black women natural hair
Chatting natural hair and identity with Rhadamés

A few days ago I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Rhadames Julian, the director of Follicle, a documentary film about hair. It was an informal interview but it made for some thought provoking conversation. While working on his film, Rhadames came to the realisation that “the same issues plaguing people of color there are mirrored in the USA and almost everywhere else on the planet. Poverty, skin bleaching, famine and other issues are more consistent with people of a darker hue.”  Needless to say, I left with a great deal to think about regarding issues of hair, identity, and heritage.

Don’t get me wrong, I have always been aware of the discourse surrounding natural hair and it’s association to identity. In my blog post about my hair journey, I go into detail about the various struggles I went through before I got to the point where I begun my natural hair journey.

black women natural hair
Rockin my Naturals

After 24 years of life I can safely say I am genuinely happy with my hair. When I was a child, all mum had to do was switch on the blow dryer and my tears would begin to flow. It was a funeral for as long as she fought to get my hair straight. Of course, when she was done, I would run around flicking my hair and feeling like a black Barbie.

When I was in college, I conducted a couple of studies surrounding natural hair, partly to curb my curiosity and partly because I believed (and) still believe that it is an important conversation to have, and, I have to say, my findings were rather striking.

The Hair Debate

black women natural hair
Pejorative expressions

From the time African slaves were taken to America in the 1600s, their hair has been a large part of their heritage and culture. Whether we like it or not, hair has become a racial and a gender issue putting Black females “at the intersection of race and gender, facing a triple threat of racism, sexism, and the combination of the two,” according to Research.

As Kobena Mercer so aptly put it, “The pejorative precision of the salient expression, ‘nigger hair’, neatly spells out how, within racism’s bipolar codification of human value, black people’s hair has been historically devalued as the most visible stigma of blackness, second only to skin.” I am sure you would agree that for the past century, manufacturers have almost only advertised the need to alter black hair.

A Brief History of Black Hair

black women natural hair
Madagascan Woman with and elaborate hairstyle.

During the slave trade, the White masters noticed how the elaborate braids and adornments that the slaves wore played a role in their culture, identity, and social standing. For this reason many of the slaves had their heads shaved. It was only a while later that certain slaves could grow their hair. Lighter-skinned, straight-haired Blacks were usually house slaves while the darker-skinned slaves with kinky hair were field slaves. As a result of this privilege among slaves, even after being freed, darker skinned Black people are discriminated against even by their fellow Blacks.

In 1905, Madame C. J. Walker revolutionised the African American Hair Industry by introducing her hair softener. According to Tracey Owens Patton, many disagreed with Walker’s views, however, at the same time, others believed that “African Americans had long struggled with issues of inferiority, beauty, and the meaning of particular beauty practices. . . [Walker] attempted to shift the significance of hair away from concerns of disavowing African ancestry.”

black woman natural hair
Black Power

In the 1960s, people rejected hair straightening, the afro became a political statement, and people lived by the slogan “Black is Beautiful”. This caused intercultural racism as people whose hair couldn’t afro weren’t considered black enough and people who wore afro’s by choice were considered to be making political statements.

Whitney Bellinger believes that in recent years, “many African American women still think that the natural state of their hair is cumbersome, unsavoury, or even disgusting.” In South Africa, the belief around natural hair is generally that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

TV personality Bonang Matheba is quoted as saying “I don’t think I’m betraying my natural look, it’s just my choice as an African. I’m allowed to do what I want to do with my own look and my own hair.” It is a political issue in South Africa just as it is in the United States as expressed by Lebo Mashile, “politics, history, have shaped our understanding of ourselves and our aesthetic as black women.”

Journalist Zama Ndlovu best captures my sentiments surrounding natural hair and the natural hair debate,

“to deny that there are deeply divided views on black hair would be a gross understatement because ‘other women’s hair is referred to as exactly that, hair, mine is “ethnic” hair as if “Caucasian” isn’t an ethnicity.”

Is it that serious?

black women
Bonang: the face of Revlon

I looked at how Black women in South Africa are represented by the media that cater to them. I studied advertisements from 3 magazines that are considered leaders for Black female readers namely Bona, Destiny, and True Love. I’m sure you, like I did, believe that since these magazines cater to Black, South African women, they will give alternative (positive and diverse) representations of black women on their advertising pages.

So let’s crunch the numbers…

  • I looked at 197 full page and/or double spread advertisements from 7 magazines (2 Destiny, 2 True Love, and 3 Bona)
  • Out of those, 102 contained images of Black women
  • 35 had images of Black women with natural hair
  • 28 Adverts were hair related
  • 5 were natural hair related

The numbers give us a good idea of the focus of the advertisements in the magazine but what was even more interesting for me was the hidden messages in the adverts I would otherwise have considered normal if I were just flipping through the pages. There were a few things that stood out for me:

Natural is not so natural
black women natural hair
Highly involved natural hair process

In the natural hair adverts, the women do not look professional suggesting that dreadlocks or natural hair are not a hairstyle for working women. They all imply that having and maintaining dreadlocks or natural hair takes a lot of hard work and a large amount of product must be used. The adverts suggest that natural hair in its completely natural form is impossible to maintain. There are no celebrities in the adverts which tell us that these kinds of hairstyles are not considered glamorous and would not be common in celebrity circles. To take it even further, the women with natural hair are hardly wearing any make-up and this re-enforces the view that natural hair is not glamorous. The roles of the women with natural hair are the mothers, daughters, and house wives; more conservative, uninteresting roles (perceptively).

black women natural hair
Glamourous Relaxers

I found most of the hair related adverts in Bona which caters to the Black, venacular low-middle class although only one of them was for natural hair. The adverts used language such as “care enough to look your best;” “the hair of your life;” and “make and keep your hair healthy and beautiful.” All push the idea that natural hair is unmanageable, unflattering, and undesirable. The women in the adverts are all glamorous women depicted as caring about fashion, hair, and their general look. All the women are wearing visible make up and most of them have expensive jewellery on and this ties in with the image of glamour and celebrity status. The adverts suggest that women who do not have relaxed hair don’t love their hair or themselves enough to make an effort to make it look ‘good’. The hair relaxer adverts encourage women not to settle for anything less than what relaxed hair has to offer; this is to say that they shouldn’t settle for the less sexy and less glamorous natural hair. Unlike in the adverts for natural hair products, advertisers do not show having relaxed hair as a lot of work even though women have to keep retouching it, and adding moisturising oils.

Weaving: Don’t be afraid to buy your hair
black women natural hair

Most of the adverts with weaves in them featured celebrities giving them an air of elitism. Also, if a woman is unable to grow her hair or if she is unsatisfied with the hair that is growing out of the head, she can get a weave. Bonang and Nicki both look glamorous in their own right. Bonang looks more ‘natural’ and simple she is comfortable in artificial products such as the weave and the foundation that is said to match your natural colour. This suggests that if celebrities are comfortable with artificial products then we should be also and there is nothing wrong with them.

Straight is professional

One of the adverts that struck me the most was a GHD advert that showed a woman with impeccably straight hair and asks the question “Want professional-looking hair?” The word professional used with a picture of a woman with straight hair suggests that hair that is not straight is not considered professional (duh).

Thoughts to ponder

A South African Researcher, Zimitri Erasmus put things into perspective quite well; she argues that natural hair in its true form does not exist. Even though the dreadlocks and the twists are considered to be natural hair, they still have to go through a great deal of processes making one question just how natural ‘natural’ hair is. “Hair is always handled and adorned: [it] is never left ‘as is’” (Remember that bomb wash n “go” that still needed leave-in, gel, and some oil?).

black women
Positive images of blackness

While a few of the adverts I looked at loosely encouraged women to embrace their natural hair they still continue to perpetuate the stereotypes of women as depicted in the media. The women are depicted as “mammies;” “oversexed Jezebels;” and “tragic mulattos” among others. Because these images are still alive on the pages of media that cater to Black women, “it is clear that the notions of Black beauty and Black inferiority are inextricably bound,” notes Patton.

In this day and age it is easy to get lost in the current social trends and forget to represent who we really are. Women are encouraged to be versatile, trendy, and beautiful but at the same time exude respect, dignity, and a sense of pride with regards to their roots. ‘Debunking the myth of what is beauty would require White women to say “the hell with what men think” and Black women would have to say “the heck with what all of White culture thinks.’

At the risk of being considered a Natural hair Nazi, I think its time we begun to unlearn or the lies we have been fed about our identity, our hair, and our womanhood and start reinforcing positive images of Black women through the media we consume.

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