How does one woman’s relationship with her hair track the trends—and what does it show about America’s complicated history?
Years after I started wearing box braids, years after I experimented with wearing a weave, years after I went natural, I looked in the bathroom mirror one night and admired my twist-out. I softly pulled at a stray coil, feeling each bend between the tip of my fingers, nestling my hand onto my scalp to explore each curl. I was grateful not only for the beauty staring back at me, but also for being able to see and appreciate that beauty.
The beehives of the 60s, the afros of the 70s, the box braids and microbraids of the 90s, the flipped bobs of the 2000s, the natural hair of the 2010s—Black hair has been considered inappropriate, breathtaking, untamed, captivating, unruly, and gorgeous. It all depends on who’s in control of the narrative. Only a few decades separate us from a time when afros and braids were equated to lesser than.
Black Hair: How the World Saw Us vs. How We Saw Us
Because the Atlantic slave trade designated Africans as the “other,” their every feature was considered inferior. As non-white property, Black people were on par with animals in the eyes of slave owners. Their hair texture was frequently compared to fur or wool. It’s a mindset that has persisted among the ignorant through the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 and into the 20th century. In the popular culture of the 1900s, Black people were displayed however white men and women saw fit. As a result, caricatures like white minstrel performers, Sunflower the Centaur in Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, and 1946’s Song of the South, were defined by racism and bias.
Despite Black stereotypes in photographs and onstage from 1900 to the 1940s, accurate depictions of Black hair and Black culture at large did exist. Braids were a marker of beauty in West African communities. Businesswoman Madame C.J. Walker starred in advertisements for her self-titled line of hair products. Vaudeville performer Aida Overton Walker wore her gravity defying curls onstage during her career peak of 1910 to 1914. The creation of the relaxer in 1909—which chemically straightened naturally coily hair—and the invention of the perm in 1954 gave Black people even more versatility with hairstyling, and helped Chuck Berry and The Temptations achieve their signature sleek locks in the 1950s. Before the relaxer, the invention of the hot comb allowed straighter hair without the use of chemicals.
Innovation, however, did come at a cost. Use of the relaxer, a popular choice for making Black hair acceptable to white society, is inextricably tied to uplifting Eurocentric beauty standards. Relaxers have also played a role in the “good hair, bad hair” debate within the Black community. The idea of “good hair” connects to its proximity to whiteness, i.e. looser curls or hair that isn’t as textured.
Straight Hair Meant You Were Put Together
As a child, I felt my most beautiful with my hair washed, conditioned, and neatly pressed. My mother styled my hair until I got to “that age”—the one where she passed me and my sister into the hands of a professional. When I started getting my hair done by a hairdresser, we chose to have it straightened, not relaxed, to protect it from breakage. Once a month, I got sleek, shoulder-length hair thanks to a flat-iron, hot comb, and olive-oil hair-sheen spray.
Back then, I loved Raven-Symoné from That’s So Raven and her mix of loose, voluminous curls, high ponytails with side-swept bangs, and pigtails. I lived for Aaliyah in the “Are You That Somebody” music video with her pin-straight hair. I thought Ciara and her honey-blonde waves on the “Goodies” album cover was the epitome of gorgeous. I didn’t see the pattern then, but it’s plain as day to me almost two decades later—long, straight, smooth hair didn’t just mean you were beautiful, it meant you were put together.
Every kid wants to be liked. In my fifth-through-eighth-grade brain, who would like me with cornrows or afro puffs? Yes, the other Black girls and I all wore them, but never outside of the house or around our classmates. When you went to school or the mall, you looked presentable. Your edges were gelled, the hair at the nape of your neck (lovingly dubbed the “kitchen”) was brushed, and not a hair was out of place. That’s how you looked pretty. The magazines I read told me that. Penny Proud and her friends on The Proud Family, all with straight or slightly wavy hair, told me that. Black men on TV being considered unkempt when the hair on their heads grew out told me that. Cartoons, celebrities, and magazines made it clear that certain Black hairstyles meant you had no home training, plain and simple.
Where were the Black girls in movies like The Princess Diaries, Freaky Friday, and the Twilight series? Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco were everywhere in 2007 and 2008. Where were the Black love interests in their music videos? Everywhere I turned, it was white girls with long, straight blonde hair getting their happily ever afters. So, I came to a conclusion: If I couldn’t control the rest of my appearance, at least I could keep my hair straight.
Learning to Appreciate My Hair
I tried to achieve the hairstyles of pop-punk front women like Hayley Williams and Cassadee Pope with excessive heat and extension glue, and by my senior year of high school, my thick hair had thinned out and broken off. Finally, I gave up extensions, flatirons, and hot combs, and settled on box braids to give my hair a rest. Those braids carried me through my first two years at a predominantly white college, and felt like a bridge between my campus life and my home life. I started going to the Dominican-owned salon down the road from my dorm, where I got a wash and set and a blowout every three weeks, alongside other Black and Hispanic women.
And now, I was looking at my straightened hair in the mirror as one choice, not the only choice. It was 2013. I was 21. The Black female students who were leaders on campus wore their hair in afros, locs, under weaves, and in regal buns atop their heads. The web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, starring Issa Rae and her closely cropped afro, had come out the year before and I was cackling on the regular. Meagan Good’s pixie cut and Tasha Smith’s waist-length braids stole the show in 2011’s Jumping the Broom. Black hair, showing up and showing out in its many forms, was making a comeback, and finally now I could appreciate it. Lucky for me, a natural hair revival had started to pick up steam.
The Natural Hair Resurgence of the 2010s
Credit it to Viola Davis carefully removing her wig and makeup on How to Get Away With Murder in 2014. Or, Lupita Nyong’o wearing her afro at the 2012 Academy Awards. Or, Tracee Ellis Ross, Yara Shahidi, and Marsai Martin with new buns, braids, and curls every week on Black-ish. But, a whole new generation began embracing Black hair again in the 2010s. The movement crashed into popular culture on runways in Milan, on covers of magazines like Vogue and Elle, on album art, on dozens of Tumblr blogs, and on Instagram. Black hair was being celebrated with a fervor not seen for years in popular culture, and that self-love and sisterhood rippled through the community.
I took a chance on my own curls in 2015, washing and conditioning my hair one night and twisting it up once again, to give it a rest from regular blowouts. My curls were limp for months after that first twist-out, weak from a lifetime of heat training, but eventually, I felt defined ringlets and waves forming on my scalp. I began to see myself in Issa from Insecure, flat twists, frohawks, and all. I showed Zendaya’s faux locs at the 2015 Academy Awards to hairdressers for inspiration. Watching Black Panther, I marveled at Danai Gurira’s shaved head and Lupita’s Bantu knots. The men around me, my cousins included, twisted their hair into locs.
Looking Forward: The Future of Black Hair, in and out of Hollywood
Fast forward to 2021: Black women are a tour de force on television. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina gave audiences a main character with blond finger waves. On Sex Education, Patricia Allison’s Ola sports a hightop fade. The Black women of Grown-ish showcase style and grace in the form of locs, Fulani braids, and cornrows. Between inclusion riders in Hollywood and Black creatives like Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, and Michael B. Jordan making Black stories a priority in their work—Black representation, culture, and all—would seem to be at a high.
But, traditional Black hairstyles have remained a source of discrimination in and out of Hollywood. The U.S. Army didn’t lift the ban on two-strand twists and braids until 2014, and on locs until 2017. The CROWN Act, passed by the House of Representatives in 2020, would ban discrimination against natural hair and protective styles in the workplace—but only if also passed by the Senate. Black Hollywood is hardly immune to criticism either. Gabrielle Union was allegedly told her hairstyles on America’s Got Talent were “too Black” before she resigned. White journalist Giuliana Rancic openly speculated whether Zendaya’s 2015 faux-locs “smelled like patchouli oil” while on the Oscars’ red carpet.
Even so, Black hair—and on a larger scale, Black culture—has come a long way since being a catch-all for unruly. Now we see and admire Black hair in its many iterations, and showing Black people in all their various beauty lifts us all. My own reflection reminds me.
Explore more curated images from Shutterstock’s own Black Hair Collection.
Cover image by imagephotography.
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