Black women worldwide value their hair. From afros to wigs, braids, and blowouts, Black women have used hair to symbolize their gendered racial identity. Indeed, Madam C.J. Walker, the first Black woman millionaire in the U.S., highlights the significance of hair to Black women as a form of labor and enterprise. In this blog post, I present five crucial insights anchored in Black feminist thought regarding Black hair.
Black Beauty In the Eye of the Beholder
“Black beauty: Shade, hair, and anti-racist aesthetics,” by Shirley Anne Tate, Professor and Canada Research Chair Tier 1 in Feminist and Intersectionality at the Sociology Department, University of Alberta, Canada, is a commonly cited paper in Black hair studies. In the essay, Tate investigates the performance and instability of black beauty through an examination of conservations amongst mixed race Black women. Historically, natural Black beauty has been associated with textured hair and darker skin, which is then further associated with antiracism, whereas hair straightening is viewed as an artificial attempt to resemble white or Eurocentric beauty standards.
Since they are often perceived as having more European physical traits, mixed race Black women have historically been put in a complicated position in the hierarchy of feminine and racialized beauty ideals. This leads in a persistent experience of othering and difference, as Rachael Malonson experienced though in backlash for her election to Miss Black University of Texas in 2017.
Tate explains that the way mixed race Black women grapple with the normalized racialized aesthetics of Black beauty exposes how physical signifiers have political meaning that reinforce the boundaries of what constitutes Black beauty. Rather than attempting to comply to specific aesthetics, some reinterpret what defines Black beauty in diverse ways, illustrating how the performance of racialized beauty aesthetics is fluid yet indeterminable.
“Black hair…must always be contemplated.”
Good or bad; authentic versus inauthentic; natural versus straightened. In a 2009 Women’s Studies article, Cheryl Thompson, Assistant Professor in Performance at The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University, discusses how these opposing hair perspectives affect Black women’s sense of self. Thompson overviews the history of Black hair to illuminate how slavery, emancipation, and Black social movements constitute key political contexts that affect how Black people style their hair.
Beauty standards for Black women are shaped not just by white society, but also by members of their own community. Because of the cultural association of straightened, long hair with feminine beauty, Black women are pressured to alter their naturally kinky hair to conform to these expectations. Further, in their everyday life, they must manage how these standards justify prejudice and discrimination; for example, workplace hairstyle standards may impede their economic mobility in the long run. For these reasons, Thompson explains that we can’t depoliticize Black hair because of how western values affect Black people’s lived experiences.
Black Hair and Beauty Standards
Black women have a complex and nuanced relationship to beauty, hair, and embodiment. In western society, black hair has become politicized and hyper-scrutinized, with longstanding hegemonic standards of beauty privileging straighter hair and looser curl patterns as “good hair.” In “Rooted: On Black women, beauty, hair, and embodiment,” Kristin Denise Rowe, Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, examines the ways hair is tied to their embodied experiences for many Black women.
According to Rowe, the natural hair movement, which has gained momentum in recent years, offers a vehicle for Black women to reclaim embodied agency and interiority, in the face of misogynoir. Through this movement, Black women have created a space to rearitculate standards of beauty and to affirm their natural hair textures. However, the beauty industry has also commodified and commercialized Black women’s growing emphasis on their natural hair, with a predicted worth of over $13 billion
Overall, Rowe’s essay provides a comprehensive examination of the history, politics, and dynamic relationships to beauty culture for Black women in relation to their hair. Additionally, it acknowledges the importance of Black women’s experiences and narratives to expand and complicate ideas of beauty that shape the unique relationship of women of color to beauty culture. By understanding the complex constellation of interlocking factors that inform how Black women experience and conceptualize beauty, we can reveal what Rowe calls the intimacies, (re)negotiations, (re)articulations, and radical possibilities of Black women’s embodiment and the potentiality of “beauty” as a construct.
The Politics of Black Hair
From precolonial Africa to the present, Black women’s hair has had political importance. Throughout the history of the Americas, Europeans used hair to demonstrate political authority over the Other. In her 2022 Sociology Compass essay “Historicizing black hair politics: A framework for contextualizing race politics,” Sylviane Ngandu-Kalenga Greensword, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Texas Christian University’s (TCU) Race and Reconciliation Initiative (RRI), explores these dynamics. Greensword discusses the intersectionality of race and gender in the political oppression of Black hair, as well as resistance to this oppression. The essay also explains that Black hair culture has progressed from enslavement and colonialism to globalization and decolonization, yet Black women still suffer hair discrimination and policies that privilege white hair practices.
Black women have long used West and Central African practices of hairstyling and ornamentation to resist these injustices. For example,in the 1780s, then-Governor Miró issued the “Edict of Good Government,” which forced women of color to either cover their hair with a handkerchief or comb it flat or face incarceration. In response, Black women began to wear “tignons,” elegant turbans that emphasized their textured hair rather than concealed it.
The tignon laws exemplify the weaponization of hair in order to control, hypersexualize, and defeminize Black women, denying them any claim to womanhood, femininity, or piety. As a form of political resistance, Black people praise their hair as beautiful, redefining normative standards of human value. Black people make a political statement about this (de)valuation through the time, money, energy, and care dedicated to their bodies via hairstyling.
Good Hair, Bad Hair: The Color Complex
Hair is an important part of Black women’s identities. However, for decades, the categorization of Black hair diversity into good and bad hair has been a source of disagreement. Eurocentric societies value long, straight, and silky as good, while they consider tightly coiled and kinky bad. In her 2011 Howard Journal of Communications piece, “Hair as Race: Why ‘‘Good Hair’’ May Be Bad for Black Females,” Cynthia L. Robinson, Black Studies Department Head and Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, unpacks this “hair hierarchy.”
Robinson argues that the concept of good and bad hair is based in the color complex, which refers to some Black people’s self-hatred and disdain for their Blackness. This complex is the product of years of enslavement and a lack of collective African identity, which causes Black people to discount physical attributes that reveal African heritage, notably skin color and hair texture. Rated on a scale of good to bad, good hair communicates European, Native American, or Asian trace ancestry through wavy or straight texture, and is likely to be long. In contrast, society categorizes tightly coiled, thicker, short hair that plainly reveals African heritage as bad. Thus, Black women have had to develop their own beauty standards that are particular to their hair textures, allowing for more creative range in popular Black hairstyles.
The dichotomy of good and bad hair is still a challenge for Black women. As Robinson explains, hair valuations are harmful to Black women because they elevate white beauty standards while undervaluing Black women’s hair textures. These labels also reflect the color complex and Eurocentric beauty ideals that have devalued Black women’s natural hair textures. Therefore, we must reject these harmful aesthetic standards and embrace the uniqueness of Black hair in order to move forward.