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Detangling the Natural Hair Movement

Rasha Ali |
October 23, 2015 | 2:39 p.m. PDT


“Hair speaks,” she said. She wore her curly hair short in a mini afro. Her bright eyes and welcoming smile were not hidden behind her small curls. 

“Even though I may not be trying to say something like black power or the like through the hairstyle decisions that I wear, I know that my hair might be saying something on top of that,” said Lanita Jacobs, a USC Associate Professor in Anthropology and American Studies. 

Rhonda Ray at her Afrolicious Hair Affair booth at Taste of Soul 2015
Rhonda Ray at her Afrolicious Hair Affair booth at Taste of Soul 2015

In essence, natural hair has become a politicized trend. As of recently, there have been more and more black women wearing their hair natural and in tune with that, we see a rise in natural hair care products and beauty blogs. The Huffington Post reported that the black haircare industry is estimated to be worth $500 billion, and the impact of the natural hair movement is only shifting it into a different direction. It is something new and different, it is a trend—a politicized trend. 

The way people style their hair has evolved throughout history, but one thing remains constant: hair is the biggest ethnic signifier, aside from skin color. Hair, especially black hair, is interwoven with identity. 

“Our hair, like our skin, is a highly sensitive surface on which competing definitions of 'the beautiful' are played out in struggle,” wrote Kobena Mercer in his essay, "Black Hair/Style Politics". 

This is mostly evident within the African-American community as black women have been excluded from certain spaces because of the way their hair naturally grows out of their head. The Root posted an article just last year about WeatherNation hiring Rhonda Lee, a black meteorologist, after she was fired by KTBS-TV for responding to a viewer’s comments about her hair

“Historically black women have been fired from certain jobs or sanctioned from certain jobs,” said Jacobs of women who wear their natural hair to work. "I’m talking about the airline industry, certainly the journalism industry,” said Jacobs. 

White women are able to wear their hair in its natural state, while black women often time receive criticism, funny glances, or people asking "Can I touch it?" Widespread media favors Eurocentric standards of beauty, especially when it comes to hair, and it becomes difficult when someone does not embody that image. Most magazines are guilty of Photoshopping models to look thinner, but there are also many instances where the black models will appear five shades lighter on the cover

Just on the way to Jacobs’ house, there is a billboard advertisement “for natural hair, but the hair that’s represented frankly is not an afro or tightly curled hair as much as it’s the kind of hair that reminds you of like a kind of biracial hair… where it’s hair that is black but is ‘good hair,’” she said. 

For Chelsea Johnson, a colleague of Jacobs and a Ph.D. student in sociology, black women wearing their hair natural is difficult for many reasons.” It’s less professional and considered wild.

"Not finding it as attractive or presentable with romantic partners and getting your hair searched at airports. It’s emotionally difficult,” she said. 

Regardless of the attention that natural black hair receives, it is not intended to be an act of rebellion.

“I’m not trying to make a statement by being myself,” said Johnson. 

Johnson first went natural during her years at Spellman College. She did not ascribe any political meaning to wearing her hair natural, she simply saw a greater diversity in black women’s presentation of self and decided to try it for herself. 

Rhonda Ray, founder of Afrolicious Hair Affair, said “I just feel more comfortable, more myself, more beautiful” about being natural for 13 years. 

Reach contributor Rasha Ali here.



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