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Is Natural Hair Still a Political Statement?
A few years ago, I attended a festival in Brooklyn dedicated to curls, coils and everything in between. After eight years as a natural gal, I didn’t know what to expect from an event centered around hair. But Curlfest became a safe haven for me that day. In addition to talks about haircare routines and Black-owned beauty brands, it was one of the first times I saw women of color being celebrated for expressing themselves exactly as they were.
At that moment, I realized that natural hair represented culture, identity and community. But was it…political? To the thousands of women in attendance, it didn’t seem like a big deal. At the same time, I couldn’t ignore the complicated history our hair has played in the rights we’re denied and granted. What might seem like a style choice for some people is inevitably a statement for others.
And so, I embarked on a journey to learn more about the way our hair does or doesn’t reflect our rights and if we’ve finally entered an era when it’s just, well, hair.
First, A Quick History Lesson
Although you may not have learned about it in your high school history class, alongside the Civil Rights crusade, the “Black Is Beautiful” movement was not-so-quietly underway. Activists like Angela Davis and Elaine Brown sported signature afros, there was more exposure to Marcus Garvey's teachings to embrace every kink and curl and Black models in Harlem, known as the Grandassa Models, showed off their natural hair on the runway. In short, the ‘60s and 70s were a time for pushing away from white beauty standards and embracing afro-centric ones.
But not everyone agreed. As Davis wrote in Afro Images: Politics, Fashion and Nostalgia, her ‘fro was often labeled as a marker of “Black militancy (that is, anti-whiteness).” As a result of her distinct style, she was targeted and harassed specifically for wearing such a ‘rebellious’ look.
As we moved into the ’80s and ’90s, our crowns became more complicated. A wave of Black sitcoms and iconic celebrities brought home the beauty of different natural hairstyles. In the 80s, it was all about big hair and defined locks (your parents will remember Jheri curls). By the 90s, it was loose curls, sculpted afros and more, from A Different World and Sister, Sister to Girlfriends and Living Single. But natural hair in pop culture didn’t always reflect real life. Strict job policies, daily microaggressions and incessant advertising pushed women to straighten and perm their hair. As a ‘90s baby, I knew more about chemical relaxers and blowouts than anything to do with the “Black is Beautiful” history that proceeded me.
By the 2000s, we saw a resurgence of the natural hair movement, thanks to the internet. With the birth of YouTube in 2005, there was more access to beauty tutorials, new brands catering to Black hair and an all-around modernized community. By the 2010s, we had sites like Naturally Curly, 4C Hair Chicks and Afrobella, films like Good Hair and My Nappy Roots: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage and events like CurlFest.
But as recently as 2022, it was still fraught. In South Dakota, a teenager faced expulsion for sporting long locs. In the United Kingdom, a young Black girl was banned from her Catholic secondary school’s playground for wearing a braided heart design. “The mindset that in order to learn you have to leave a part of yourself at the door is still a problem. I’m grateful that we’ve made progress and it’s amazing to see the renaissance of embracing Black hair, but we have a long way to go before we can be unapologetically who we are and show up as our full selves,” says Kim Janey, former mayor of Boston and president of Economic Mobility Pathways.
Bottom line: Natural hair has so many layers (metaphorically, of course), and the racism Black and Brown women face is rampant. But I have to wonder if we’re still fighting the same fight we were 50 years ago. Can’t we just embrace natural hair as a style choice, or is it still a “thing”?
For Many Women, It Comes Down to How Often It "Comes Up"
In the beginning of her career as a TV anchor in the early 2000s, Sia Nyorkor wasn’t allowed to wear her hair naturally on air. “I cared about what people thought [at work],” she admits.”
And she was right to. A 2019 study conducted by Dove found that Black women are “1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair” and “3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional.” The study also revealed that 80 percent of Black women “felt they needed to switch hairstyles to align with more conservative standards in order to fit in at work.”
Co-founder of Coils to Locs and professional actor Pamela Shaddock (Mad Men, NCIS: Los Angeles) understands this all too well, having been told, on multiple occasions, that her locs might be “too trendy” or “date” the film in question. “I had to bring headshots with me in different wig styles so that casting directors and producers could see I could change my hairstyle if needed. I had to play show-and-tell because they just wouldn’t get it or didn’t want to otherwise,” she explains.
This concept of representation can, in fact, be statement-making. Think about every lawyer show from the past few decades. From Olivia Pope in Scandal to Jessica Pearson in Suits to Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show, a silk perm meant you were taken seriously in the courtroom. As Lori Tharps and Amanda D. Byrd said in “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” Black women had to look a certain way in order to make it comfortable for white viewers. But when Viola Davis ceremoniously took off her wig in How to Get Away with Murder, it quickly became one the greatest moment in television history.
And it gets downright political when real people’s livelihoods are on the line—the Alabama woman who lost a job offer in 2018 for refusing to cut her locs; the wrestler who, a year later, was forced to cut his hair publicly in order to participate in a match. “There are still children, women and men who are chastised or embarrassed at school, or work and other spaces because they are supposedly ‘not groomed’ or their hair is ‘messy.’ Until we move away from the expectation that the look of straight hair equates to professionalism, neatness or beauty, we will still be fighting bias in society,” says Dianne Austin, co-founder of Coils to Locs.
Nyorkor, who now wears her hair naturally on television, concurs. “It’s always viewed as 'political' when you go against the norm.”
Small Steps, Not Giant Strides
All this said, if natural hair is still political, the good news is that it can feel political in an inclusive way. I think about the pride I felt seeing Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, arrive at her swearing-in with a beautiful head of sisterlocks. Or former first lady Michelle Obama finally embracing protective styles and natural curls after feeling like America wasn’t ready for it during her husband’s time in office. On her book tour last year, she stated she didn’t want her hair to be a distraction, or worse, picked apart by the public.
For Janey, the former mayor of Boston, it’s about opening doors to leadership positions. “I was someone who is Black, who lives in Roxbury [a historically Black community] and someone who wears her hair natural. That really was a seismic shift of what was the norm in Boston,” she says. “I see the power in that for generations. Children are growing up in a world where it’s normal [to wear your hair natural].”
The biggest win for the women I spoke with was the creation of the Crown Act, a law introduced in 2019 to “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” and end hair discrimination based on hairstyle or texture. It also requires professional spaces to enact policies that protect individuals and prevent biases based on appearance. So far, 20 states have passed the law with 28 others creating their own version of the act. (We see you, Wyoming and North Dakota.) It has even influenced the military—in 2019, the U.S. Navy completely changed its policy involving braids and locs, resulting in rules that are much more inclusive and celebratory.
On Social Media, Everything's Political...Until It's Not
Ultimately, of course, what you see on TikTok or TV is probably more influential than what the U.S. military posts in its handbook. And these days, pop culture is all about celebrating natural hair. Books like Hair Love, films like Nappily Ever After and shows like Insecure and This Is Us have received overwhelmingly positive responses to the way they depict their characters’ hair. As hairstylist Felicia Leatherwood told The New York Times about styling Issa Rae on the show, “People were writing me, ‘I just watch the show for the hair.’ I said, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know the hair had that impact on people’.”
Social platforms are equally influential, having birthed YouTube stars like Jasmine Brown and Whitney White and viral stories like that of Kheris Rogers, the CEO of Flexin’ In My Complexion, who went viral on Twitter in 2017 for a photo her sister posted of her after she was bullied at school for her hair. “When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate my hair,” she told me. “I couldn’t understand why people always wanted to touch it. I was embarrassed by it, but when my picture went viral on Twitter people were telling me how much they loved my hair! I was shocked!” In short, the natural hair community online gave her the love and affirmation she needed to see the beauty in who she was (and psst, it even got noticed by Beyoncé herself).
For me, social media was a big part of the reason I went natural in the first place. On TikTok and Instagram, I saw women who looked like me, embracing the hair they were born with. When I was with this online community, I never had to overthink, Is my hair up for debate? Do I need to minimize myself in order to fit in? Will I be more accepted if my hair is straightened?
The bittersweet part is that, much like anything on social media, once the natural hair movement became oversaturated, it lost some of its bite. “Natural hair had aspects of being a political statement at one time, but it’s definitely not a political statement anymore,” says Austin of Coils to Locs. “We are not trying to prove anything to anyone by wearing our hair naturally. It represents a standard of beauty that we see for ourselves and want to embrace. It’s about what makes us feel good.”
So, Where Do We Go from Here?
Last summer, I embarked on my first girls’ trip with eight of my friends. While it was nothing like the Tiffany Haddish-lead film of the same name, I had similar sentiments in terms of feeling like I belonged. I was surrounded by women of color in all shades, shapes and natural hair types. I was traveling through the Caribbean on my own terms, taking up space without apologizing for it. And I was reminded that we’ve come a long way towards letting our curls, coils and braids exist without having to go through hoops to be accepted.
I know my hair is part of a bigger conversation. I know that, unfortunately, it can still be divisive and political. But knowing that we’re taking a step forward and not backward is what keeps me keeping that conversation going.