Photo from Charles Rodstrom. CC BY
I’ve had natural hair for around 6 years now. When I was 19 years old, I did the big chop which, as some of us might already know, was absolutely terrifying. I remember that I decided to go natural because of an essay I read by bell hooks, a black feminist theorist. At the time I was not an academic. I was working a full time job and I was really tired of the way that relaxers made my hair turn into a hay-like texture, and I was tired of obsessing over my hair being silky and straight–something that just seemed unattainable for me.
In hook’s essay, “Straightening our hair” which helped me to go natural, she states:
Even though black women with straight hair were perceived to be more beautiful than those with thick, frizzy hair, it was not overtly related to a notion that white women were a more appealing female group or that their straight hair set a beauty standard black women were struggling to live out. While this was probably the ideological framework from which the process of straightening black women’s hair emerged, it was expanded so that it became a real space of black woman bonding through ritualized, shared experience. The beauty parlor was a space of consciousness raising, a space where black women shared life stories—hardship, trials, gossip; a place where one could be comforted and one’s spirit renewed
Trust me, I don’t want to be one of those natural hair Nazis who assume that all women with straight hair are slaves to the “system.” I think all women should do what they want with their hair, however, it’s obvious that our “free choices” exist within a system, a framework that can still guide our preferences. We are influenced by advertising and mainstream media culture, so it makes sense that our “free choices” will not really be free. In other words, many of the choices we make about our bodies might reflect patterns that we see in other people! [There’s a reason why the advertising industry is a multi-billion dollar business. It works folks!]
It seems like it’s become taboo to be political about natural hair in today’s social climate. Somehow the natural hair movement has just become a commodified, sexist space where women just share hair styles, rather than simultaneously engage in consciousness-raising about racism and sexism. We admire women whose “natural” curls emulate white folks’ curls, and we take hundreds of selfies, not realizing how this constant need to fetishize our looks is steeped in sexism.
In this framework, I think some of us forgot that sexism can be a part of racism. Having natural hair is political because it’s directly noncompliant with the gendered, racialized beauty standards that tell us having straight hair that lays down is ideal. It’s not easy having natural hair, not because natural hair itself is difficult or unruly, but because having natural hair in a white supremacy oftentimes feels like a battle.
Just walking around my college campus, I can see how straight hair still governs as the norm, as the image of power. [Though I do see a lot more naturals! ] Just turn on your tv. Straight hair still dominates as the ideal image of power for women.
Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy. CC BY
I remember when I was an undergrad, I worked retail and I asked a fellow co-worker about her hair. I loved talking about hair with the gals. She wore a weave. I vividly remember she said, “I wear weaves because my natural hair is niggerish.” No, not all women who wear weaves hate their natural hair, however, it is an extremely popular sentiment and it makes sense considering women with natural hair are rarely cast in highly visible positions of power.
I still say that we need to continue to politicize natural hair. Particularly, we have to understand how sexism hijacks the natural hair movement where we still want really, really long hair because we still define our worth on a beauty grounded in patriarchal whiteness. I thought the Natural hair movement was supposed to challenge all of this—not just focus on racism, but also sexism. Not only is hair just a texture to play with and post pictures of, it’s also a space of real political struggle. I know this because I can still feel the nagging urge to sometimes straighten my hair because I’m STILL bombarded with images of “beautiful” women who have straight, long hair. I still have those dreams that I did as a kid [though not as often] of having long, cascading wavy hair down my back.
When students read about race and physical beauty, several black women describe periods of childhood when they were overcome with longing for straight hair as it was so associated with desirability, with being loved. Few women had received affirmation from family, friends, or lovers when choosing not to straighten their hair and we have many stories to tell about advice we receive from everyone, including total strangers, urging us to understand how much more attractive we would be if we would fix (straighten) our hair.
To this day, people still give me advice on what I should do with my hair as if it’s in some state that’s just screaming for help. Some of my close friends with natural hair have been told by the companies they work for that their hair isn’t “professional.” You can even think about the military recently posting guidelines about WHICH hairstyles are inappropriate.
When you live in a society where you’re the minority, where you’re viewed as ugly, it actually makes total sense to change your body so that it matches the ideal. Why? Not because being white is actually more beautiful than being black. It just means that we are aware that in this particular culture, being white has been associated with attaining resources, so we emulate whiteness to “get ahead.” We should not be pathologized for this. Our culture should. This is a cultural issue, not an individual one.
However, natural hair has the power to resist some of these messages. Having natural hair alone can’t do too much if you still buy into the idea that a woman’s beauty is equal to her worth because you’ll find a way to make natural hair the new straight hair, and you’ll still measure your worth by your hair texture. If you’re not critical about these issues, then you’re merely going to reproduce the same problems you had before in this new space. Companies will suddenly offer you natural hair products because natural hair has become a new market to tap into. These companies prey on women and suddenly give us “natural” relaxers because they know “natural” has merely become a market, not a political struggle.
Sometimes I feel just as alienated in the natural hair movement as I did when I felt compelled to straighten my hair every two minutes. There’s still a sexist emphasis on looks and beauty [still defined in the context of white supremacy]. Some natural hair sites still strategically spotlight light-skinned women who look “exotic.” It’s not comfortable admitting, but perhaps there’s still a lingering residue of racism in our movement.
Perhaps we need to decolonize the natural hair movement.
Yes, all black women with natural hair are not a monolith. I’m sure there are many black women who don’t view their hair as some giant political statement. They just want to wear their hair in a style, but we can’t ignore the context that frames natural hair, or frizzy hair,as an untamed, uncontrollable entity. This same context frames the choices you make about your hair. We can’t lose sight of racism and sexism when talking about natural hair. I don’t want to be in a natural hair movement that only spotlights beautiful women who know how to apply their make up properly and who can do an awesome two-strand twist. We can’t lose sight of the system when we look at our individual bodies.
It’s great that we’re currently at a space where we can enjoy our hair and share styles and feel gorgeous, but we can’t forget that there’s a larger struggle that exists beyond our own individual desires to feel beautiful.
hooks ends her essay by saying:
Individual preferences (whether rooted in self-hate or not) cannot negate the reality that our collective obsession with straightening black hair reflects the psychology of oppression and the impact of racist colonization. Together racism and sexism daily reinforce to all black females via the media, advertizing, etc. that we will not be considered beautiful or desirable if we do not change ourselves, especially our hair. We cannot resist this socialization if we deny that white supremacy informs our efforts to construct self and identity.