For black women, hair is deeply politicized. It has served as a key marker of racial identification, a significant determinant of beauty, and a powerful visual cue for bias (Robinson, 2011, Arogundade, 2000). Tightly coiled hair texture is distinctly tied to blackness and has been a marker of black racial identity for centuries (Banks, 2000). It is simultaneously linked to beauty norms (Craig, 2000). When beauty standards are tied inextricably to race, black women experience a specific burden not experienced by either black men or women of other races (Robinson, 2011; Caldwell, 1991). To be clear, women of other races and ethnicities who have curly or textured hair may experience pressure to conform to these beauty standards; but black women, in a sense, are often pitted against them.
For centuries, cultural norms have racialized beauty standards – those with features characteristic of white European ancestry are considered more attractive (Robinson, 2011; Craig, 2006; Goff, Thomas & Jackson, 2008). In the United States, “Good Hair” is considered to be hair that is wavy or straight in texture, soft to the touch, has the ability to grow long, and requires minimal intervention by way of treatments or products to be considered beautiful. While the “Good Hair” standard has historical roots, it is perpetuated by pervasive cultural messages that idealize this vision of hair and offer treatments or products to achieve it.
Importantly, the culture around black women’s hair is by no means monolithic. Within the past decade, the rise of the “natural hair movement” has been accompanied by a conscious rejection of dominant beauty standards and a celebration of natural hair; more concretely, there was a 34% decline in the market value of relaxers, products that chemically straighten textured hair, since 2009. The choices black women increasingly are making to wear their hair naturally challenge traditional norms of what is appropriate, attractive, and professional. As with most choices that defy convention, these efforts to re-define norms have triggered backlash and robust debates around even among “naturalistas” themselves.
In addition to natural hair salons, where black women have typically organized around hair — communities of “naturalistas” are now online. Through hair blogs, video logs and other forms of social media, naturalistas coach each other through transitioning (growing out relaxers) and identify the best products for one’s hair type. Frustrated by both the lack of consistent knowledge and the multitude of products, naturalistas have crowd-sourced support and debated about hair bias within their own ranks, sharing thoughts on colorism within the natural hair community and bias against tighter curl types, and what natural hair styles are considered ‘professional.’ It is no surprise that beauty industries, both of color and mainstream, have jumped at the chance to develop products to meet the naturalista communities’ growing demands and needs, and engage in dialogue and support as well.
Yet, despite the growing natural hair movement, recent existing research suggests that the “Good Hair” standard may still have a meaningful effect on the way that black women are perceived and treated, depending on how they wear their hair. In 2016, Rudman and McLean measured black men and women’s explicit reactions to photos of celebrities (famous black women such as Janet Jackson, Viola Davis, and Solange Knowles) with natural and smooth hairstyles. The study found that overall, the participants preferred smooth hair, but the black women expressed no preference. Further, other researchers have recognized the potential link between hair and bias. A 2016 study by health researchers found that black adolescent girls (ages 14-17) might avoid exercise due to concerns about sweat affecting their hair. In focus groups, the girls reported that they avoided getting wet or sweating during exercise because their straightened hair became “nappy” (Woolford et al., 2016). The girls identified natural hairstyles as better for exercise but as less attractive than straightened hair. Similar to the Rudman study, when shown pictures of celebrities with various hairstyles, the girls showed a preference for longer, straighter hair.
From the perceptions of professionalism in the workplace, the first impression of a potential employer in a job interview, or the notions of healthy and beauty in every sector – attitudes toward black women’s hair can shape opportunities in these contexts, and innumerable others. It is critical, therefore, to understand how “hair bias” operates and develop solutions to disrupt and mitigate its effects.
Click here to learn about the Good Hair Study