What is “hair bias”?

In April 2016, SheaMoisture brand launched the provocative “Break the Walls” campaign challenging the beauty and retail industries to address the aisle “segregation” of hair products by race. In most stores, hair products catering towards natural and textured hair are often located in the “ethnic” section while products designed for those with straight and smooth hair are often located in the “beauty” section. Whether or not this product placement separation is a function of store policies intention or merely ‘de facto’ industry best practices, “Break the Walls” charged that routine black hair care product placement away from the ‘beauty’ aisle confers, at minimum, a subliminal message that naturally textured hair is inferior, less desirable, and less beautiful.

Product placement is, of course, but one manifestation of how hair standards are normalized within a larger culture of beauty. Powered by editorial, advertising, fashion, Hollywood, and social media, the beauty industry drives our visual intake daily. Our perceptions stem largely from implicit visual processes, and as a result, our brains’ repeated exposure to smooth and silky hair linked to beauty, popularity, and wealth creates associations that smooth and silky hair is the beauty default. Naturally textured hair of black women, by comparison, is notably absent within dominant cultural representation which automatically ‘otherizes’ those natural images we do see – at best they are exotic, counter cultural, or trendy; more often than not, they are marginal.

Inspired by the questions that Break the Walls raised, Perception Institute set out to explore bias within the beauty industry – specifically to identify and break the ‘mental walls’ of hair bias – negative stereotypes or attitudes that manifest unconsciously or consciously, towards natural or textured hair. Hair bias against natural or textured hair has a distinct impact on black women for whom textured hair is their “normal.” To be clear, harms linked to racial bias against black women have been well documented – in health care, policing, education, and the workplace. Increasingly, harms related to racialized gender bias are being examined to understand why black women experience higher rates of intimate partner violence, sexual prejudice, and fear isolation more than their white counterparts.

Given what we know about other forms of bias, the Good Hair Study asks whether hair bias affects perceptions of beauty, self-esteem, sense of professionalism, and by extension, workplace opportunities for those whose hairstyles fall outside of the dominant norm. Moreover, if hair bias is present, do black women who wear their hair naturally perceive social stigma as it relates to their own hair choices vis-a-vis dominant norms. Last, amid a growing natural hair movement among black women, can the science offer any solutions that can help reduce bias and promote positive perceptions of natural hair both for women themselves and among others who see them?

Click here to learn about the Good Hair Study