Black History Walks presents an insightful talk on how the image of black beauty has been corrupted

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Solange Knowles sporting an afro

Yesterday afternoon Maroon News attended a talk put on by Black History Walks at Birkbeck University titled: ‘African Hair Police: Death and Discrimination on Your Head.’ It was a hugely insightful lecture, touching on many topics. The debate surrounding natural hair vs. weave is one which constantly exists within the black community but is also a very sensitive topic for many. This talk was partly so successful because it was more of a discussion. Audience members were not ordered to go home and throw their wigs in the bin because they made them some kind of traitors to black women and black beauty. No, rather the audience was made to understand the deep history and politics behind why the majority of black women in the UK (and the U.S.) today style their hair in a way that makes it appear more like that of Caucasian women.

The various speakers outlined a history of afro style hair being equated with ‘bad hair’ by European colonists, the Nazis and other dominant, white supremacist groups over a long, long time. References were made, for example, to the ‘pencil test’ used in Apartheid South Africa to determine where a person was placed in the extremely unequal social hierarchy, based primarily on the texture of their hair. If the pencil remained in your hair – i.e. afro or very curly hair – then you were ‘too black’ and would be designated to the lowest rungs of society. If the pencil fell through your hair (straight hair) then you enjoyed an advantageous position in the social hierarchy.

The audience were then shown just how much the media dictates ideas of beauty and what is beautiful when it comes to hair and how damaging this can be for women whose beauty is different – for whom there are no images that they can relate to in the mainstream media. Using examples, the lead lecturer illustrated how a false ‘norm,’ or, ‘standard’ beauty has been created through a shocking absence of non-white women with their natural hair appearing in hair and beauty adverts.

The negative language applied to non-white, non-straight hair in these adverts is overtly prejudiced, putting afro-style hair at the opposite end of a spectrum to Caucasian-style, straight hair:

“I’m going to show you how to create really beautiful, sleek, straight hair from this challenging, frizzy texture… This difficult hair.”

“What can you do with curly frizzy hair? Make it go away.”

Typical adverts for hair which either enitrely neglect afro hair (i.e. the "swish" advert) or portray it as bad hair which needs to be dealt with

This socially constructed hierarchy of so-called beauty is not what the young black or mixed-race (or any non-white) girl sees when she looks in the mirror, so then what does she see? Tragically, she sees that her hair is ugly because it is not the hair of the ‘beautiful’ women she sees on television – her hair does not swish so there must be something wrong with it. But it is okay because she can make her ‘bad’ hair ‘good’ hair – she can relax it, or perm it, straighten it, or buy a nice long, blonde wig which will let her swish her hair to her heart’s content. Here arises the major problem. Or is it okay? Is it right that black women – and increasingly young girls – are covering their heads in chemicals, effectively frying their hair with straighteners or outright wearing another woman’s – or even animal’s – hair because they genuinely believe it looks better than their own natural hair.

Black British women on average spend six times more on their hair and beauty than do white British women. This statistic is very telling. Why are black women spending so much more? Is it because they have to do more to alter their natural appearance than their white counterparts to feel that they look ‘good’? It would seem so. After all, the cost of buying hair which has been imported all the way from Brazil, Malaysia or India and has had to be processed several times in a factory before reaching the UK does not come cheap. For many women – of course, not all – who do wear a weave or wig it appears to be an unhealthy addiction. They will not leave their house with their natural hair. They will spend amounts of money entirely disproportionate to what they are earning and can realistically afford to spend on maintaining their weave. They may not participate in certain events – even things like going to the gym which will benefit their health – because of the risk of ruining that hair that they paid so much for. When wearing a wig or weave no longer becomes a matter of simple preference or experimentation with different styles, but a case whereby a woman feels uncomfortable leaving her home with her natural hair, it becomes a major problem which needs to be addressed. It is truly tragic that so many women are unable to see that not only would they not look disgusting or ugly without Caucasian or Asian-style hair on their head, they would actually look stunning – the height of beauty.

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Erykah Badu

In fact, often the alien hair worn by black and mixed-race women in place of their own natural hair actually lessens their beauty if anything. A person’s type of hair is part of their genetic make-up and therefore fits accordingly with their other features. Therefore, blonde, straight hair will tend to suit the physical features of a white woman’s face – the similarly light skin, generally thin nose etc. When this straight, blonde hair, however, is placed on the head of a black woman with fuller lips, or just darker skin, there is a strange incongruity between the natural and the fake where the hair far too often – if not always – does not fully compliment the beautiful features of their face. You don’t see black men with straight wigs on their head – and certainly not straight blonde or light brown ones. Nor do white women wear afro wigs. It would look terrible. So why do so many black women genuinely think that having Caucasian-style hair on their head enhances their beauty?!

What does not help, too, is the proliferation of images of famous black women – who other black women and girls look to as role models, and often aspire to be like – who have chosen to ‘whiten’ their image. This is particularly detrimental, perhaps more so than seeing Cat Deeley swishing her hair, because it is relatable for these black females. If Beyoncé and Rihanna are wearing their hair blonde and straight and constantly being regarded by the media as some of the most beautiful women alive, then it is not rocket science that young black and mixed-race girls will start to equate that image with success and beauty and want to try it themselves. (This whitened image extends to their skin tone in these adverts, but that is another entire article itself). Naomi Campbell, the top black British model, has appeared on the cover of Vogue numerous times – “her” hair is nearly always seen as long and straight. So what version of beauty, or appearance, do young black girls begin to understand as superior – as the image that will propel them further in life? After all, where do Solange Knowles, Erykah Baduh or Sophie Okenedo appear in these mainstream style stakes?

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Alicia Keys in a Givenchy advert.

How we choose to wear our hair has long been linked to our politics and ideology and itself can be a political statement – think about Rastafarians’ dread locks, the afros worn by those who belonged to the Black Panther Party and black power movement. Black activists in the 1960s and 1970s wore their hair naturally. The black men and black women who were the faces of the black power movement are remembered for their bold afros which represented their pride in being black – their acknowledgement that black is beautiful; their refusal to adhere to the dominant white race’s beauty ideal; their resistance to attempts to brainwash them into thinking that they were lesser humans – less beautiful – than their white counterparts.

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Black power women at a rally, all wearing their natural hair in an afro style

In his autobiography Malcolm X describes the physical and psychological damage of black people – both men and women – altering their appearance to try and appear whiter and the politics of hair and his personal choice to wear his hair only naturally in light of understanding the politicisation of ‘beauty’:

“Shorty soon decided that my hair was finally long enough to be conked. He had promised to school me in how to beat the barbershops’ three- and four-dollar price by making up congolene and then conking ourselves…I took the little list of ingredients he had printed out for me and went to a grocery store, where I got a can of Red Devil lye, two eggs, and two medium-sized white potatoes. Then at a drugstore near the poolroom, I asked for a large jar of Vaseline, a large bar of soap, a large-toothed comb and a fine-toothed comb, one of those rubber hoses with a metal sprayhead, a rubber apron, and a pair of gloves…

….A jellylike, starchy-looking glop resulted from the lye and potatoes, and Shorty broke in the two eggs, stirring real fast—his own conk and dark face bent down close. The congolene turned pale yellowish. “Feel the jar,” Shorty said. I cupped my hand against the outside and snatched it away. “Damn right, it’s hot, that’s the lye,” he said. “So you know it’s going to burn when I comb it in—it burns bad. But the longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair.”…He made me sit down, and he tied the string of the new rubber apron tightly around my neck and combed up my bush of hair. Then, from the big Vaseline jar, he took a handful and massaged it hard all through my hair and into the scalp. He also thickly Vaselined my neck, ears, and forehead. “When I get to washing out your head, be sure to tell me anywhere you feel any little stinging,” Shorty warned me, washing his hands, then pulling on the rubber gloves and tying on his own rubber apron. “You always got to remember that any congolene left in burns a sore into your head.”

…The precongolene just felt warm when Shorty started combing it in. But then my head caught fire….I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off….My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn’t stand it any longer; I bolted to the washbasin. I was cursing Shorty with every name I could think of when he got the spray going and started soap-lathering my head…

….My first view in the mirror blotted out the hurting. I’d seen some pretty conks, but when it’s the first time, on your own head, the transformation, after the lifetime of kinks, is staggering…The mirror reflected Shorty behind me. We both were grinning and sweating. And on top of my head was this thick, smooth sheen of shining red hair—real red—as straight as any white man’s…How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking “white,” reflected in the mirror in Shorty’s room. I vowed that I’d never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years…This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior”—and white people “superior”—that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.”

The use of natural afro hair as part of a political movement by black activists contributed to the demonization of natural afro hair by the dominant media and culture – making it associated with ‘unruliness,’ ‘trouble’ and something uncontrollable. This demonization of natural curly or afro hair, and idea that it is unruly and rebellious, is exactly what appears in the kinds of adverts shown above. Curly hair is something which needs to be ‘tamed’ – a problem which needs to be solved; gotten rid of. The solution to the ‘problem’? Make the hair reminiscent of Caucasian-style hair so that the black, or mixed-race, woman and her hair blend in with the white majority.

So is wearing a wig or weave always an act of assimilation; heeding to the dominant culture and its ideal of beauty and what is ‘right’? To suggest so is problematic – there are many black women, for example, who will have an afro one week and a long, straight weave the next. They argue that it is just a matter of personal preference and a desire for variety and that they enjoy experimenting with different styles for their hair. They do not feel more or less beautiful when wearing their hair natural or a weave. In these instances there does not seem to be a major problem – after all, many white women curl or backcomb their hair and that does not necessarily mean they despise their own natural, straight hair. Less convincing, however, are arguments about weaves and wigs being easier to maintain than natural hair when used to justify not wearing hair naturally. This argument would be less flawed if it was not for the fact that the type of wig or weave used to replace the natural hair tends to in no way resemble that hair. If your natural hair is difficult to manage and it is too time consuming to style every day before work then fine, wear a wig. But why not wear an afro or curly wig? Why, if it is just about saving time, is it that the substitute hair is so often eighteen inches long and dead straight, in no way resembling the natural hair?

There is definitely a move towards natural hair occurring both here and in the U.S. but it is still occurring on a relatively minor scale. Nobody is in a position to tell others how they should wear their hair, that is an entirely personal choice. What we do ask though is that you think about why you have made that choice and whether it really is your own choice or one that has been largely made for you?

Black History Walks put on interesting talks, walks and events all year round to further education about black history and culture. For more information please visit: