Hair speaks volumes

15th November 2017

Hair. The way in which we style our hair says a lot about who are we. Whether you dye your hair pink, have it long or completely shave it off, our hair is an expression of our identity and what we do with it speaks volumes, especially for black women.

For black women, our hairstyles are often intentional, as hair sends a message. This is why many black women were outraged to find out that an image of Lupita Nyong’o on the cover of Grazia magazine had been edited to fit more closely with European standards of what hair should look like. Now some of you may be thinking, it’s not that serious – many magazines edit pictures to fit the theme and cover of the magazine. But when it comes to photoshopping out black women’s hair, things are not that simple. If a black woman is choosing to embrace her natural hair, it’s an expression of her unlearning the hundreds of years of European beauty standards that have forced upon us. And this should not be taken lightly.

Black women, especially darker skinned women, rarely make it on the cover of a magazine so to have her being on the cover of Grazia is extraordinary and should be celebrated.  However, by editing the image of her hair it tells black women that the only way you can be on the cover of a magazine is if you maintain the European beauty standards.

Tracee Ellis Ross
Tracee Ellis Ross; Image: ABC/Matt Petit

The relationship between black women and our hair is complicated, to say the least. European beauty standards have taught us that in order for us to be desirable we must have straight, blonde, flowing hair. But with the growth of the natural hair movement, we are seeing many black women reclaiming the identity of our hair. Though many black women have now chosen to embark on the natural hair journey and say no to relaxers and weaves, there is an elephant in the room when discussing the natural hair movement: hair texture and skin tone. As much as we’re enjoying the growth of the natural hair movement, it’s becoming evident that the infamous European beauty standards have managed to seem into the natural hair movement too. Lighter skinned women, such as Black-ish stars Yara Shahidi and Tracee Ellis Ross, and women with tight curls are the face of the natural hair movement. In fact, if there’s a black woman displaying her natural hair in the media she is almost always lighter or has tighter curls – now you know this, you’ll see it everywhere.

For those not familiar with black hair texture, every black person’s hair texture is different (yes, men too). Some black people’s hair is smoother and easier to comb, whilst others are harder and require much more effort. Those with lighter skin tend to have tighter curls (there are exceptions to the rule), which are the most desirable when it comes to hair texture in our community.

By having Nyong’o on the cover of a fashion magazine, it’s telling young dark skinned girls that their skin tone is beautiful. But editing out her hair removes that progression entirely.

Though Nyong’o’s hair was still in a natural state after the picture was edited, a bald head is still seen as more desirable than one with a non-European style. Tweeter @This_Here_Girl commented on the Grazia article stating: “In some African countries, European colonizers required Black school girls to shave their heads because they felt their natural hair was unmanageable. Cutting off her hair is essentially a call back to those ideas.”

Just a couple of weeks ago in the US, we saw a seven-year-old girl whose school forced her to shave off her hair without her mother’s permission so that it will “go back straight”. Reinforcing those European beauty standards from such a young age.

This is why representation is important for us. We need to see all of us being represented, from lighter to darker, from tight curls to loose curls, we need to see more of us in the mainstream.

15th November 2017