How Much Have We Evolved When It Comes To Black Women’s Hair?


This month, California voted to become the first state to prohibit the discrimination against those with natural hairstyles. This week New York voted to to do the same. It seems like a no brainer, except in America, it’s not.

 

Just hours earlier, XXL reported on the wave of backlash against singer Chris Brown. The source of criticism derived from the fact that on his latest full-length output, Indigo, he rapped, “Only wanna fuck the Black bitches with the nice hair.” Swap out “fuck” for “employ,” and he might as well have written the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which legally allows the enforcing of dress code and appearance policies (including hair regulation) in the workplace. This is not the first time Black men have revealed preferences for the hair of their romantic partners—on Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice,” even long-believed female-champion Drake describes the locks of his ideal woman: “Your natural hair and your soft skin, and your big ass in that sundress.” Okay.

Considering we inhabit a country where TSA still searches Black women’s hair for contraband, California’s unanimously-passed Crown Act, which claims “workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals,” feels like a long-overdue step in the right direction. Still, the group that the law will likely most impact is arguably those are most-marginalized for ‘non-conforming’ hairstyles: young Black women. So we checked in with them. Below, four women weigh in on their hair story, and what they wish you knew.

 

Callia, 26 

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I ❤️ Upstate NY.

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Describe your relationship with your hair (history, challenges, styling preferences).

Like most Black women, my hair and I have a love/hate relationship. I have always had thick hair with multiple curl patterns scattered throughout, and in all honesty, it’s a lot to deal with in its natural state. My mom and I have different curl patterns, and I think as my hair got longer and longer it began to be too much for her to deal with in addition to her own hair.

 

When was the first time you became aware of your hair (good/bad)?

At age six, my hair was relaxed with a “Just for Me” at-home kit that my paternal grandmother applied. From a young age, a lot of emphasis was placed on my hair because of my paternal grandmother. Armed with outdated beliefs from her own upbringing, she often told me my hair wasn’t “nappy” with the intention of making me feel like it was better and didn’t hesitate to laud how long it was when she styled my hair every two weeks.

 

Even with the relaxer, my hair was still pretty thick, and I can’t remember wearing it in its natural state past the age of six. It was the ’90s, and the natural movement hadn’t gone mainstream yet, so every two weeks I knew the routine: wash, blow-dry, hot comb. Every six weeks I had to get “touch ups” for the new curly, non-relaxed hair that had grown in. I would often get into fights with my grandmother about how much the relaxer burned my scalp, begging her to stop with tears in my eyes.

 

That continued until I was 18 years old when I experienced a severe burn on my scalp due to a relaxer being left on too long. I realized then that I had never really seen my hair in its natural state, so I decided to stop with the relaxers and set out on the natural hair transition. At first I was still blow drying and flat ironing my hair, but when summer came that year, I stopped that too. Learning how to embrace my natural hair was so freeing. I didn’t panic when it rained, and I had three hours of my life back every week. But natural hair journeys carry lots of feelings too.

 

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I’m very close with my the women on both sides of my family and the hair topic comes up—A LOT. It’s easy to compare my natural hair with theirs, especially because we share DNA, and hair-shaming happens. I’m still learning the best ways to care for my natural hair, and I do go between my natural curls and a straightened style, but that’s what I love about it—Black hair is nothing if not versatile.

 

What frustrates you the most about how society (the media, the law, even men) approaches Black hair?

I get frustrated by a lot of it, to be honest. The media’s representation of Black hair probably frustrates me the most. We’re usually presented through a white lens and shown in one of two ways, exotic or less than.

 

Things have gotten better in some ways, but I think with the expansion of social media and our access to news, there are even more opportunities for things to be misrepresented. Take Guido Palau’s dreadlock look for the Marc Jacobs Spring 2017 show. In no way should those appropriative locs have hit the runway, but Palau, a European man with a lack of context about Black hair, thought it was an inventive and fresh concept.

 

A magazine I used to work for decided to include the dreadlocks in print despite most of the Black women on staff voicing their concerns. Unfortunately, situations like this happen quite frequently, and until things change, I will continue to be frustrated with the presentation of Black women’s hair in the media. I find solace in Black Twitter and Essence, where I can see Black beauty through the lens of other women who look like me.

 

How do you think we can facilitate change?

I think change will come by way of conversation. By opening up about topics surrounding hair, the way we view it, and the weight that it holds in the Black community. We have to have these conversations openly to be able to tackle the unspoken biases that exist within society. I try to be as open as I can when other women, especially from different backgrounds, ask me questions about what I do with my hair. It’s easy to get defensive, but I think growth comes from being open about something that has felt closeted and siloed for as long as I can remember.

 

Maya, 25

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Let’s see how these London clerbs are.

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Describe your relationship with your hair (history, challenges, styling preferences). 

My relationship with my hair is very strong, but also growing and evolving. I’ve had very long hair my entire life and just recently cut it short the day of my 25th birthday. This is the first and only major change I’ve made to my hair and it was amazing. I really wanted to break out of my shell and challenge myself to not be so emotionally attached to my long hair as I have been my entire life. I also wanted to step out of the box and get confident without long hair.

 

I’m having a lot of fun with my short hair even though I experience withdrawals from my long hair from time to time. I’ve had a relaxer since high school, but I’ve recently watched my sister transition into her natural curly hair and I’ve been thinking about doing the same. It’s amazing to live in a world that accepts natural hair more and more every day.

 

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When was the first time you became aware of your hair? 

I became aware of my “good” hair at a young age—as early as elementary school. I attended an all-Black school where a lot of my peers had thicker, shorter hair. My sister and I were often called out by our peers assuming we thought we were “better than them” or “prettier than them,” even though behind closed doors my sister and I challenged with our huge long curly hair. We very much wanted the relaxers and presses that our friends were getting. Many times others assumed we were bi-racial, which was offensive and confusing at a young age.

 

What frustrates you the most about the way society approaches Black hair? 

What frustrates me the most, specifically working in a corporate environment, is the assumption that if a Black women’s hair is not straight or pulled back that is not “tamed” or suitable for the work place. I’ve heard comments from my peers observing a Black woman with—in my opinion—neat dreads that her hair looked “crazy.” We cannot make this the norm…we have to realize that the way hair is worn does not make the person more or less suitable for a job or position.

 

How do you think we can facilitate change?

The most influential media outlets, influencers, etc. must help communicate the change. They have to represent every combination of hair type, ethnicity, and skin color to show how diverse this world really is. Fairer-skinned women do have thick kinky hair, women with brown skin can have naturally straight hair—there is no black and white.

 

Lily*, 26

 

When was the first time you became aware of your hair? 

When my mom would comment on styling it after my swim practices. She comes from Indian decent on her father’s side and has Sarah Jessica Parker-type curls. Even though mine couldn’t be describe as nappy and I don’t have what my Grandmother calls a “kitchen,” my mom would let me know how much of a chore it was to do my hair. She’d often take me to get it done in braids. When curls went out in the early-2000s she started taking me to have our hair straightened. I quit swimming just to maintain my press. For so long I thought my curls were ugly and wouldn’t even get my hair wet if I went to the beach in my hometown of Florida. I’d sit in my room as a child and think, if I could have one wish it would be to have straight hair.

 

Vice versa, I’ve always been told I had “great hair” by my Dad’s African-American side of the family, people in my community, and my non-Black friends. It was really a head twister and gave me a complex to know that I had “good hair for being Black,” as my white and Black classmates—or even my aunt (who had a terrible perm accident causing irrevocable damage)—would put it. While wearing my hair straightened, I’d often be asked by other races if it was “my own hair” or “what does it look like naturally?” I’d take pride in being told I didn’t have hair like the other Black girls. I never had a perm because I didn’t need one, but my mother never taught me to style my curls either and made me ashamed.

 

It wasn’t until I went on vacation a year ago that my partner at the time, who’s white, commented on how much he loved my curls and didn’t know why I wasted so much time straightening them. That my perspective changed. My mother made me feel so unattractive with my natural hair for so long, and for my partner to say otherwise made me realize that was my mother’s opinion, not my own. I swim almost every week now and always get compliments when I wear my hair curly.

 

What frustrates you the most about the way society approaches Black hair? 

Mostly that it’s treated as a non-majority. I think we’ve seen Black female hair straightened so often and for so long that if it isn’t our mind thinks, “Oh this is different.” For me, it comes from an older African-American way of surviving; trying to not make waves and just get by. That’s a broad idea, but I’ve picked up on how my grandmother who was raised in the deep south speaks about my cousin who wears her hair in a short fro. She’ll make comments about how she looks wild or unprofessional when, in fact, she works high up in law for the state of Illinois.

 

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How do you think we can facilitate change?

Hair for females, in general, is such a tricky subject. We’re seeing more body hair come into play today on women and brands popping up (like Fur) that allow us to embrace it. But it’s the fashion world that truly has the most say. There’s that season of Sex and the City where Carrie wears her hair straight almost the whole way through. And the movies where she straightens and then “curls” her hair. I straighten my hair often depending on the image I feel like putting out into the world. Sometimes I feel my curls make me look like I’m giving off a beach vibe, and a straightened look offers me something more polished. Other times, I’ll straighten it because it’s easier to get up and go in the mornings than work through a routine of washing it too frequently and adding product.

 

Women like to change their appearance and I think acknowledgement of that is the best way to facilitate this change. If that means someone gets a haircut one week, has hair down to their ass the next, and then rocks a natural curl, think to yourself: Why is it any different than when Nicole Richie, Beyoncé, or Rihanna do it?

 

Melissa, 25*

Describe your relationship with your hair (history, challenges, styling preferences)

I love my hair! It feels like a breath of fresh air to even say, but after years of thinking the natural state of my hair wasn’t attractive on me, I’ve grown into a space where I have full acceptance for my hair and its beauty.

 

When was the first time you became aware of your hair? 

I remember when I got my first perm. It was in 2006, right before one of my first sleep away trips, and my mom thought it’d be best to get my hair permed so I wouldn’t have to deal with handling it while away. In retrospect, that was mistake number one: We should be educating our children on the beauty of Black hair and how to take care of it. It’s not my mom’s fault, though; it was easier at the time. There was no way I could comprehend that I was inserting myself into the social conditioning that straight hair was “normal” and it was “more beautiful.”

 

Since that first time, I went on to keep perming my hair every three/four months for about eight years. I also experimented with weaves and clip-ins. These were all extensions of the idea that my hair needed to be straight and as loose as possible, not kinky.

 

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I was in my junior year of college when I decided to stop perming my hair. One of my best friends always wore her hair out naturally and it inspired me, so I did the big chop and I felt like I went 10 steps behind because I could not look in the mirror and find myself beautiful. To hide this fear, I stepped into the world of protective styles and eventually became my own hairstylist. The fear eventually blossomed into a useful skill. I did box braids, twists, crochet braids, and a bunch of styles just to test out how they’d look on me. Because I got so good at doing my own hair, you would think the fear would stop there, but then I dealt with going to work and feeling like a museum because everyone had questions about how I did my hair, if it was real, did I actually color my hair and “what did my hair look like underneath.” It made me uncomfortable to go into work with new styles because I didn’t want to deal with all those questions.

 

I eventually had a talk with myself, my family, and some friends to recognize that I needed to stand up and answer these questions, even when I felt uncomfortable, and not to take it as offensive (unless overtly so) but as an opportunity to educate or at least point people to the right direction to better understanding. After this, I fell in love with hair days; I felt confident talking about my hair process with people who don’t look like me, I fell in love with watching my hair grow, and I eventually fell more in love with what the universe had blessed me with—all these coils, kinks, and curls.

 

When was the first time you became aware of your hair?

I’ve always been aware of my hair and how it differed. I went to high school and a bunch of the girls in my school wore weaves or braids, and I always kept my hair simple and permed. I was still adventurous with hairstyles though; I did bantu knots, braid outs, and a bunch of other styles. I would describe my feelings toward my hair as really good at this time. Growing up in a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood, I didn’t feel uncomfortable, I didn’t overthink, I just felt like this was me and it was okay.

 

When I went to college, my perspective shifted. I started to overthink what was beautiful and what was natural to me. I saw all these different types of Black women and they all inspired me. They also made me rethink a lot of the conditionings I held myself to in order to be accepted. I knew I had to make some changes.

 

What frustrates you the most about how society approaches Black hair?

I think I get the most frustrated at the fact that people treat it with little respect or barely recognize it’s effect on our lives. I don’t think people put into perspective that something that grows naturally for me isn’t considered “professional,” and this conflicts with how I go to work, how I prepare for an interview, how I date, and how I choose to insert myself in social situations. That is exactly why it took America centuries to realize that this “natural hair” law should be put into place. Our country is unfortunately filled with people who are afraid to talk about real issues, so they run around it or choose to dismiss it thinking that helps to solve the problem.

 

I also hate that the media has decided to take a role in determining what is beautiful. We’re all different: How can we possibly look up to one standard of beauty and staple that as the standard for us all? I hate watching anything that gains so much profit on an idea of what beauty means to one person. We need to be more inclusive and spread knowledge so there is more acceptance here. Also coming from a production background, I’d see first-hand how white women/men will get hairstyling gigs and the talent they are working on is a Black woman. I definitely think we should be employing Black women in these roles to amplify the beauty and to spread the massive possibilities when treating Black hair.

 

When it comes to men, I hate when some of them think they can dictate how I should wear my hair. I once went on a date with a guy and he told me not to get box braids because I’d look like Medusa. He didn’t even realize he completely diminished the hard work a lot of Black people put in to adjust to this society or the culture that birthed these styles in the first place. What people don’t recognize about cultural appropriation is that I got called Medusa in 2014 for the possibility of wearing box braids, but today non-Black women get praised and “start a trend” off of the same exact thing. I just want Black women to finally get some respect on their names for the “cool hairstyles” we’ve implemented into the culture of America.

 

How do you think we can facilitate change?

Give Black women the voice they deserve. Hire Black hairstylists to cater to Black hair on set; asking if a hairstylist can work on Black hair isn’t enough, employ Black people. Go on YouTube and watch videos about hairstyles you’re intrigued by from seeing your Black co-worker’s hair. Ask questions with intention, not as if they are museums and you’re so fascinated. And Black women: Don’t be afraid to educate. Share insight, even when it makes you uncomfortable, because the hope is that it gets less and less uncomfortable as time goes by.

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