When Kinky Was Kinky

While most middle-aged frizzy-haired white girls like myself have spent lots of money (and even more hours sulking) on our less-than-Farrah-like-locks, 150 years ago, Circassian women (or “Moss-haired girls”) had what was considered some of the sexiest hair around.  Sadly, the titillation largely came from racial stereotyping and men’s erstwhile intrigue when it comes to “the other”.  The fact is that Circassian women were considered to be the most beautiful in the world.  In the 19th century, contemporary racial theories held that these women, living in the Circassian mountains near the Black Sea, were the ‘purest stock’ of the Caucasian race.  Legend had it that this region produced the world’s most beautiful white women.  These women, with their huge ‘fros, were thought to be the height of white girl beauty.

These women with my long-detested hair were so prized that they were in huge demand by Turkish sultans for their harems.  (Think ending up in a harem sounds like a mixed bag, maybe not so great?  Well, as Melania and her ilk often learn, being a trophy wife has its ups and downs.)

Men did and do love the idea of a harem, think Hugh Hefner.  Nothing sexier than being a submissive seductress willing to be bound and boundary-less as one of a group.  The idea of an idealized white woman you could treat like a black woman really fired up the imagination and loins of the 19th century male.  “Both African slaves and Circassian slaves were subject to sexual exploitation…and this is the point of contact that played so powerfully on white Americans’ imagination,” wrote philosophy professor Gregory Fried.

Acting on this erotic myth of the white girl you could pervert on, in 1864 P.T. Barnum sent an agent to Constantinople to purchase a Circassian cutie in the slave market there.  (His agent, dressed in full Turkish regalia to wend his way into this secret world, claimed there were tons of these ladies, but returned with not a one.)  But hey, nobody keeps PT from getting a harem slave once he sets his mind to it.  Unable to unearth and import actual concubines from the Northern Caucusus, Barnum hired a local frizzy-haired woman, put her in costume, and called her Zalumma Agra, Star of the East.

The faux Circassian beauty was an instant success, so began a parade of pin-ups whose exoticism was evinced by Z’s in their names and frizz on their heads.  Kinky hair brought out the kinky, literally.  Men went wild for these fake foreigners.  Local actresses were recruited to wear the signature hairstyle, and the women exhibiting this new sexy aesthetic were often known as “Moss-haired girls.”  They were encouraged to wash their hair in beer and then tease it out for that sexy exotic ‘do.

But every trend fades, and before long the simulated Circassian cuties were relegated to second-tier seductress roles, carnivals’ sexy snake charmers, for example.  By the end of the 19th century, Barnum and his ilk had wrung every ounce of exoticism out of the fierce frizz.

But in this here 21st century, these women and men who embraced hair like mine are making me feel better about my non-blowdried hair.

Dixie Laite - Dame Town Writer

Author: Dixie Laite

Hi, I'm Sarah "Dixie" Laite, and I live in New York City with 5 parrots, 1 dog (Dr. Waffles) and 1 husband (Jeff). I love classic movies, animals, and haunting flea markets, ebay and TheRealReal. All my life I've been obsessed with figuring out how to navigate life as a woman. There are endless books, TV shows, gurus, guys, movies and magazines out there to guide you. But now that I'm closing in on 60, I noticed that the old rules don't apply, and most of the role models aren't old enough. I'm older now, I know more and weigh more. I'm eager to be inspired and to inspire others in return. Let's get a handle on this shit and figure it out together.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *