African-American Women: What does your (natural) hair say about you?


Hi! Vanessa Larracuente reporting here as a senior in college that identifies as an African-American women in this Western society. Having a personal connection to the topic, I decided to explore the concept of natural hair for African-American women in the United States and how it has historically been, and continues to be, linked to African-American women’s identity. More specifically, I shine light on the origin of negative stereotypes toward African-American women’s natural hair and identity, then tranisition to how wearing hair naturally is redefining African-American women’s identity!

Through this blog, I want to shed some light on an important topic to myself, and hopefully many other African-American women, and help the general public really understand that despite how difficult it can be for others to be themselves in this society, change is coming! African-American women having been choosing to wear their hair as it was intended, and that couldn’t make them more beautiful in their eyes, and mine :)

Where Do I Play Into This?

I knew their had to be a way to transform my thick curls into the long flowing strands that rested on the backs of my peers. My hair did not have to be this wild, this “bad.” All the other girls hasd “good” hair…I was ashamed of the hair I had growing up, and was eager to make a change. Even at 10 years old, I knew this was not the right kind of hair, but I never thought to consider what made me feel this way.

Reflecting on my childhood (above), I HATED my hair! I was unhappy when I had to sit for hours to get it done; I hated having to go to school with a million barrettes and ribbons positioned to “keep my hair down” when other girls would easily wear their hair down their backs or in a pretty ponytail. More importantly, I hated the way I felt when my peers would question me about what I had to “go through” to get my hair to look nice, like it was a surgery. More times than not, my white counterparts questioned me in more detail, or made rash judgements because they were blissfully unaware. unfortunately, at my young age, I would never really get made at them as much as I would get mad at my mother or ancestors for giving me this head of hair that caused this discomfort. Here are some of the things they did not understand:

(Stop at 3:25): These young women, in a comical way, depict the many frustrations that go into explaining Black hair to those that cannot relate (i.e. White Americans). I have definitely been in similar conversations and can empathize with the both of them.

But in any event, this topic of natural hair: understanding what originally made African-American Women dislike this aspect of their identity, and in return, succumb to an image of beauty created in opposition of them, but fortunately work back toward accepting and embracing their natural roots, stemmed from my struggle, and as I realized, the struggle of many.

How Did This All Start?

Not only were they told they did not have “good” hair, slaves were taught that they did not possess human hair. Hair as kinky and difficult as theirs could be nothing other than cotton or wool.

From Noliwe Rooks’ Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women, we learn that African-American women‘s heads were often completely shaved upon being sold into slavery. Completely dehumanized, enslaved women learned early to hide their hair or use household products to alter its appearance.

(BBC News) African-American women during slavery. Illustrated here, their heads are covered with pieces of cloth and hair is neatly tucked away underneath.

African-American women began to accept and internalize this self-hatred, as if it was their fault that they did not fit the image their masters deemed acceptable. Eventually hiding or changing hair became part of survival, and a “devaluation of blackness” (Caldwell, 86) that was passed down several generations.

What Has Been Going On?

“…the differences in body image, skin color, and hair haunt the existence and psychology of Black women, especially since one U.S. common societal stereotype is the belief that Black women fail to measure up to the normative standard.” (Tracy Owens Patton)

For years, woman have chosen methods of dealing with hair that range from simple to extreme. Such decisions, knowingly or not, stem from passed down self-hatred African-American women have felt for being taught they did not fit American society’s normative statndards of beauty. Powerfully put by Tracey Owens Patton, “the differences haunt the existence and psychology of Black women.

Popular hair choices over the years include relaxers and texturizers, and weaves.

Relaxers are chemical cream substances applied directly to the scalp, through use of timed application process. Hair is usually parted into 4 sections, and hair stylists work through each section to make sure all hair closest to the scalp is covered. The cream, usually including a strong alkali chemical, works to “relax” and straighten tightly coiled hair.

The relaxing process

As you can see in the picture to your left, the chemical relaxer is applied to the hair closet to the scalp. The hair closet to the scalp is considered the “new growth”, the part of the hair growing with the tightest coils. “Relaxing” this this part of the hair offers the best results of straight hair.

A before and after shot of a young girl’s chemically relaxed hair

This before and after shot shows the strengh of the chemicals in the relaxing products that are used across the country and abroad. Applied properly, relaxers are accepted to have positive results, but when hair is over processed, or relaxers are not applied correctly, results can be detrimental.

The picture to the left captures an undeniably negative reaction to a poorly applied chemical relaxer. Relaxers have the ability to physically burn off hair from the folicles and cause damage to the scalp. Although a presumably dramatic example, there are many cases of burned scalps and bald spots from women that experienced poorly applied relaxers. Many women claim of actually attempting to leave relaxers in hair longer to receive the “straightest” results, despite knowing the risks.

Weaves, in comparison, refer to styles in which additional synthetic or human hair is intertwined with or covering ones natural hair. The additional hair can be sewn into, clipped, or braided into a woman’s hair. Weaves range in color, length, texture, etc., and give a noticeably different, presumably more positive, appearence.

As you can see here, this women is attaching longer and fuller bundles of similar colored hair to coincide with her own hair, as if to assume the whole head of hair is hers.

Not as risky as relaxers, weaves cause more mental damage. Many women who add hair to their own often become very dependent on the style, not wanting to be seen without their weaves in public places or by loved ones. Weaves offer a sense of insecurity, whether acknowledged or not, and a representation of what African-American women hoped they looked like, hoped their hair looked like.

Some women, however, have, been bit by the natural hair bug, willingly tranisitioning and embracing their hair the way it was intended and physically challenging “White definitions of beauty” (Patton).

Natural Hair Shift? Movement Even?

Nadine Watson, a 43- year old from Orlando, Florida said one day she “went to Walgreens, bought scissors and cut off all of my permed hair. It was a relief.” (Denene Millers, Natural Wonder)
Example of the “big chop”: An African-American woman in stages of natural hair growth after chopping off the processed portions.

In recent years, there has been a great increase in African-American women courageously doing the “big chop” and transitioning into natural hair. This trend has transitioned into a movement as African-American women across America have openly presented their versions of natural hair through many platforms, social media being the most popular. There has been an increase in blogs, magazines, how-to videos, and hair care products designed to aid the natural hair transition and support the African-American women on their journey.

There have been some bumps along this journey, however, that have caused a division in the natural hair movement community. Natural hair images have been noted to be more successful when the women represented are closer to the ideal American image of beauty (lighter skin, looser hair), and African American women with darker skin and tighter curls do not find that cohesive to the mission at hand. These divisions, more than anything, have been are results of a lack of understanding among the African-American women in the natural hair community, and their failure to join together despite environments that eagerly await a moment to cause decline in such a positive mission. This movement is much more than just the decision to wear hair naturally; it is the decision of African-American woman to create their own image of beauty.

What does this Movement Say About Identity?

I began reaching for an image of beauty that did not reflect me as an African-American woman, and the older version of myself now understands that that image was never meant to. This is the realization. This is the movement.(Myself)

Outside of the realm of social media, African-American women are becoming more comfortable choosing what they want their hair to say about them on an individual level. Opinion blogger Georgina Lawton would describe this as gaining the “conciousness” needed to fuel a successful natural hair movement. The understanding that the standards of beauty in the United States are not meant for African-American women to meet, and the willingness to openly and freely discuss the key components of this movement: natural hair, being an African-American woman, and identity with other African-American women are revamping the concept of Black femininity, Black beauty, and Black identity. Below are examples of consciousness at its finest; these mentalities are what fuel the great natural hair movement, and the movement toward loving ones identity for what it is.

Thanks for reading!

Work Cited

Bellinger, Whitney. “Why African American Women Try To Obtain ‘Good Hair’.” Sociological Viewpoints 23.(2007): 63–72. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 July. 2016.

Caldwell, Kia. “Look at Her Hair: The Body Politics of Black Womanhood”. Negras in Brazil: Re-envisioning Black Women, Citizenship, and the Politics of Identity. Rutgers University Press, 2007. 81–106. Print.

Howard, Schillica. “(De)Tangled: An Exploration of the Hierarchies in the Natural Hair Community.” Thesis. Georgia State University, n.d.ScholarWorks @ Georgia State University. 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 6 July. 2016.

Hunt, Roxie Jane. “Hair, Race and Greater Understanding.” The Huffington Post. 9 June. 2016. Web. 7 July. 2016.

Jahangir, Rumeana. “How does black hair reflect black history?” BBC News. 31 May 2015. Web. 6 July 2016.

Lawton, Georgina. “The Problem with the Natural Hair Movement.” Dazed.10 May 2016. Web. 10 July 2016.

Melissa. “My Mom and My Hair.” Personal interview. 24 June 2016.

Millner, Denene. “Natural WONDER.” Ebony 69.2/3 (2013): 132–137. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 June. 2016.

Patton, Tracey Owens. “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair.” Project MUSE. The Johns Hopkins University Press, July-Aug. 2006. Web. 18 June. 2016.

Rooks, Noliwe M. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1996. Print.

WhitJojoTV. “Things White People Don’t Understand.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 28 November 2012. Web. 6 July 2016.