If you have ever wondered how certain features became the standard of beauty? Pause for a moment and consider how it all began.
In the mid-18th century, Swedish physician and taxonomist Carolus Linneaus developed the concept of race. Linneaus subjectively observed the physical features of groups of people using the features of whites as the standard. He compared skin color, hair texture, facial features, and other physical characteristics. He did not factor in his own personal bias.
He and others, who succeeded him, employed the same methodology and ascribed positive characteristics such as intelligence, beauty, morality and industriousness. They deemed these characteristics inherent in whites. Conversely, they attributed less desirable characteristics to people of color and deemed them inherent to people of color, especially black people. Hence, the social construct of race was born.
The social construct materially facilitated the institution of slavery. Even though slavery has been eradicated from the United States, its vestiges remain present in U.S. structure, institutions, as well as in the attitudes of many in the United States and around the world.
The race categories lead to the development of racial stereotypes against people of color; thus, the systemic practice of belittling any physical feature blacks had that differed from whites. Paramount among these distinguishing physical characteristics was the textured hair of black people.
Myths proliferated that bugs of all sorts and kinds habituated within, that the hair stank, that it was so rough it could injure white skin, that it spread ringworm and diseases. It was kinky, nappy, unkempt, unruly, dirty and countless other stereotypes circulated.
Negative perceptions about blacks’ hair were not always the case. Prior to slavery, in sub-Saharan Africa black people fashioned their hair in a plethora of styles. Dreadlocks date all the way back to ancient Egypt. Hairstyles were lavish and varied in length from down to the ground to closely cropped, from full and bushy, to sleek and shiny, from braids to elaborate cornrows and fanciful cuts and just about any hairstyle imaginable.
Doing each other’s hair was an opportunity to bond. In pre-slavery Africa, hairstyles reflected many different meanings, such as social status, tribal identity, fertility, manhood and wealth.
But, when African people were kidnapped from western Africa and sold into slavery, the subjugation process for breaking them down rendering them suitable for the harsh conditions of slavery involved depriving them of all customs that linked them to their past. The shaving of their heads and the systematic denial of products and the denial any means to care for themselves, in any way, was imposed.
Once upon a time, right here in the United States, there were laws prohibited black people from showing their hair in public. Black hair was deemed so nasty and repulsive black people were required to keep their hair covered and so as to protect the white public. Hollywood movies perpetuated the headscarf-wearing mammy stereotype in many movies.
There remain many vestiges of slavery. Americans hold on to many stereotypes and beliefs that are not necessarily based on fact. They often conduct their daily lives in ways subconsciously influenced by the vestiges of slavery. Some subconsciously operate from a position of superiority, others from an unconscious position of inferiority.
African American women typically have textured hair. Many choose to wear hair that does not naturally grow out of their heads. They choose to do so for various reasons.
Hair and hairstyles are a big deal not only in this country but also in the entire world. African American women, in particular, go the extra mile when it comes to their hair.
They spend more money on their hair than all other races in the United States combined, spending nearly $200 billion annually. African Americans comprise only 12 percent of the U.S. population.
Most of this money is spent by African American women to buy hair, primarily long straight hair, to add to or cover their own natural hair.
Ironically, non-African American merchants own a whopping 97 percent of the merchant market that caters to their hair needs. A mere 3 percent of this lucrative market goes to African American merchants. The two biggest corporate beneficiaries of African American hair buying power are L’Oreal and Alberto Culver.
African American women, they are held to continual hair scrutiny. It seems that rather than having the luxury of autonomy as to how they style their hair or what kind of hair they wear, someone else wants to make the decision for them.
Danielle Daley, 22, MCTC nursing student said, “I am wearing natural hair. I think natural hair is beautiful. I think every girl should wear their natural hair because if you don’t you’re covering up your roots and what you’re defined as a black woman.”
Even though Daley espouses racial pride and confidence in her decision to go natural, she said she recognizes that it can be perceived negatively both those who have accepted the European standard of beauty without question.
“I have had white people and black people both tell me that my hair doesn’t look good with my natural hair and that I should do a weave and stuff because it doesn’t fit me,” Daley said. “It doesn’t look professional. And, I get that a lot at my work because I work in the medical field. And, I’ve gotten it a couple of times from higher-ups, from white managers.”
They say I don’t look professional with my hair like this and that I should do something different. But, I still think as a black woman you shouldn’t hide away what you were born with. I think natural hair makes both a political and a social statement. As a political statement, you’re showing the world that you’re not afraid. Because growing up some people didn’t like when I had my hair natural.”
Vonette Cannon, 67, is an MCTC student majoring in human services. She said she has never worn unnatural hair but during the 1980s, she did have a Geri-curl for a while. She believes that African American women should wear that hair that naturally grows out of their head. She said regardless of whether they wear it natural, unnatural, curly or straight, she does not think they are necessarily making a statement or trying to do so.
Women go through a lot to fashion their hair. They cut it, style, weave it, track, cover it, extend it. They do whatever they can to keep it, style it, maintain it, cut it. There are countless commercials and adds in the media about hair and hair products. Different cultures prioritize hair differently but for many African American women, hair is a top priority.
Many African American women wear long, straight hair that may or may not be real, but that is not their own hair. This may lead an observer to infer that African American who do this are ashamed of the natural “nappy” or curly hair that grows out of their head; that they are selling out and accepting the standard of beauty as defined by white people.
Joetta Cooke, 21, MCTC student majoring in mental health said, “I wear this wear for the convenience of it and to protect my hair from the harshness of winter. Some people see it differently. But, it’s a convenience thing for me. I wear my hair natural at least seven months of the year. Winter is too hard on my hair and dries it out. My natural hair is down to my shoulders and it’s curly. Why should I buy curly hair when I already have curly hair? This is just another style for me.”
There is typically no mistaking that the hair is not the hair that grows out of their head. Dominique Brown, 30, MCTC nursing student, wears long black waist-length extensions. It is obvious it is not her natural hair, and, she does not seem to mind.
“These are extensions. It is hair that is attached to my own natural hair. It is not a wig. I do not wear wigs. I like long hair. My hair is not as long as I want it to be right now. Plus, this protects my own natural hair and allows it to grow. My hair is fine and it breaks easily so, I try to protect it,” Brown said.
Regardless of the declarations that many women make that the addition of hair that is not originally their own that there can be no denying the vestiges of slavery and historical racial rejection of the physical traits of African Americans and that the centuries of disparagement has not affected them or influenced their grooming choices.
Jazmin Robinson, 24, pre-nursing student said, “I am biracial. Actually, a lot of different things, Nigerian, German, Irish…I am wearing some of my hair in braids and some of it natural on the top. I used to straighten my hair. I don’t wear wigs but there are some extensions and braids. I am just learning to like my natural hair.”
I like it in general on other people but for myself, I grew up straightening my hair a lot. So, now, I’m just starting to wear it naturally curly and just putting it in braids and stuff like that. I didn’t like my hair when I was growing up because people I grew up with all around me had straight long hair. I had really curly hair and I wanted it to be like everybody else I was seeing. Mostly white people raised me so, that would have been white women. But, I’m just now starting to like my hair as it is on me.”
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Of course, that is true with anything. Hair is no exception. But, for African American women the bar is likely higher than for white women. Much is loaded upon them due to the explicit and implicit racially biased lens through which society views and judges them.