if I have to google for it, and don’t remember outright what Ms. Obama and others called it, that it’s kinda fakey on my part).
    I’m caucasian and have that kind of “skinny” hair that always looks like a mistake. But any pressure I’ve faced in our society is miniscule compared with what Ms. Berger and others have dealt with. How great that she has used her authorial skills to amp up this dialogue!
    Sometimes I suspect that the root cause of a lot these expectations and stress is the marketing and advertising that drives us to feel inadequate so that we’ll buy something; if we all felt good about ourselves, we’d spend way less money and time on hair, makeup, clothes, etc., but that could be bad for the economy. ;-)
    Finally, I loved the line by ZZ Claybourne above – “it ain’t permanent, it’s temporary.” So good to remember that!

  8. I learned about my PPD allergy the hard way, though my reaction was not as serious as Sali Hughes’s, and as a result have wrestled with perceptions of societal invisibility as a result of going gray early. I’m very much looking forward to reading this!

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