Since Chris Rock’s film Good Hair came out in 2009, the topic of how some black women style their hair using relaxers or weaves to achieve an effect closer to that of Caucasian or Asian hair, has been the subject of varied discussions. Similarly, American talk show host Tyra Banks – who has herself been the topic of gossip around her own beauty choices – dedicated an episode to the practice of skin bleaching amongst black women in 2008. As with a lot of ‘issues’, the resulting conversations often place the issue on a broad plain; it becomes a discussion of ‘the black community’, with perhaps little differentiation between what that means in, for example, Los Angeles or Bristol.
Check the Label by Eno Mfon, premiered at the Bristol Old Vic Studio on 25th – 27th February, takes an essentially individual approach to the subject, moving from the political to the personal. The programme notes state that ‘as the colour of our skin begins to fade, so does our sense of sisterhood.’ It’s a comment that takes on a double meaning after watching the performance, as a recurrent thread of the story centres on Mfon’s relationship with her own sister, from a first attempt at relaxing her hair using burning chemicals to a whispered admission by her sister that she would rather be a little lighter.
At times, this show feels more like a work in progress that the polished product, perhaps indicative of its evolution out of spoken word performances rather than being written as something intended for this format from the beginning. An overlapping narrative that flashes forward and back through time, along with collaged clips from music videos and Tyra Banks’s show, get momentarily confused. The clips broadcast, particularly the talk show moments, are not really commented on, but just left to speak for themselves, which leaves hanging a lot of questions – for instance the link between the experiences of African American and Black British women and how this relates to their desired personal appearance. Other shows that follow this format of montaging film with dialogue and performance, such as Greg Wohead’s The Ted Bundy Project, demonstrate that interaction with the clips being played justifies their inclusion much more.
Yet where Check the Label is strongest is in showing that internalised expectations relating to bodies and identity are most corrosive when on the personal level. Advertisements may tell you to be a size zero, to buff and squeeze and crimp and wax, but it’s the simplicity of being told, directly, by someone close to you as a child that ‘you’re too fat’ or ‘too dark’ that burns the most. It’s the sense of abandonment from seeing that someone you admire thinks women should be lighter, slimmer, more feminine, that implicitly drives little nails into your stomach, making you realise this isn’t on a billboard, this is in your home.
Check the Label was on at the Bristol Old Vic Studio. Click here for more of their programme.