*Disclaimer* – This is an essay I wrote as part of my A-Level qualifications, fully referenced the whole she-bang. I know that at the time of researching I found it hard to find info about this topic so i’m just putting it out there in case anyone is interested or is looking for info about black hair etc. Be warned – this is about 7000 words worth of stuff!
“…I’m not talking about those- cute detangle with
the spray naps.
I’m talking about those, slave naps- like,
No comb, brush, or man can handle the kind of
naps I got…”
Hair is an accessory of seemingly little use that almost every human being possesses. Though it appears to be largely useless it in itself allows people to make judgements and statements about self, social class, religion, occupation and other personal identifiers without any need for verbal communication. In males these cues have a lesser effect into how they are perceived and as a gender they remain dominant; however in females a hairstyle can implicitly change how she is seen sexually, professionally and socially. By having what is described as ‘nice’ or ‘good’ hair a woman is implicitly seen as being attractive. Rose Weitz, a professor of Women and Gender studies at Arizona State University carried out research into females seeking power through their hair and stated that “Attractive women are less lonely, more popular, and more sexually experienced, both more likely to marry and more likely to marry men of higher socioeconomic status”. It is no wonder that in 2010 the global hair care products industry generated revenue of $49 billion and is expected to expand by a further 18% over a five year period.
Unlike a wardrobe restyle or plastic surgery, hair is a comparatively affordable way to change a look and adopt the conventional idea of attractiveness. The ideal hairstyle for a woman, according to traditional American values, is “long, curly or wavy and preferably blonde” while an extreme style such as a shorn head is associated with illness or homosexuality. This beauty standard naturally favours women of Caucasian heritage who are genetically pre-disposed to having longer, straighter hair without kinks, while women of Caribbean or African descent commonly have shorter, more brittle hair, more prone to tight curls and kinks than flowing waves. According to Michelle Wallace in her book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman
“The Black woman has not failed to be aware of America’s standard of beauty nor the fact that she was not included in it…America had had room amongst its beauty contestants for buxom Mae West, the bug eyes of Bette Davis, the masculinity of Joan Crawford, but the Black woman was only allowed entry if her hair was straight, her skin light, and her features European…”
This exclusion from the beauty ideal held by the majority of women has historically cultivated the culture of shame and low self-worth that afflicts many women of Caribbean or African descent.
My own interest in this topic began with an awakening to my own hair; how I felt about it, how others around me felt about it, what it represented to me as a Black woman. In carrying out this research I have been able to reassess my own hair journey, from a natural-haired child to an image-obsessed young teen to the shaven headed young woman I am as I write this essay. At 16 I was desperate to be rid of my natural hair – a plain indication of my Afro-Caribbean heritage and a feature my mother fought to preserve – and to join the masses of Black girls with sleek relaxed hair that moved with wind and could be worn straight down. By 18 I had come full circle and decided to join the ‘naturalista’ movement and decided to go for ‘the big chop’.
The Roots of the ‘Fro
The source of these beauty ideals and misconceptions is deep rooted in the triangular trade and the tremulous relationship between native Africans and the European explorers that exploited them. In 1444 the first Europeans began exploring the coast of West Africa and observing the native Africans that inhabited the land. What they discovered was a collection of cultures wholly other to their own, with strange customs and practices peculiar to each tribe. It was quickly noted that the creative and unusual styles sported were a source of great pride and was part of a complex unspoken subtext between peoples.
In Africa the hair was a tool used to communicate social status, spirituality, gender and morals. To have unkempt hair in the Mende tribe was to symbolise insanity or a woman with loose morals. Women were all taught to care for hair but those with particular talent were revered in the community. Hairdressing was very much an integral part of the community, allowing women the opportunity to meet and share and pass on knowledge, wisdom and fellowship to each other and their children. This central community role meant that women who were able to dress hair were held in high regard by many within the group. It should also be noted that due to the large amount of time it took to care and style African hair, specialised combs, tools and hair treatments had been developed from the resources available.
At the beginning of the 17th century Europeans began transporting large numbers of Africans across the Atlantic as slaves and trading them. As part of the enslavement process the hair of every slave was shorn. Frank Herreman, the director of exhibitions for New York’s Museum for African Art and specialist in African hairstyles offers,
“A shaven head can be interpreted as taking away someone’s identity.”
While this was likely to be for hygiene reasons it had the added effect of detaching the African from the rich cultural heritage of his people, beginning the Black woman’s steep descent into ignorance about her own hair.
Started From the Bottom…
Between the 18th and the 19th centuries the lives of the Black people who had been taken from their homes and sold into brutal slavery underwent many phases of change. By 1865 slavery was abolished in America, over 30 years after it had been abolished in the United Kingdom. During this time the Black woman began to experience the issues that transpired from separation from their own culture as well as prejudice against her that began to shape the feelings of discontent about her own beauty.
While in Africa and during the time of freedom Black women were able to spend copious amounts of time in community caring for their hair and developing special tools for this purpose, there are no records to show similar development of purposed tools while in America. Instead records show that other tools at hand were used by the slaves, such as wool carding combs [as seen in figure 2], bacon grease and butter to make their hair softer. One former slave named Jane Morgan said “We carded our hair caze we never had no combs, but de cards dey worked better. We used de cards to card wool wid also, and we jes wet our hair and den card hit. De cards dey had wooden handles and strong steel wire teeth.”
While this was innovative and resourceful, practices such as everyone on the plantation using the wool carding machine often led to scalp infections and group outbreaks of ringworm. This often severely damaged the hair causing breakage and bald patches. This damage and unsightliness caused women of the plantations to cover their hair, ashamed of its ugliness. This helped feed into the view that the hair of Black women was unsightly and unacceptable in this new world that the Africans had been thrust into.
Another issue that affected the self-image of Black women was the high instance of interracial coupling between white slave owners and their women. Children of mixed heritage were generally lighter than the average slave and had longer, more manageable and seemingly attractive hair. Lighter skin slaves often were allowed to work in the house which gave them access to certain privileges such as higher quality food, better clothes and less taxing work. The darker slaves who more closely resembled their African ancestors were relegated to back breaking field work in the southern heat with poorer living conditions. While in reality this was often because slave owners were providing for their illegitimate offspring in their own way it created a dichotomy between the European-featured house slaves and their darker field slave counterparts placing a higher value on a European appearance than on a more traditional African one. In her book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself” Harriet Ann Jacobs described how she saw two sisters playing together – one dark skinned and the other light – and her sadness at the knowledge that the ‘fair child’ would grow to be a privileged woman and her sister condemned to slavery. While Jacobs doesn’t place precedence on European features in her own view she accurately observes that this was a fact of life and that African beauty was disregarded.
These ideals and several others that aimed to devalue the uniqueness of natural hair were carried through from the end of slavery, right through into the new century where a new era of Black history was beginning.
A New Look
The 20th Century was the beginning of a new era that brought new opportunities and challenges – not only to Black people but to the world as a whole. For the former slaves of America this was a time that signified the changes that were to come, however it was shadowed by the prejudice of the past.
In 1914 WWI broke out and the American involvement took place in 1917. Prior to this a large number of the Black community lived in the southern states of America, generally maintaining their former jobs during slavery as ‘free’ men, as the largest trade in most of the southern states was agriculture. However, even though Black people had been emancipated some 25 years before there was still a large amount of legal prejudice in the south and a few of the northern states. Jim Crow laws and etiquette legally enforced the idea of Black inferiority and white supremacy, the breaking of which could lead to extreme physical harm or death by lynching.
When the US involvement in the war took place it left a vacuum in the northern workforce. As employment in the north was largely business and industrial work, there was a significantly lesser need for slaves which in turn meant that there was a lesser need to promote the inferiority of Black people further leading to greater tolerance of the Black presence. This provided Black people with an opportunity to escape the hardships of the south and move to the relative comfort of some of the more politically advanced states in the north. One pastor in a sermon said to his congregation “We feel and believe that this great Exodus is God’s hand and plan. In a mysterious way God is moving upon the hearts of our people to go where He has prepared for them.” In many ways this was seen as the great opportunity that Black people needed to break free of their slave inheritance and forge a new identity that placed them as equals to their oppressors. By the end of 1919 over 1 million Blacks moved from rural areas in the south to the more industrial areas of the north, and by 1960 over 5 million had left their homes to attain freedom. This happening is retrospectively known as “The Great Migration”.
This provided the birth of the next wave of the Civil Rights movement in America. The introduction of the Black community into the north required a new mind-set. Out of this feeling the ideal of racial uplift was presented to the growing population of people in urban areas. This idea meant several different things to different people, taken aboard by Civil Rights leaders, religious leaders and members of the beauty industry.
While not directly opposing the ideals presented by the politicians of the era, the beauty industry allowed room to interpret “racial uplift”. The north was the land of opportunity and one entrepreneur who seized the chance was daughter of former slaves Sarah Breedlove, also known as Madam CJ Walker. While her main product was her “wonderful hair grower” she also developed a patented press and curl technique as part of her “Walker System” which involved straightening the hair using a heated iron comb known as a “hot-comb”.
Madam Walker’s key selling point was that she trained her stylists and encouraged them to start their own business using and selling her products on to the Black community. This created a greater appeal to styles that possibly had roots in more European fashions as it provided a way for Black people to make their own money in a world where they were often restricted from the same jobs as their white counterparts. In the book written by her great-great granddaughter, A’lelia Bundles, Madam Walker was quoted, “My desire now is to do more than ever for my race. I’ve caught the vision. I can see what they need.”
Although many of the styles sponsored by Walker were based on straightening, the adoption of white styles and the rejection of Black styles was not her aim. Instead Walker claimed that “I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their appearance.” This was Walker’s own take on racial uplift and furthering the acceptance of Blacks into the wider community. Her ideals were reflected in the wording of her advertisements, not focussing on inherent issues with Black hair, but rather on curable issues such as dandruff and psoriasis. Many similar Black-owned companies were established in the early 20th century, however it must be noted that not all shared Walker’s issues based approach to hair care and openly presented hair straightening as a way of achieving the ideal look, often pairing their products with skin lighteners. This type of advertising distorted the Black woman’s perception of her own natural beauty by compounding pre-existing ideas about how women should look, regardless of racial heritage. [See figure 3]
W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washington were key components of the Civil Rights movement during the early 20th century. While both had opposing ideas on how it was to come about, both leaders advocated that the way to equality was for the Black man to improve himself (or herself). Both also were strongly opposed to the practise of hair straightening and generally viewed it as “a pitiful attempt at emulating Whites” and “equated hair straightening to self-hatred and shame”
Marcus Garvey, a young Jamaican who studied Washington’s books and upheld his ideals, also held these views. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association which was an organisation dedicated to racial uplift. He publicly condemned hair straightening, urging his followers “Don’t remove the kinks from your hair! Remove them from your brain!” Due to his strong links with both the Black Church and the workforce, Garvey’s influence and ideals were widespread and caused many women to reject ideals held from slavery and often perpetuated by the beauty industry.
These opposing values shaped the hairstyles of Black people for the first 60 years of the 20th century. While there was little change in the views held by many women on hair – some rejecting the idea of straightening to become more ‘white’ and others desiring to become more current and fashionable – new ways to adapt and change hair were developed. The 1940’s saw the rise in lye-relaxers being used, first marketed to men as the ‘Conk’. In his autobiography, Malcolm X describes his firs experience of ‘conking’ using a home remedy rather than a manufactured one,
“I took the little list of ingredients he had printed out for me and went to a grocery store, where I got a can of Red Devil lye, two eggs, and two medium-sized white potatoes. Then at a drugstore near the poolroom, I asked for a large jar of Vaseline, a large bar of soap, a large-toothed comb and a fine-toothed comb, one of those rubber hoses with a metal sprayhead, a rubber apron, and a pair of gloves.”
Wigs and hairpieces also became a popular style choice for many Black women as it allowed all the benefits of straight hair with few of the problems women who straightened their hair suffered, such as shrinkage when wet – through rain, humidity, sweat and swimming, and burning damage received when relaxing hair. However, just as new technology to straighten and care for hair was being developed, a new movement was only just beginning.
I See Pride, I See Power
The 1960’s saw a resurgence of the Black Nationalist movement that began with ideologists such as DuBois, Washington and Garvey reborn in new leaders, such as Malcolm X and Assata Shakur. A key belief of the Nationalist movement was that Black Africans had been stripped of their identity and forced to accept white culture. Nationalist author Carlos Cooke wrote in his book,
“As Negroes, Black people have been converted into zombified Caste Creatures whose loyalty is permanently married to the white race; whose God and idolatry status is white; whose standards of beauty, sense of decency and opinions on all matters are based on the set concepts laid down by white people,”
One group that strongly championed Black Nationalism in the 60’s was the Nation of Islam (NOI). Their support from the African American community was strong as many felt disillusioned with the desire to assimilate into a society that demanded their support in national affairs such as WWI and WWII yet still treated them as second class citizens due to their colour.
Malcolm X joined the NOI in the late 1940’s and used the organisation as a platform to promote his ideals on the struggle against racism. Following Malcolm X’s description of his delight at his new ‘conk’ he then goes on to express his disgust at his old views on beauty and image,
“I vowed that I’d never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years…This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the Black people are “inferior”—and white people “superior”—that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.”
Malcolm X openly criticised the common beauty ideals of the time, rejecting the influence of White America on the Black community and urging Black America to reject a beauty ideal – amongst other things – that did not accommodate them. The popularity of these principles continued to rise during the 60’s as the Civil Rights movement began to take shape in America.
These radical ideas began to take shape in the form of the “Afro”. This was a style achieved by combing out the hair into a spherical shape, maximising the natural texture of Black hair. First worn in the mainstream media by Miriam Makeba, South African singer and political activist in Look magazine in January of 1960, the Afro was soon adopted by political activists such as Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, it became a symbol of pride in the Black community – a visible connection to their African roots. Marcia Gillespie, former editor of Essence magazine reasoned that
“Being on the [slave] ship and not being able to comb [the hair], being shackled and sold, must have made Blacks feel so debased. The Afro was like a journey to reclaim ourselves from that”
Stanley Williams, a former student at Texas Southern University in the late ‘60’s recalls when he first saw the Afro on Black Panthers.
“I thought of it as a militant thing. It was about identity and being proud of being Black.”
This journey of reclaiming the Black identity affected people from all walks of life. While it was being mirrored in Hollywood, many students were wearing their hair big and tall to protest the injustices they experienced, especially in the Southern states, often as a result of becoming involved with the increasingly militant demonstrations of Black Nationalist organisations such as the Black Panthers and the NOI.
Wearing the Afro soon became a point of social pressure in the Black community. Many women (and men, as it should be noted) continued to wear their hair in relaxers or ‘conks’. Those who did were scorned upon by those who strongly identified with the politics of the Afro, especially those involved in activism. There were also those whose hair was unable to be worn in an Afro due to its softness and loose curl. Not to be outdone, chemical treatments that allowed straight haired Black people to wear the Afro as well as their more curly headed bretheren.
Political activists became aware of this distortion of their cause and urged their followers to look at the root of the issue. Professor Charles V. Hamilton in an article published in Ebony magazine noted,
“In some circles one is not ‘Black enough’ until one wears a dashiki, gives the Black Power handshake and gets the ‘Afro’ haircut. These are symbols of the new awareness, and they do not necessarily relate to the substance of what the struggle is about. All too often some Black people engage in the self-hate games of putting down another Black person because the latter does not measure up to the former’s definition of ‘Blackness’… Black should be unifying, not disuniting.”
The Afro also became contentious in other circles within the Black community. Many parents didn’t approve of their children being involved in the most heated political debate of the time. The Black church also disapproved of the Black Nationalist methods of protesting and condemned many of the symbols affiliated with is, not least the Afro, preferring to take a more conservative role in the Civil Rights movement. Cicely Tyson, a Black actress on CBS’s drama series East Side, West Side, found that the most negative comments she received about wearing her hair natural on national television came from Black women, irate as they felt that Cicely’s portrayal of the Black woman was negative.
As time passed, eventually the Afro’s political connotations had faded and it had become a hairstyle. By 1971 it had been reproduced by mainstream media, worn by Black people and White people alike. People began to wear it to emulate celebrities rather than political activists such as Angela Davis. This happened around the same time that the Black Power movement began to dissemble due to increased criminal activity and acts of terrorism.
By the mid 1970’s the old ideal of straight hair had been re-asserted and the Afro, once a key emblem of the Black Power agenda, became a mere fad. Many Black people began to return to previous methods of treating their hair as it was found to be not conducive to the working environment.
From the 1970’s right to the early 21st century, straight hair has become very much a social norm for women within the Black community, advocated by celebrities, politicians and elders within the community. Although throughout history this beauty ideal has been fiercely contested between all groups of Black people there has been little change in the norms until the very recent introduction of a new look: the ‘naturalista’.
So, Should Black Women Return to Their Natural Roots?
Over the last 400 years Black women have been exposed to various beauty ideals, from the painstaking care of pre-slavery times, to the degradation and alienation of slavery, to the righteousness of the Afro and many in between. The 21st century Black women now has the freedom of various styles natural and non-natural, including relaxers, weave, wigs & hairpieces, extension braids, the Afro, dreadlocks, twist outs and a plethora of other hairstyles that characterise Black women of this age.
Who is the 21st Century Black Woman?
While investigating images of Black women in magazines, on television and on the internet I managed to find two distinct images of the Black woman today. The first being the mainstream media image, and the second being the social media image or the ‘naturalista’.
The mainstream media ideal of the Black woman has altered very little over the last 50 years. With the popularity of women’s magazines, reality TV and MTV, mass media is able to communicate social norms with little effort. According to mass media, the Black woman should have hair that is long, straight or with big waves, relaxed or in weave, edgy and emulates the fashionable European styles of the day. While this mediated image is a direct contradiction of many of the goals the Black Nationalist movement worked toward, there are several arguments for the adoption of the mainstream beauty ideal.
Many may argue that by accepting the European beauty ideal, Black women are able to embody attractiveness. In 2011 Dr Satoshi Kanzawa of the London School of Economics published controversial research claiming that Black women were “far less attractive than White, Asian and Native American women.”While the research itself is questionable, it is clear that there is a lack of acceptance in the mainstream media of Black beauty over European beauty. Rose Weitz outlines in her article Women and their Hair: Seeking power through resistance and accommodation,
“Conventional attractiveness is a realistic route to power for women, in both intimate relationships and careers… The most common way women use their hair to seek power is through strategies that de-emphasise resistance and instead emphasise accommodation to mainstream ideals about conventional attractiveness”
Previous research by Chrisler & Saltzberg (1997) also adds that beauty is “subject to the hegemonic standards of the ruling class”. Taking this research into consideration, as Black people living in a White society it is normal for a non-Black beauty ideal to be adopted as the beauty ideal presented is set by non-Black people. It may also be said that as Black people as a group have historically been disempowered that adopting the mainstream hair ideal allows them to regain some of that power back through conventional attractiveness, rather than remaining excluded from being considered beautiful completely.
It may also be argued by supporters of the mainstream ideal that by adopting a European standard of beauty opens doors in the workplace. One key case for this argument lies with the Rogers vs. American Airlines (1981) law suit where a woman was threatened to lose her job as her braids were a violation of the staff grooming code upheld by the company. This case was dismissed by the court as it was ruled that the guidelines were not a discrimination of race or gender although it was argued that braids were a style almost exclusively worn by Black women compared to other demographics.
Dana Harrell, an Education and Sociology major at Clafin University, Orangeburg said that during an interview for an internship she was told that she would have to straighten her hair.
“One lady told me that if I wanted to work for her company, I couldn’t wear my hair in its natural state. Not even braids. She said ‘nappy isn’t happy here.’”
In my own personal interviews I spoke with Jennifer, 46, former lawyer who strongly agreed that her job was key in how she decided to style her hair day to day.
“[my hair was] very conservative and European looking as well. It was often straight – very straight, or slicked back.”
While natural hair may be a tool of self-expression, the evidence all suggests that it is not well received in the workplace. As a growing number of Black people take on professional careers, this acceptance into the workplace becomes key as it can dictate advancement in a career and in extreme cases whether or not an individual can take on or keep their jobs. The general consensus that ‘political styles have to go’ within a corporate environment pushes Black women further toward adopting non-natural styles over natural styles.
A strong argument for the adoption of non-natural styles is the fact that natural styles are often time consuming to maintain and impractical for a day to day basis. Figure 4 outlines how time is spent per average working day and it can be seen that about two thirds of a person’s day is either spent sleeping or working and taking part in work related activities. Many put forward that with so little time available, especially in the mornings when one is getting ready for work, it’s not realistic to expect people to be able to have time to do their hair before work. In all of the interviews I carried out women said that they would rather looking presentable is very important to their hair routine rather than feeling attractive or fashionable. From my own experience I know that making time to look after your hair can be difficult, especially when you’re not able to do your own and require someone else to take care of your hair for you.
Speaking to local hairdresser Kamila, 31,
“”It’s [natural hair] overrated…It’s so hard to maintain, everybody stops having relaxers and then they have their hair natural and they grow it really long and keep straightening it every day and they’re killing it anyway. For people who are doing that I don’t get it… I like people to look like they look after their hair… I like my clients to look like they do go to the hairdressers – like their hair is important to them. I try to find a style that is accommodating to them and the length of time they have in the morning to do it.”
This again highlights the importance of appearing presentable above all else and how if natural hair is not conducive to your morning routine, that it is often unsuitable for you. It also proposes that even through some women do go natural, they find themselves straightening their hair anyway and incurring a different kind of damage to their hair, which counters the popular idea that natural hair is healthier hair.
In contrast to the popularized media ideal of Black women, a new, alternative image is now being presented through social media. Sites like Facebook, with 900,000,000 users; twitter, with 310,000,000 and YouTube with over 1 billion unique viewers each month with 6 billion hours of video watched each month have provided a platform for the ‘naturalista’, an image ever-growing in exposure and popularity.
A naturalista has been described as a ‘natural fashionista’ or ‘A woman who is going back to wearing her hair naturally without any chemicals’ and is a term adopted by many Black women who have rejected their weaves and relaxers and embraced their natural hair texture, often looking for natural hair care solutions in addition to using commercial hair products. The naturalista ideal is a complete turnaround from the mainstream standard. She is often wearing cornrows or an Afro, locs, has undergone the ‘big chop’ (cutting off the relaxed ends and leaving the natural roots) or is ‘transitioning’ (gradually growing the natural roots and trimming the relaxed ends). Through social media Black women are not only able to showcase the versatility of their natural hair, but also provide advice, inspiration and an insight to the woman behind the hair creating an online support network for like-minded women.
One argument naturalista’s put forward for the re-claiming of natural hair is the economics of the hair care industry. The Black hair industry has a net worth of around $9 billion U.S dollars and while previously all companies were 100% Black owned, Black manufacturing companies now account for only 30% of today’s market. International cosmetics company, L’Oreal owns Carson Inc., a formerly Black company that manufactures Dark and Lovely relaxer, and controls around 51% of the world’s relaxer market.
The weave market is also primarily controlled by Korean suppliers. Weaves account for around 65% of revenue from the hair industry and although this figure accounts for the revenue generated from women of all ethnicities, Black women spend the most on weaves.
While many of these products are marketed exclusively to the Black community, the Black community sees little return on their investment as a large proportion goes to the advancement of communities that have little or no interest it their target audience apart from profit. This is a far cry from the days of Madam. Walker who not only became the first self-made female billionaire from her manufacturing company, but also provided a career path and education for Black women, working to improve the economic standing of her people. Naturalista’s argue that by adopting natural hair it is possible to begin investing in Black owned companies that are manufacturing products for the Black community while also increasing the wealth generated within the community.
Naturalista’s also argue that many women are unable to afford the products needed to achieve the mainstream beauty ideal. Many Black women wear their hair in weave or relaxed. A high quality weave can cost anything between $500 – $5000 dollars and a standard relaxer treatment can cost between $50 – $80 dollars. Both relaxers and weaves require constant upkeep with regular trips to the salon roughly every 6 weeks, or more frequently in some cases.
While the cost of achieving the mainstream beauty ideal is significantly higher than that for other races, the unemployment rate for the Black community is 9.9%, almost double the national average. This means that Black women are less likely to be able to afford their hair through their own salary and rely on other means that negatively impact on their finances, such as paying for hair treatments in instalments rather than upfront.
In contrast, naturalista’s often style their own hair and choose styles that they are able to replicate and adapt according to their skill. The costs incurred by naturalista’s is often more product based rather than service based, which deems natural hair an affordable alternative for those who are incurring high costs caring for their hair.
Further support for the naturalista cause comes from the reduced damage to the hair by choosing natural styles. Relaxers, weaves and braids all cause damage to hair. Weave and braids often place a lot of pressure on the root of the hair, pulling it away from the scalp. This can eventually lead to traction alopecia which is defined as “localised hair loss caused by repetitive or persistent pulling or force on hair roots”. Women with traction alopecia often have a patchy or thin hairline, which is hard to repair if damage to roots continues.
Relaxers also contain strong hydroxide ions which can cause damage to the scalp and the hair. Lye relaxers are kinder to the hair while causing more damage to the scalp in comparison to no-lye relaxers which are kinder to the scalp while causing more damage to the hair. Relaxers also break the disulphide bonds which help the hair hold its curl, making the hair straight. Because of the kinks in the hair, Afro hair is inherently weaker than the hair of other races. This means that when the hair is relaxed it’s more likely to break.
As natural hairstyles embrace the natural curl and often are designed to be protective (reducing the pull on the roots of the hair), naturalista’s argue that it’s better for individuals to take on these styles to maintain good hair health. However it should also be mentioned that there are some natural styles, such as tight braids, which are also suspect in causing traction alopecia and natural hair is likely to break if it is not cared for properly.
The final argument that naturalista’s put forward for the rejection of non-natural styles is that natural hair helps to explore and connect with their heritage and learn to accept their own unique beauty. While I found little research evidence for this, it was a reoccurring theme during my interviews:
“Be proud of what you’ve been given!” Nike, 17
“I don’t believe in the idea that Black women should have long straight hair – it’s not natural.” Maureen, 51
“My job is as an educator and I think it’s very important for me to be true to myself and to set role modelling behaviour around how I use my hair and how I style my hair.” Joanne, 48
While some felt that it was important for them to accept what they had been given, others felt like they had a responsibility to other Black women to demonstrate that beauty doesn’t necessarily only lie in the European styles that mainstream media promotes, that Black beauty has its own value in a society where it is not necessarily endorsed.
Where does this leave me?
When I began this project in early July 2013 I had very clear ideas in my head about how Black women should look. I had experienced my own epiphany about how I wanted to wear my hear and felt like all women should return to their natural roots and reject the oppression of feeling as if European hair was the only way to look attractive. After looking at the arguments presented by each side I now feel as if I have a more well-rounded view of Black hair and how it should be worn.
Though the history of Black hair encourages me to take advantage of what people before me didn’t feel able to do and wear my hair without having to feel constrained by a beauty ideal that doesn’t accommodate my natural beauty, looking at Black hair in the context of the 21st century has also shown me that natural hair may not be suitable for every woman at this moment in time. From my own transition from natural to relaxed and back again I have also realised that this was a natural hair journey and it took time for me to get to where I am now – happy with my natural hair and ready to explore the styles that suit me. Some may get to the point that I am at, while others may be happy wearing their hair to fit the mainstream styles.
Jones and Shorter-Gooden argued that “Not every woman who decides to straighten her hair or change the colour of her eyes by wearing contacts believes that beauty is synonymous with whiteness. Trying on a new look, even one often associated with Europeans, does not automatically imply self-hatred. It is possible to dye your tresses and still love your Blackness” This viewpoint is supported by those of Professor Charles V. Hamilton who found the Black Power movement beginning to change into something it was never intended to. In the same way I feel that the naturalista movement has the same potential to become a way of people trying to “out-black” one another if not viewed in a very personal way.
One limitation with the research I have carried out is that it primarily considers how White culture has impacted African American people rather than any other Black demographic, for example Black British/Afro Caribbean. One issue with this is that I must be wary when generalising information based on research carried out on the African American experience to other cultures as there are historical and cultural differences – for example the majority of Black people came to England in the 1940’s-1960’s during the Windrush rather than in the 1700’s during slavery – as the social norms and beauty ideals may vary greatly
In conclusion I feel that every Black woman should do what is comfortable for her – while there are many benefits to adopting natural hair for the individual and the community and while I also feel the status quo of beauty should be challenged, I also feel that it is a very personal decision and if a Black woman feels happy and secure with her hair long and straight she should have the freedom to do so.
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