Straighten Out Society, Not Our Hair.
Updated: Dec 16, 2021
The 19th-century mindset which is still inflicting impossible standards on the black youth of today has sparked a need to dissociate politics with self-love.
Whether one cares or not, it is undeniably true that physical appearance is of great importance in our world. Humans collectively have created a system of judgement for our physical appearance, something we know today as “beauty standards”. These standards apply to everything from the shape of our noses to the strands of our hair. While some of these standards, such as body shape or height, are moulded and reshaped regularly, others remain rigid and unforgiving. At first glance these standards may seem the result of harmless beauty rituals, nothing more than content found in a teen beauty magazine, however, hidden behind a layer of glitter and perfume is undeniably the history of the world.
I remember watching an episode of Winx Club, where a girl at a beauty pageant runs away in tears after her straightened hair becomes curly again, as the result of dark magic. All of the girls touch her hair as though it were the strangest thing they had ever seen. While some people might simply wave this away as a children’s cartoon, that is precisely why it’s problematic. Children are extremely impressionable, they believe whatever they see or you tell them. If children are actively told that something about themselves is something to cry about, they start to believe these things about themselves. To make it seem like the girl couldn’t win the beauty pageant because of her curly hair is to say that curly hair is ugly, or undesirable.
Winx Club- Episode 112
While this was only a subtle form of this beauty standard, in many real-life instances, it’s not so subtle. When California passed the Crown Act in 2019, it was making history. For the first time, discrimination against natural hair and protective styles was punishable by a court of law. For some, this might seem like an irrelevant law, for a non-existent problem, but for black women, this law was a step in the right direction.
The history of discrimination against curly hair, particularly kinky hair, started with slavery. Enslaved women would cover their hair with rags or scarves, to protect it from the demands of their gruelling work. Once free women began to do their hair in elaborate styles which showed off their natural curls, cities passed laws requiring black women to wear rags or scarves over their hair, to signify that regardless or whether they were enslaved or not, they still belonged to the slave class. With the invention of the hair-straightening comb, straight hair became a way to identify as “middle class.” Beauty standards labelling curly hair as “messy” or “unprofessional” are a direct offspring of slavery, the idea that black women should hide their hair, or change the texture stems from white supremacist ideals.
In the 1960s, with the birth of the “Black is Beautiful'' movement, came the first wave of the natural hair movement, inspired by activists such as Angela Davis, who wore her hair in an afro to signify black power and rebel against the white beauty standards. Black women were encouraged to embrace their natural hair rather than conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. Soon, wearing an afro became both a weapon and a symbol to represent the fight for racial equality in America. It was a public declaration of self-love, the very definition of ‘black is beautiful’ which the white beauty standards had fought so hard to extinguish. The signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 also was responsible for the creation of the EEOC, an agency working in the area of workplace discrimination, a result of the federal government’s mission to grant black people equal access to public workspaces. This equal access, however, didn’t reach as far as discrimination against black hair.
In 1976, the case of Jenkins vs. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance was brought to the Seventh Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals, on the basis of a race discrimination lawsuit filed against an employer. This lawsuit alleged that the employer had been biased against afros. The Court of Appeals agreed that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, workers were entitled to wear afros in the workspace. This is an example of one of the first natural hair discrimination cases to appear in U.S. courts, and although the court ruled that afros were allowed in the workplace, social pressure to conform with Eurocentric beauty standards impacted black women’s hair choices far more. Despite the court of law permitting it, black women were still hesitant to wear afros in the workplace due to the reception from society, which as a whole, still perpetuated white beauty standards.
Although hair-care ads in the media in the ‘80s and ‘90s caused a trend of black women wearing pressed or permed hair, the era also witnessed popularisation of protective styles such as box braids and cornrows. Black celebrities such as Janet Jackson and Brandy Norwood inspired women to embrace protective styles which for so long were associated with slavery. Alicia Keys’ signature Fulani braids in the early 2000s saw protective styles continue to be popular in the 21st century, while actress Lupita Nyong’o continued to popularize natural hair, for example in her role as Nakia in Black Panther.
Discrimination against curly, kinky, and coily hair is by no means a thing of the past. To this day, black students are harassed in schools because of their hair, told they are unable to graduate or participate in sports teams. Black applicants are denied jobs because of the common belief that protective or natural styles are “unprofessional” and do not belong in the workplace. While the Crown Act was considered in many states, only seven actually passed the law. Beauty standards and the harmful consequences that come from them are often overlooked, and it is time we stop doing so. There is no place for discrimination against hairstyles and texture in the classroom or the workplace.
Tresemme 2020 South African Advertisement
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