Corrigan’s Editorial Note: Kimberly Edmunds conducted original survey research on Black hair as part of my Academic Writing & Research class (AWR 201) at the University of Tampa in Spring 2022. I am delighted to share her essay, followed by a video presentation of her findings. The photos included in this essay were gathered by Edmunds during her research and are shared here with permission of the participants.
Starting the Conversation: Black Hair
“[I] used to rely on a relaxer because natural hair scared me, and I always thought it was considered ‘ugly’. Then I had a daughter who began to question her natural hair and why she couldn’t have a relaxer. I did a big chop and fell in love with my beautiful, natural texture. I regret the years I believed the lie that my curls were somehow less beautiful.” Like some Black women, Mellisa has had an apprehensive relationship with her natural hair. In fact, based on my own research, many other people struggled with relaxers and hiding their natural hair [note 1]. Sasha and Bri even state that they either “hate” or are “not proud of” their natural hair. However, even though this particular respondent started off with a negative relationship with her hair, it evolved into a healthy, beautiful relationship, and this is reflected with the majority of the respondents; with these women having a clear, and positive view of their natural hair. In a survey I conducted in the spring of 2022, the phrase “I have learned what works” appeared numerous times followed by things like, “I have a good relationship with my hair now”, “I am now embracing”, “I love my natural hair”, and “I take pride in it.” As you can see two extremes are represented from just one question asking to explain their evolving relationships with their hair—on one side “hate” and the other “love”.
The survey that I created received 43 varied, and interesting responses. I specifically sent this survey to mostly people that I knew identified as Black and to which the survey questions would have the most relevance to. 30% of the participants are related to me and 46% are people that I personally know, while 53% of the participants are those that other people knew and passed the survey on to [note 2]. At least 49% of the participants are from the Eastern side of the United States and 37% live in the Southeastern United States. 40 of the participants identify as female, with 1 identifying as male, and two participants did not disclose their gender. I want to know how everyone that I will survey thinks; if and how they appreciate their hair; and what their personal experiences related to their hair have been. I want to know if and how European ideals of beauty have infiltrated my surveyed participants’ ideas of beauty in regard to their hair. I want to figure out how they think the world views their hair, and their opinions regarding their image.
History of Black Hair: European Influence
I posed these questions to challenge the European ideal of beauty which Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, both established authors, describe as “pale skin and fine hair” (Byrd and Tharps 13). Therefore, in order to understand these questions, one should first understand the history of Black hair and how it relates to and was shaped by this standard. This European standard was vigorously established when slavery was rampant in the early beginnings of America. The history of Black hair begins with Africa. Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, discuss the history of African hair, relate Black people’s culture to African American hair, and explain how that culture has evolved. In Hair Story, Byrd and Tharps explain that in parts of Africa, “long, thick hair” gained “admiration” and represented “power” (4). Byrd and Tharps even argue that “nothing was meant to cover African hair” while explaining how “scarves and headwraps” were consequently uncommon. However, slavery caused a dramatic shift in those ideals, as brutal conditions and lack of valued time—which was usually dedicated to hair—were imposed upon Black people. This departure from elaborate hairstyles and maintenance left slaves with matted, dirty hair, which was subsequently covered. Harvard sociologist, Orlando Patterson, explains this new coiffure as essentially becoming a “symbol of slavery” (Dabiri 13). Slaves would wrap their hair out of shame and for protection from these conditions. However, they would also have it hidden because it was used as an identifier. An identifier of bondage and inferiority, due to the association of textured hair with slavery. What was once a symbol of power, grace, status, and beauty in Africa was now transformed into something shameful in the slave era of America. The choice of Black people covering their hair was once even required by law for Creole women in the late 1780s as to not “attract the attention of White men.” This law, which was created due to White women being threatened by attractive lighter skinned Black women, ultimately boosted light-skinned Black women’s appeal. Kathe Hambrick, a museum professional, credits this boost with them “making it a part of their fashion . . . instead of a cover up, the wraps became a symbol style” (Nasheed 3).
Recent discussions on European influences on Black hair should bring these concepts into focus. For example, Tracey Patton, a professor at the University of Wyoming in the Communication and Journalism, and African American and Diaspora Studies, examines how Black women have been influenced by European culture and its perceived standards of normalcy and beauty in her article, “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair.” To this effect, Patton states that “adherence to the Euro American beauty standard has had, and continues to have, devastating effects upon African American women. In addition, this standard pits African American women against the dominant cultural standard of beauty” (24). Patton extensively discusses the long history and present struggle of Black women being “juxtaposed to the beauty standards of Euro American women” (24). This clash of ideals ultimately creates warped ideals to eventually be passed from generation to generation. Early on, Patton examines the dichotomous beauty standards of Black and White women. For Black women, “hairstyles that they use in order to define their own beauty include afros, braids, dreadlocks, and knots. All of the aforementioned hairstyles carry with it signs of beauty, boldness, rebellion, self-confidence, spiritual consciousness and whether intended to or not, a challenge to White beauty standards” (30). While White women were held to the standard of being “beautiful, blond-haired, slim, tall, virginal, and upper-class” and “Euro American women who deviate from this standard of whiteness are displaced like ethnic minority women for their departure from ‘pure’ White womanhood” (32). Patton also highlights that these beauty ideals of White women are not the objective for all Black women and therefore can sometimes be an “implication of self-hatred, or racial shame.” However, that doesn’t have to be the case, since “It is possible to dye your brown tresses platinum and still love your Blackness” (29). Additionally, Patton discusses how things like body image and hair are influenced and also how Black women continue to “challenge hegemonically defined beauty norms” (42). Patton’s extensive unpacking of White and Black women’s ideals and how they were shaped is a good example of how some people are more affected than others when it comes to the influence of European ideals. So, what other modern discussions of Black hair are prevalent?
History of Black Hair: Colorism and the Natural Hair Movement
One thing that has been discussed more recently has been colorism and how it affects the Black community. Colorism, the discrimination betwixt the same race based on the darkness of one’s skin color, was very prevalent during slavery. Due to increasing numbers of rape among slave masters and their slaves, this understandably gave rise to lighter colored Black people. This caused a slight shift in the dynamics between White people and light skinned Black people. Meaning, the lighter your complexion was as a Black person, the better treatment you received. Better treatment as in, better working positions, and as a slave with lighter skin you would also sell for more money at auctions [note 3] (Byrd and Tharps 18-19).
With many worldwide views constantly changing, the perceptions of Black hair are now shifted to more recent acceptances such as the natural hair movement. As the Black community has started to embrace natural hair, other discussions about this topic are also being popularized. One well known example is Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair, created “after his daughter came to him in tears wondering why she didn’t have ‘good hair’” (Byrd and Tharps 183). Some more recent examples include the heartfelt Oscar-winning short film “Hair Love”, depicting a father and daughter’s morning struggle with hair, and bell hooks’s children’s book “Happy to Be Nappy”, which celebrates girls and their many types of natural hair. Other instances of discussions are represented in popular magazines, like Essence and Honey, which depict Black hair in a celebratory light and not the mocking way of the past. This is in reference to the blatant mockery from shows in the 1830s that depicted “blackface” and “poked fun at the clothing, hairstyles, and physical behavior of well-dressed Black men and women” (20). Taking into account this shift towards embracing natural hair, along with the vast history of colorism, and conformance and/or rejection of European ideals, I was able to see how my own survey results would reflect or deflect these ideas.
How Do My Participants Feel?
In order to gather some opinions on Black hair from a group of people that are close to this subject matter, I sent out a survey to eleven people that were in my family and extended family, as well as friends, and their families. In this survey, I asked questions about their unique experiences related to their hair, hair care routine, etc. Towards the end, they had the option to send pictures of any hairstyles they wished. I also encouraged the participants to share the survey with at least one to five other people. I sent out the survey initially on March 23, 2022 and closed the survey April 2, 2022. The final participant number was forty-three. These participants mostly identified as “Black or African American” (41 participants, 95%) with one also identifying as multiracial (marking “Hispanic of any race”, “Native American or Alaskan Native”, and “White”) and two not identifying a race at all. Along with being a part of my family, friends, and friends’ families, all of the participants belong to middle-class America, and they are what I believe to be independent-minded individuals.
Along with this demographic information, the participants were also asked to describe their natural hair texture. Many respondents described their hair as “curly” (8 respondents), “course” (6), and “thick” (9), while some used words like “soft” (3), and “thin” (5). There was also a significant number of respondents who defined their curl pattern as lying between 4a and 3b (7 respondents). This classification refers to a natural hair texture scale ranging from 1 to 4c, with 1 being very straight to 4c being very tightly coiled hair. The participants were also asked to describe their hair care routine. These responses were less varied with multiple respondents describing almost the same hairstyles. The most popular responses were “Natural” (8 respondents), “Protective hairstyles” (7), “Straightened styles” (4 were not chemically straightened and 2 were chemically straightened), and a combination of “Protective and natural styles” (3) [note 4]. My own preferred hairstyles are a combination of all three of these descriptions of “Straightened styles”, “Natural”, with the majority being of “Protective hairstyles.” This is mostly due to ease the stress of the time-consuming task of doing hair as a full-time college student. Lea also explains that her choice of hairstyles relies mostly on being a college student as well when she states, “Since I’m a college student, most of my hairstyles are protective. I wear box braids, wigs, and head wraps.” I asked my participants to describe this information in order to create a picture for myself as an analyzer, as well as to depict a snapshot to readers. By knowing this information, I will be able to compare responses based on this information later. For example, participants who preferred a hairstyle that was “Natural” tended to believe that the term “good hair” is solely based on the healthiness of the hair. Another thing that demographic information helps with is wider comparisons of opinions across different categories, like age.
Some things that stood out to me in my data had to do with the younger generations (18-25) having overall contrasting views with older generations (26-older). For example, the majority of the younger generations (8/9 respondents, 89%) agreed with posed statements like, “I have to explain myself when I wear my hair in its natural state (e.g., Is it soft? Can I touch it? What are you mixed with? Is that real? Why is it so puffy? etc.)” and “Natural hair makes people uncomfortable”. However, people who were 26 and older overwhelmingly disagreed (21/33 respondents, 64%). Another interesting trend between the age groups was found when asked, “Has anyone ever touched or asked to touch your hair that made you feel uncomfortable?” The 18-25 age group tended to agree that being asked to have their hair touched was uncomfortable. Two respondents even went as far to say that they felt as if they were being treated like animals or dolls. Amy and Kay state, respectively, “I don’t like being treated as though I’m an animal or doll. It’s hair”, and “It has made me uncomfortable in some situations because I felt almost like a zoo animal because everyone was staring and being too pushy almost.” I found it interesting that the 26-30 and 40-older age groups either have never experienced this question or action, or have never been uncomfortable in this situation, while, in the middle of these age groups (31-40), the majority of those participants had experienced this. However, this discrepancy could be a coincidence. At any rate, we can see that respondents had different experiences in this regard, which may or may not relate to their ages.
A contrasting pattern was seen when respondents were asked what “good hair” meant to them. The majority of respondents among all the age groups agreed that good hair only applied to how well the hair was taken care of or how healthy the hair was (24 respondents, 56%). For example, Tonya states that “good hair” means “Healthy, less breakage and damage.” However, the other views were widely varied. Manageability was a patterned response among respondents. To this, respondent 40 defines “good hair” as, “Hair you can easily work with or style.” Also, the European standard of texture and race as an importance to “good hair” was seen in the data. Nancy stated that good hair means, “You are mixed with another race and [your] hair doesn’t need a lot of doing anything to it.” This response stood out to me because of the close similarity to the already worldwide-established standard of “good hair” which is fine and straight hair. Going back to Nancy, Zoe actually had conflicting views and states, “Something that I hate is when people see that I have long hair and immediately ask what I’m mixed with, or immediately deny that it could be real.” This particular opinion resonates with me as I definitely have been asked if I was mixed when I am actually Black. I think these questions are asked mostly out of ignorance and preconceived notions that straight, healthy hair is strictly a White characteristic. Why should “good hair” only be straight and fine when all hair is good if one takes care of it?
Additionally, at least 4 respondents stated that good hair applied to how they felt rather than how they took care of their hair. For example, Manda feels that she has good hair if it “makes her happy”; Nora has good hair when she can “be herself”; and Sage has good hair when she “looks good”. I thought these responses were very important because they went past what I considered to be an answer to this question. When I think about it, their responses make just as much sense as all the others, since they are examples of self-expression and actually relate perfectly to my own posed challenge to the European ideals of beauty. Not only have these respondents rejected this standard, but they have also created their own! I also think it is important to note what Mellisa states in response to this question: “Good hair is a term used to further divide and plant lies within a culture that somehow having more European-like features makes one superior.” This statement resonates with me because I truly believe that the idea of “good hair” is essentially a myth that was created by racist individuals that were creating yet another thing to divide people with.
Another point that I wished to examine is the term “nappy.” One thing that could be understood with some context is the question that was asked regarding the term “nappy”. I asked the participants if they think the word “nappy” is derogatory because people can view the term “nappy” in a positive or negative way, so I specifically wanted to see where my participants stood on this point. Some people believe that term is simply used to describe natural hair and that no malice is implied. Also, this term has recently been used by people who have started to embrace their natural hair as a term of pride (like bell hooks’s book Happy to Be Nappy). This sheds light on almost half of the responses and specifically the responses from Tia and Maddison. These respondents say, “If Nappy is Natural Hair – Then No” and “I don’t consider it to be derogatory because that’s how we as a culture often describe our own hair in its natural state”. However, when looking at this term’s history, another meaning is implied which is one of oppression. This term originated in America during the slave era when it was used to describe the texture of Black people’s hair and compare it to things like cotton and wool. Since this period of time, the word has had much controversy surrounding it, and also explains the other split side of the responses. This side expresses that the term can either be used in positive or negative contexts. However, the other side clearly views the term “nappy” as fully derogatory and some describe the term as being used as an “insult” (4 Respondents).
One specific experience that was expressed by a participant dealt with hair standards of the military in regard to Black hair [note 5]. Maddison recalls, “Serving in the military was a big issue. I remember my hair was short and I often wore it pulled back. And since I have always been one to go to the beauty shop, my hair was always put together and in regulation. But I was told my hair was out of regulation because I couldn’t put it in a ponytail. I remember stating, ‘the regulation doesn’t state what you say, and if you can show it to me in the regulation, I will change it’”. Similar instances have happened in the past. In fact, in “When Things Get Hairy: Afros, Cornrows, and the Desegregation of US Military Hair Salons in West Germany”, Felicitas Jaima examines the history of discrimination towards Black people in the Armed Forces in Europe and America as well as discussing the discriminatory practices in military salons. Jaima first discusses the court martialing of Babette Peyton for “wearing her hair in tightly braided cornrows against her scalp” (Jaima 269). Jaima then divulges the myriad discriminatory and ignorant practices of the military in regard to Black hair. For example, the military’s implication that Black hair was not professional by stating, “straightened hair had been considered an essential part of good grooming and a respectable ‘modern’ appearance for black women” (270). Jaima also draws from more recent instances of discriminatory military hair standards, and also the “loosening of [those] restrictions”. For example, in January 2021 the Army updated their regulations to “allow two-strand twists, increase the authorized size of braids, cornrows, and twists, and remove spacing requirements” (278).
The final point that I wished to discuss further and gather opinions on was Black hair in schools. I asked the participants to state whether or not they felt the statement “Schools should not be able to dictate how anyone styles their hair” was true or false. Out of 43 respondents, 33 agreed that this was true and further echoed the belief that schools should not be able to demand a certain hairstyle for any person. Lily believes that “schools should focus on fostering a positive self-image, [and] administrators should be culturally diverse and respectful [and] accepting of those cultural differences.” Many other respondents also echo this belief of pro self-expression, as well as Afiya Mbilishaka and Danielle Apugo who are scholars that published “Brushed aside: African American Women’s Narratives of Hair Bias in School”. This article examines the problems that Black girls are faced with in school in regard to their hair. Many instances occur where students are constantly being oppressed because of their choice in hairstyle, and Mbilishaka and Apugo attempt to understand this issue. The authors highlight the fact that ever since Black people were allowed to attend schools in the same environment as other students, stigmas, and a pattern of “passive and active forms of oppression, surveillance, ‘othering’, and marginalization” continue to present themselves (634). The authors include a list of cases in which Black hair was the primary offense. For example, they recall, “A Boston school gave 15- year-old twins, Deanna and Mya Scot, detention for wearing box braids” and “A Seattle school removed an elementary student because of her use of coconut oil to moisturize her hair” (634). Both of these instances are very good examples of how Black hair is often seen as unprofessional, messy, or anything other than simply a different and unique texture and style by some: the Army until very recently, and “forty years’ worth of examples” of workplace hair discrimination according to Daily JSTOR (1).
The results of my survey show that—while some outliers were present—the women in my research do not rely on the racist European standard to form their opinions. While some did not have as clear of a good relationship with their hair, this should not mislead people into thinking that all hair experiences are negative and tumultuous. Rather, a lot of my participants (30 participants, 70%) had a clear understanding of the worth and beauty of their hair, which was decided based on their own experiences and evolution of their own relationship with their hair. Some even formed their own standards of beauty! Therefore, my research accomplished its purpose by documenting and celebrating Black people in my survey who are challenging European ideals of beauty. This group of people are very good examples of how centuries of history of oppression has turned into victory, pro self-expression, and pride in something as beautiful and dynamic as Black hair. Historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, once said, “There is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness…and darkness is not a subject for history” (Dabiri 4). Even though the blatant ignorance of Hugh Trevor-Roper is not widely shown throughout America, there is still a great number of people who are unaware of the importance of Black history and subsequently Black hair. They should know that “darkness” is in fact a very prevalent and important subject in history. I hope to encourage everyone else to embrace their hair and overcome every preconceived notion about themselves that is not true and to help everyone appreciate Black hair.
1. All names given for participants are pseudonyms (applies throughout the entire paper).
2. Percentages rounded to the nearest whole number (applies throughout the entire paper).
3. It is important to note that “better” treatment is only in comparison to darker skinned Black people. All Black people, no matter the shade or hair texture, were seen as property to be owned and treated like objects and seen as inferior.
4. Protective styles usually consist of twists, braids, crochets, wigs, box braids etc. all of these styles are protecting the ends of the hair as well as allowing growth. Straightened styles usually consist of using heat to make curly and natural hair straight. These styles can be damaging if the right care is not taken in maintaining your hair while it is straight. For example, some things that people do include using a heat protectant, a safe temperature for the flat iron, and also wrapping and moisturizing your hair at night.
5. I chose to focus on the military aspects of hair specifically due to a lot of my family being in the military as well as I thought it would be important to highlight this participant’s experience that involves very relevant information discussing the exact issues of the past and today’s military.
Bellinger, Whitney. Why African American Women Try To Obtain ‘Good Hair.’ 2007, citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.473.1938&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Byrd, Ayana D., and Lori L. Tharps. Hair Story Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014.
Dabiri, Emma. Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture. Harper Perennial, 2020.
Griffin, Chanté. “How Natural Black Hair at Work Became a Civil Rights Issue …” Daily JSTOR, 3 July 2019, daily.jstor.org/how-natural-black-hair-at-work-became-a-civil-rights-issue/.
hooks, bell. Happy to Be Nappy. YouTube, uploaded by Storytime With Mr. Stephen, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJ4-jrXQ5p0
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Matthew A. Cherry, director. Hair Love. YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNw8V_Fkw28. Accessed 22 Apr. 2022.
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Mitchell Dove, Lakindra, and Laurie E. Powers. “Exploring the Complexity of Hair and Identity among African American Female Adolescents in Foster Care.” Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 95, 2018, pp. 368–376., doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.10.043
Nasheed, Jameelah. “When Black Women Were Required by Law to Cover Their Hair.” VICE, 10 Apr. 2018, www.vice.com/en/article/j5abvx/black-womens-hair-illegal-tignon-laws-new-orleans-louisiana.
Patton, Tracey Owens. “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair.” NWSA Journal, vol. 18, no. 2, 2006, pp. 24–51., doi.org/10.2979/nws.2006.18.2.24.
Suits, Devon. “Army Announces New Grooming, Appearance Standards.” Www.army.mil, 27 Jan. 2021, www.army.mil/article/242536/army_announces_new_grooming_appearance_standards.