On Decolonization, Beauty, and Black Hair Aesthetics, by Kristin Denise Rowe

Earlier this month, brilliant scholar, producer, and publisher Dr. Yaba Blay (@professionalblackgirl) posted the tweet above by esthetician@LABeautyologiston her Instagram page. The tweet succinctly summarized so much of how so many of us view Black women’s hairstyles.

Indeed, for decades, both scholarly and popular discourse have encouraged us to view Black women’s hair practices in direct relationship to what we now know as “Eurocentric” standards of beauty. Through this lens, much of how we understand Black hair politics is reactionary, located within a dichotomous framework that holds afros, African printed scarves, and cornrows as “subversive” and “liberatory,” meanwhile hair weaves, “relaxers” (chemical straighteners), and straightened hair are indicative of assimilation (at best) and self-hatred (at worst).Following this logic, each day Black women make choices to adorn their bodies that either reify or disrupt a larger system of oppression. Within this binary, Black women’s agency, narratives, and experiences are obscured. The complex constellation of interlocking factors that inform how Black women experience and conceptualize beauty at any given moment—including nationality, gender identity, sexuality, region, class, size, and ability—are made invisible. If we are serious about “decolonizing beauty studies,” [i]we must trouble the idea that women in general, and Black women in particular, are passive subjects within a larger racist and sexist system.

Many have pointed out that since modernity, as a result of colonialism and slavery, Eurocentricism and anti-Black racism interact in order to denigrate phenotypically “Black” features. In terms of concepts of beauty, this interaction results in a privileging of features associated with whiteness—pale skin, long and straight hair, thin angular noses, etc. Meanwhile, dark skin, kinky hair, and large round noses are denigrated.[ii]Within this context, the idea that straight hair is indicative of low self-esteem, lack of political consciousness, or assimilationist tendencies, while natural hair is indicative of an imagined polar opposite, has existed across time and space. The notion can be traced to global Black liberation movements going back to the early 1900s, including: Garveyism (US/ Jamaica), Rastafarianism (Jamaica), Black Power (US, UK, Anglophone Caribbean), Afro-Black aesthetics (Brazil), Black Consciousness (South Africa), andNegrissmo (Dominican Republic).[iii]

This history is hugely important to how we understand body politics, aesthetics,  racialization, and beauty today. But in the twenty first century, what are the limits of still understanding these choices as a zero-sum game?

Consider the following excerpt from comedian Chris Rocks’ critically acclaimed and commercially successful 2009 US film Good Hair. In the film, Rock sets out to explore contemporary African American hair culture. The film spends ample time conveying the dangers of hair relaxers (in a rather alarmist sort of way). Multiple experts discuss relaxer’s key ingredient—sodium hydroxide—as hazardous. One scene shows sodium hydroxide burning a hole through the skin of a raw chicken breast “down to the white meat.” Following this scene, Rock has a brief exchange with “Professor Berry,” a “world renowned” “chemical genius”:

Rock– Now, you realize this goes in people’s heads, right?

Berry– Sodium Hydroxide?

Rock – Yea. People… uh, Black people. Black women… Some men. You know—Morris Day, Prince—Put, uh, sodium hydroxide in their hair to straighten it out.

Berry (puzzled)Why would they do that?

Rock (with a shrug) – To look white.

This exchange summarizes the simplified take the film, (and so many of us) has on Black women’s aesthetic hair practices. The explanation as to why Black women do these kinds of things to their hair is offered by a Black male— “to look white.” Other possible reasons specific to Black women’s subjectivities—ease of care, workplace/ school expectations, ritual, etc.—are never considered.  The material stakesof these hair decisions, such as gaining and maintaining employment by way of hair that is deemed more socially acceptable, are not engaged seriously or in depth.

Instead, Black women seem to go through this process simply “to look white.” The film engages in “playing in the dark” through the dominant ideological gaze, which Toni Morrison describes as framing through “racial object” instead of “racial subject.”[iv]Not only is whiteness centered in the film in that “wanting to be white” is given as the central reason for common Black hair practices, but whiteness is also centered in that Black hair culture is constantly discussed in relationship to whiteness. Eurocentric standards, white people, and the white gaze lurk in the background of the film, rather than articulating the contours of a Black hair culture that exists in intra-racial physical and discursive spaces.

Some viewers—often Black women themselves—have been more critical of the film. Teresa Wiltz, of The Root, states: “There are two things that [Rock] does not bring to the conversation: English scholar Joi Carr also critiques the film’s implicit centering of whiteness, stating: “The ethos that resonates throughout the film casts a negative perspective on Afrocentric hair texture since most of the conversation is unwittingly cast in relation to whiteness. Whiteness is the shadow-side to black beauty.” [v]

So, how can we complicate our understandings of aesthetic choices, and Black women’s relationship to beauty standards? How can we center their voices, narratives, and experiences within this space? How can we break down longstanding assumptions in beauty studies that often work within binaries of pain vs. pleasure (because I am also critical of individualistic, neoliberal, ‘beauty can be fun!’ arguments, as well), subversion vs. assimilation, and the individual vs. the structural?

Today, recent scholarship in beauty studies, including myself in others, aims to forward this work. Kobena Mercer’s seminal piece “Black Hair/ Style Politics” [vi]provides(at least) four contributions relevant to these questions: 1) urging us to reconsider hair choices through the lens of style, aesthetics, and agency; 2) destabilizing the notion of what is “natural,” by pointing to the ways that even “natural” hair is constructed, manicured, and styled in specific ways; 3) troubling static, essentialist dualism between what is natural/ African and what is straight/ European and 4) calling for us to “depsychologize”the practice of hair straightening—interrogating the assumption that straight hair “imitates” or “mimics” whiteness. Mercer ushers in a post-modern understanding of Black hair politics, by allowing space for hybridization, creolization, and improvisation.

Shirley Anne Tate in part builds on Mercer’s work in ways that center Black women and Black feminism.[vii]Tate’s text uses ethnography and interviews with British and Caribbean Black women to investigate their hair practices and thoughts on beauty. Tate’s work ultimately argues that beauty is performative, something that is done—through mimicry, hybridity, and performativity.

Meanwhile, Maxine Leeds Craig argues that it is most helpful to understand Black women’s experiences through multiple standards of beauty that are contextual, moveable, and varied. [viii]Because beauty is contested, in any particular context there will be multiple standards of beauty in circulation. Craig considers various historical contexts, arguing in each time Black women “negotiate” a complex set of expectations involving region, race, gender, class, political orientation, color, and more. Craig interrogates the assumption of a singular, Eurocentric standard of beauty that Black women are always measured up against.

Scholars such as Rebecca Coleman and Moreno Figueroa ask use to take seriously the role ofaffect in our understandings of beauty.[ix]In considering affect, we become less hyper focused on beauty practicesthemselves (i.e. make up, hair styling dieting, plastic surgery), and we are able to think about the processesof beauty, as well. In using Lauren Berlant’s notion of “cruel optimism,” Coleman and Figueroa help us understand beauty as an aspiration to normalcy that is simultaneously “optimistic and cruel,” “specific and imaginary.” Coleman and Figueroa help us think through the temporalities of beauty, as an embodied phenomenon that is also social, cultural, and economic.

Finally, Simidele Dosekun’s helps us rethink the ways that weaves, or sew-in hair extensions, are understood in relationship to Black femininity.[x]She addresses the assumed link between the wearing of weaves and self-hatred, while situating it specifically in the context of her upper middle class, Nigerian, female, millennial subjects. Dosekun’s work, addresses binaries of “Western” versus “African” forms of expression via hair, as well. The use of the weave may be built on an “unhappy” (via postcolonial scholar Sarah Ahmed) histories of Black hair, but it is indeed a crucial part of Black femininity, rather than a simple mimicking of whiteness.

My own research employs Black feminist theory as a framework for understanding the production of beauty within popular culture. Specifically, my research examines contemporary cultural representations of Black women, concepts of beauty, and depictions of natural hair. In approximately 2008, a space opened up for Black women to stop chemically straightening their hair and begin to wear their hair naturally curly—resulting in a cultural phenomenon now known as the “natural hair movement.” Within the context of this movement, new conversations around standards of beauty, hair politics, and Black women’s embodiment have flourished within the public sphere—largely aided by social media and new media representations. My work maps these conversations, by exploring contemporary expressions of Black women’s natural hair within Black pop cultural production. I investigate various sites of inquiry: natural hair product advertisements and internet representations, as well as the ways Black women’s hair texture is evoked in recent song lyrics, filmic scenes, and non-fiction prose by Black women. I argue each of these sites of inquiry—“hair moments”—offers a complex articulation of the ways Back women experience, share, (re)negotiate, and (re)articulate the fraught terrain that is hegemonic standards of beauty and raced/ gendered body politics.Ultimately, my project reveals the ways in which representations of hair serve as a vehicle for recovering the agency, narratives, and inner moments regarding Black women’s uses and experiences of their bodies.

To be sure, the work that scholars, thinkers, and activists have done to reveal the ways that hegemonic standards of beauty are racist, and indebted to global white supremacy, is critical to our understanding of body politics today.Others and I could likely not do the work that we do today if not for this body of work. However, if we are truly interested in the work of decolonizing beauty studies, we must be willing to imagine what it means to understand bodies, beauty, and aesthetics outside of a framework of “Eurocentrism” as the end all be all of aesthetic choice.

Photos of the Author by artist/ producer Rachel Jamison (@_RAYCHELLE)

[i]Elias, Ana, Rosalind Gill, and Christina Scharff. “Aesthetic Labour: Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism.” In Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism, edited by Ana Sofia Elias, Rosalind Gill, and Christina Scharff, 3-50. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

[ii]See: Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (first revised ed.) (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014); Margaret L. Hunter, Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone (New York: Routledge, 2005); Obiagele Lake. Blue Veins and Kinky Hair: Naming and Color Consciousness in African America (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003)

[iii]Tate, Shirley Anne. “Skin: Post-feminist Bleaching Culture and the Political Vulnerability of Blackness.” In Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism, edited by Ana Sofia. Elias, Rosalind Gill, and Christina Scharff, 199-214. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

[iv]See Joi Carr’s discussion in “The Paraphernalia of Suffering: Chris Rock’s Good Hair, Still Playing in the Dark” (2013), as well as: Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Book, 1993., 90.

[v]Ibid.

[vi]Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/ Style Politics,” in Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, edited by Kobena Mercer, 97–130 (New York: Routledge, 1994)

[vii]Tate, Shirley Anne. Black Beauty : Aesthetics, Stylization, Politics. London: Taylor and Francis, 2009.

[viii]Craig, Maxine Leeds. Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Culture, Social Movements, and the Rearticulation of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[ix]Coleman, Rebecca, and Mónica Moreno Figueroa. “Past and Future Perfect? Beauty, Affect and Hope.” Journal for Cultural Research14, no. 4 (2010): 357–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/14797581003765317.

[x]Dosekun, Simidele. “The Weave as an ‘Unhappy’ Technology of Black Femininity.” Feminist Africa21 (2016): 63–69.

Kristin Denise Rowe (“Kris”) is a doctoral candidate in African American and African Studies (with a graduate specialization in Women’s and Gender Studies) at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, US. Her research examines contemporary narratives within art/ popular culture of Black women’s experiences with natural hair, arguing these representations are sites where concepts of beauty are revealed, (re)negotiated, and critiqued. Visit her website atwww.kristindeniserowe.com to learn more about her work.

2 Comments

  1. This is a great read! People of all cultures need to be educated on why or how we wear our hair the way we do, instead of asking to touch or feel our hair , sometimes without asking , which is offensive to some. To me it’s like makeup just an accent to highlight the beauty that already exists. Thanks for going in depth and I hope this reaches a mass amount of people.

    Liked by 1 person

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