This week, the First Lady of Cameroon, Chantal Biya, arrived in the United States for the United States-Africa Leaders Summit. She came with her hair—a nearly indescribable assortment of brightly colored tresses. Mrs. Biya has no problem rocking a bouffant, bangs, a mullet and a ponytail—sometimes all at once.
I knew the blogs were going to explode. This woman was about to get dragged by her edges, as the young kids say. There was no doubt in my mind that within hours, there would be hundreds of memes dedicated to Mrs. Biya’s mane.
But nope. It’s been a week. Search for ‘Chantal Biya’ and ‘memes’ and you get nothing. Not a single one. There’s a tumblr devoted to her hairstyles but it has no comments or commentary.
In fact, I haven’t seen anything critical about her look. Not one headline, article or comment. There seems to be a collective, ‘you go head with your bad self’ consensus when it comes to Mrs. Biya. Everyone knows she’s over the top. But no one is outright insulting or teasing her. It’s like Great Aunt Gertrude at the family reunion. The one who always wears something that raises eyebrows but everyone just smiles and nods and waits until they get in the car to talk about her.
The mainstream media is keeping it light too, saying-but-not-saying what they think of her look.
The Huffington Post calls her hair, ‘eccentric.’ Perez Hilton proclaims it ‘Faboosh!’
“Be still our hearts,” raves New York magazine, “her hair is enormous.”
Other descriptions include: “wonderfully iconoclastic” and “gigantic and expressive.” There's even a Tumblr dedicated to her tresses.
Now, I’m not saying anything’s wrong with Mrs. Biya’s ‘do. In fact, I think its awesome that she’s being accepted—and even admired—for rocking her own style.
But I can’t help but note—if this were someone else, things would be very different.
Recently, I watched folks come for sports commentator Pam Oliver, calling her everything but a child of God because her weave wasn’t quite up to snuff. (#PamOliversWeave often trended on Sundays when she was on the air.)
Tamar Braxton has had whole blog posts devoted to the inferior quality of her hair weave. There were people who said they wouldn’t even support Halle Berry’s recent movie, The Call—because her wig was too awful. (She had to answer questions about it on the red carpet of the premiere!) When photos surfaced of Naomi Campbell while vacationing, people callously drew red arrows pointing directly to the thinning hair on her temples.
Serena Williams, Ashanti, Keyshia Cole, Rihanna, Brandy—it’s tough to think of a single celebrity who hasn’t, at some point, been criticized for not fitting a particular ideal of what fashionable hair should look like. (Particularly if they choose to wear hair extensions and wigs).
The comments section of any post about certain celebrities will contain lines like “RIP to her edges” or “Look at her with that struggle ponytail.”
But if you look at the hair tragedy posts on most blogs, Mrs. Biya has worn many of those styles—some in combination.
The Black community goes hard on hair. Why is Mrs. Biya getting a pass?
Is it because she’s older? That may be part of it. But that didn’t stop folks from clowning Aretha Franklin and the hat she wore for President Obama’s inauguration in 2008. (The hat still has its own Facebook page, with ninety thousand followers). And Aretha was just wearing a grey wool hat with a big old bow on it. Nothing we haven’t seen in a thousand churches on any given Sunday.
Is it because Mrs. Biya is rich, mixing her outrageous hairstyles with Chanel, Dior and other couture labels? Nah, if having money inoculated against hair criticisms, Beyoncé and Blue Ivy would be safe—and they’re not. If Beyoncé or her child dare step off a private jet with a single hair out of place—it’s unacceptable.
Is it because she’s powerful, married to the president of Cameroon? Nope. See above.
Is it because she’s confident? She clearly gives no thought to what anyone thinks of her and she’s the living embodiment of the expression: do you boo.
Is it because she’s not anonymous? Chantal Biya isn’t a random person floating in cyberspace, a girl going to prom or a mom in Walmart with a stroller full of kids.
It’s all of the above. You take Mrs. Biya and have her walking down 125th street in Harlem or a Walmart in New Jersey—there would be jokes for days.
Mrs. Biya seems to be exempt from the hurtful disses we heap on our own.
Does it make sense that if you’re young or African-American or poor or powerless or unknown—or all of the above, you’ll be more likely to be judged and criticized for your fashion choices?
The respect for Mrs. Biya’s style is admirable. But why isn’t that respect extended to our own?
Aliya S. King is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books, including the New York Times Bestseller, Keep the Faith, with recording artist Faith Evans. Find her at aliyasking.com and on Twitter @aliyasking.