By Kimberly Mayes
As a woman of color, when it comes down to your hair you get judged a lot:
- when you cut it, you’re so ungrateful of what you have
- when you braid it, you must be old-fashioned and only hanging on to your roots or even an Erykah Badu-wannabe
- when it’s long and thick, it must be fake… uh not
- when you straight your hair, you’re not honoring what you got (ethnic issues)
- when you dye it, you must be ashamed of your real hair color (and only trying to fit in)
Been there, done that, tried tons of different hairstyles, 20-something and I’m still me. As India Arie early on said I’m not my hair. Yes it’s part of who i am, but it doesn’t define my true existence. The expressions of my heart do. Dig deeper…
You’re pretty for a black girl. Can I touch your hair? The natural you is the best you, My hair is my crown, I am not my hair, my hair is me, and the natural hair journey. Beautiful black women have big hair, big personalities, but even bigger problems with their beauty, internally and externally and the bigger picture of politics that comes with it. The Natural Hair Movement is one of the biggest black movements after a generation of silence and stunted popularity following the 1970s. The generational shift in beauty ideologies has political implications and scope. Popularized in the United States, The Natural Hair Movement has gone global and over the past decade has become one of the largest beauty movements, or at least most talked about in the black community.
For roughly one year and seven months I have officially been natural, but my hair journey like every other black began, and will more than likely end, natural. To be natural means to wear your hair the way “god intended it.” Natural Hair is the Hair that grows naturally out of a black woman’s head. A black woman goes through so many stages of her hair journey that even her natural hair is labeled. But back to me, My hair has been a part of me from the beginning, I remember sitting between my mothers legs crying every Sunday because I hated the hot comb, riding the bus with my mom in fear, because mama was always yelling at the white women not to touch my hair, begging for a relaxer because everyone at school had one, and the first big chop when the relaxer caused bald spots. My hair journey is special to me, but there are many women like me with similar stories and that’s what brings us all together.
It goes without saying, you cannot escape your hair, and in the States you cannot escape the Natural Hair Movement. It’s on TV and the Internet, black friends are bloggers and vloggers, it’s the talk of the beauty shop, family, friends and strangers remind you and more than anything the mirror is a stark reminder. Once I went abroad I noticed how challenging it was to have Natural Hair and travel, I often found myself in stores reading the backs of labels, and making my own products. In South America I brushed it off as a nuisance, but in Europe I considered it a crime that I couldn’t find products when a good portion of the population looked like me. The Movement was here. I had seen Amsterdam on blogs for natural hair tours in the Netherlands and had already planned on going to a few. But talking to women on the street and asking women where I could find black hair products was met with stares. It was not until I was on the university campus that I began to meet other naturals that I noticed exactly who was natural. How was the Natural Hair Movement situated in The Netherlands and what does The Natural Hair Movement do?
During the course of my research I attended various Natural Hair Events in Amsterdam. I attended “Miss Black Hair Nederland,” a beauty pageant for Natural young women, and the “Luv and Learn Your Hair Event,” a two-part series with Taren Guy featuring Felicia Leatherwood and Sister Scientist. I acted as both participant and observant at the natural hair events by interacting and talking to naturals. At the event I conducted two true interviews, but found the best way to go about interviewing was more casual conversations. I also went to salons and beauty shops in Amsterdam. I met with Felicia Leatherwood, celebrity stylist in the US and Curls of Nature, hair guru in the Netherlands. Anoseka Schmidt of Natural Nation allowed me to come to her shop and interview her as well. As a means of support I explored many natural hair blogs and vlogs, based in the Netherlands, because a large amount of community activity is centralized on the Web. In this community it was important to focus on language, and aesthetics in the community and also social historical context. This movement is not a “youth culture” but a generational shift of beauty standards, ideology and aesthetics. Because this movement is embedded in gender and race, this paper is framed with a black feminist perspective using identity politics, critical race theory and some postcolonial theory. I also looked at the differences and continuities between the United States and Netherlands Natural Hair Movements. Both articulations of the movement operate along a spectrum of identity reformation, including Black Consciousness, liberation through examination and redefinition of values, self-image, and general outlook. As a Black American Natural Woman I promise this paper is objectively subjective and in the words of Peter Jennings “I’m not a slave to objectivity. I’m never quite sure what it means. And it means different things to different people.”
The Natural Hair Movement
I love you.
Because you love you.
Because you are erect.
Because you are also bent.
– Gwendolyn Brooks
The Natural Hair Movement is a cultural consciousness movement that is an extension of the “Black is Beautiful” Movement in the mid-1960s. During the 1970s and well into the mid-1980s, black hair was popularized with the image of the Afro, and was welcomed into mainstream beauty culture (Palmer 2006). During the 1970s and 1980s the visual representation of natural hair became associated as the symbol of militant black activism. A white culture of fear began to frame natural hair as a symbol of danger and terrorism. The media produced images that sustained and reinforced this sentiment of fear, associating this once beautiful symbol of cultural celebration as militant, communist and anti-American (or otherwise anti-white). Angela Davis – the Afro, a prominent woman in the Black Panther Party at the time, says many Afro-wearing Black women were accosted, harassed, and arrested by police (Davis 1994:41-42). Natural Hair very soon after went underground and was no longer celebrated in the mainstream, but demonized and many women put away their Afro picks, and adopted new styles.
Between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s, the Natural community continued, but was less centralized in the larger black community and was more prevalent in other black subcultures. This includes the popularization of locs in Rastafarian cultures, and braids and twists in the hip-hop community (Palmer 2006). But momentum and lack of mainstream attention and acknowledgment of Black Hair limited visibility, controlled the representation of Black women, and the marketing of black hair products. In the 1990s white-owned companies such as Revlon and Alberto Culver entered the black hair market with aggressive marketing techniques and campaigns. White owned companies, better financed than their black owned companies were able to lower prices and adopted aggressive Afrocentric marketing strategies to attract black consumers. By 1993 fourteen of the nineteen cosmetics companies in the lucrative black hair-care market were white-owned (Palmer 2006).
Finally in the 2000s, black culture began to move back into the mainstream, mainly due to music. The Natural Hair Movement corresponded with the rise of other black cultures. The commercialization of hip-hop and the commodification of Rastafarian culture through the popularization of Reggae, re-introduced blacks and thus black hair (Palmer 2006). YouTube became an instrumental resource, for women to learn about their hair. The internet was a valuable resource; not only could women share hair stories, techniques and aid each other in their journeys, women could also produce and sell their own product lines, circumventing the predominately white-owned market and marketing. At the Luv and Learn your hair event, when asked by a speaker, “where do you learn about your hair?” the audience in unison yelled, “YOUTUBE!” As one of the largest distributors and authorities in popular culture within the Western world, globalization via the Internet exposed women to the revolution that was hair. What was mainstream in the States soon became mainstream in the world. The consciousnesses of blacks were reawakened around the world.
The reawakening of black women was not and is not easy after years of divestment in our culture and ourselves, both internally and externally. Because we live in a culture where visual images affect our relations as human beings, the choices Black women make about hairstyle or body appearance often mean the difference between acceptance or rejection by groups and individuals. Our choices also shape and affect how we feel about ourselves (Grayson 1995: 2). Women are learning to love themselves again and the Natural Hair Movement is about learning to love yourself, but it is not about just “you” it’s about “us.” I will learn to love me, I will learn to love you, and I will learn to love us. Felicia Leatherwood, a celebrity stylist and international consultant in the movement described the movement as a movement of “authenticity of self-discovery.” In learning to love themselves naturals also discover themselves and in that discovery they learn why hair matters, the politics of their hair, their bodies and position in society.
A Brief Her-story of Why Hair Matters
“Remove the kinks from your mind, not your hair”
Hair is a symbol. In Hair: Sex, Society and Symbolism (1971), Wendy Cooper contends that hair is an “easily controlled variable that can denote status, set fashion, or serve as a badge.” As a result, hair has emerged as socially and culturally significant. Cooper also argues that skin and hair, respectively, are the two most important physical attributes for racial classification. For example, she notes that “hair not only varies in terms of type and texture among different races but also within race categories” (Banks 2000: 5). Hair is culturally and racially relative and means different things within different context. Hair is a symbol of identity, history, spirituality, security, health, vitality, femininity, positionality, and agency. It conveys who you are and how you want to be perceived.
Across the Black Diaspora, for decades, hair talk centered around “good” hair and “bad” hair (Banks 2000: 8). Good hair has a loose curl pattern or is bone straight, fairly oily, and fine. Bad hair is tightly coiled and coarse and tends to be drier. The concept of Good Hair and Bad Hair is essentially “Good Hair” is white hair and “Bad Hair” is black hair. Terms like nappy, are used in casual disgust, and according to many stylist and Naturalistas alike, nappy is the new N-word. Although hair is racially and culturally relative, Blacks both racially and culturally have been othered by white culture (Essed and Trienekens 2008: 55). In a predominately white greater society, white is normalized and internalized as normal by the “others”. You can change your hair, but you cannot change your skin. Blacks can manipulate their hair to conform to what is “normal.”
The Natural Hair Movement is not to undermine women that choose to alter their hair in a more Euro-centric fashion. The Natural Hair Movement gives women the power and the choice to be natural without feeling abnormal and othered. It also offers women support and the education to overcome internalized fear and discomfort with their own hair and ultimately their own bodies. Hair matters because it should not matter, but ultimately does. Hair matters because, much like skin, it has been exoticized, shamed and othered.
The Natural Hair Movement and The Netherlands
The natural was sprouting everywhere— dark sunflowers filling a vacant field.
– Marita Golden
In the Natural Hair Community there is not just one way to be natural. In the natural community there is an expanse of different naturals from the BTW (“born this ways”) to the Natural Hair Nazis, women who think everyone and every thing should be “natural.” There are the Transitioners, weaning off the Creamy crack, to the Spectators, who are thinking about going natural or are sometimes just interested. There are the Loose Naturals and the Loc Rockers. There is a place for male naturals and the fro beau. [In my research, I focused on the hair community with the gendered female at the forefront, because of their majority in the movement.] These categories are not only specific to the US, at the Miss Black Hair Netherlands show these categories were not only mentioned, but also rewarded. Natural Hair is typed into different categories as well, 3a, 3b, 3c, 4a, 4b, 4c. Natural hair is textured kinky – coily, coily – kinky, kinky – curly, curly – kinky, coarse, low porosity, high porosity etc. Despite all the differences within the texture, type, and category, naturals share in one thing that unites them… their blackness, or in the Netherlands Africa-ness.
Natural Hair without Blackness?
In the Netherlands race is not talked about so much as ethnicity is talked about. According to Essed and Trienekens in “Who wants to feel White?: Race, Dutch Culture and contested identities,” “in the Netherlands ‘race’ is not mentioned, but inherently subsumed, repressed under the coverage of cultural and religious references” (2008: 63). Race has become somewhat of a taboo subject. At Miss Black Hair Nederland and Luv and Learn Your Hair Event, women would essentially say that “My hair is beautiful, I am beautiful” or “ My hair is important, I want to see my hair on TV,” but also say “My race doesn’t really matter” or “Racism isn’t here like it is in the States.” The Natural Hair Movement is reopening the discussion about race with hair as the jumping off point. At the Miss Black Hair Nederland Pageant the stated goal was: “On the basis of a beauty pageant and the associated activities, we are going to encourage self-awareness and increasing the black woman. We intend to pursue an ideal of beauty after which the black woman accepts herself and likes it in its natural state” (Miss Black Hair Nederland). On their website they define their target group as Afro-Dutch women between the ages of 18-35. The website defines Afro-Dutch women as: “All women who originally have an African background. Except Africans, for example, this can be Surinamese, Antillean, its Dutch Caribbean” (Miss Black Hair Nederland). The theme of the pageant was “Growing back to Your Roots” with an Afro Chic dress code. The conflation of race and ethnicity seemed normalized in the community. The Luv and Learn Your Hair Event as well as salons and other natural hair spaces and people capitalize on an African aesthetic and image association. Afro Chic is a useful mechanism for differentiation, reclaiming roots, and redefinition. It is not useful to directly have conversations about the inequality, altered representation and altered individual and collective consciousness — yet. Since it’s not completely about the hair and its not about ethnic difference, it’s about the skin and a racial difference.
Contrary to the biological statement that race does not exist, RACE EXISTS. Perhaps race is not biological, but privilege has and continues to be based on differences in skin color. Africa-ness and other ethnic identities do not embody how difference in skin color and other physical features, like hair, structures a systematically abusive society that marginalizes women of color. Black is stigmatized for a reason and the internalization of that stigma is what has caused an internal and external discomfort with black bodies. The conflation of race and identity in the Netherlands can be seen as a transition to acceptance of Blackness.
Events like the pageant brings together a community of women on the basis on celebrating natural hair and their roots in order to uplift, celebrate and ultimately unify BLACK women. Women in the pageant for instance were more than their hair, they were also so much more, they expressed a personality, they made a fashion statement, they showed talents and they embodied a history. Black women are not just their hair they are their skin. Hair, although not a neutral platform, is a flexible platform for discussing or rather introducing race back into the conversation in the Netherlands. The Natural Hair Movement gives women back their blackness. The Natural Hair Movement does not criminalize race and unpacks the negative connotations associated with Blackness. In the 1970s, black was created and celebrated as self-ascribed identity, an alternative to whiteness. Previously, people of color were colored and non-white, black was our word, our identity, and our alternative. Somewhere along the color-line blacks were convinced that AFRICAN – and AFRO – were more appropriate associations, but whites stayed white or a pure nationality without a “-” to stigmatize their identities.
Alternative Economies and Identities
I do not mean to entirely undermine how ethnicity is used in The Natural Hair Movement in the Netherlands; conflation of ethnicity and race does help establish alternative economies and identities. Consumption is very important within the movement and at every event that I attended there was a market. The market featured beauty products, fashions, toys and books designed and marketed for and by black women. It is an alternative economy that prioritizes black women’s’ needs. Using the African approach provides women with knowledge and better products that suit their needs, Women in the Natural Hair Community in the Netherlands say the biggest hurdle and their overall discomfort comes from not seeing themselves represented in the larger economy; from ads, TV shows, news, toys, fashions, and lack of resources. Natural markets provide an alternative economy they can control and self-represent. The beauty industry and the media in the Netherlands are not nearly as multicultural as you would expect. A brief survey of Dutch pharmacies and supermarkets showed that there were no hair care products for women of color. Hair care products for women of color are only found in Afro-Shops. At the events I received a lot of cards, so that I could meet up with people to buy products. Being able to buy hair products everywhere is a privilege black women are not privy to. Hair Salons that know how to care for black hair are also very few. According to Sister Scientist, a speaker, blogger and cosmetic chemist, natural black hair is different, requiring more moisture, less tension and other factors. Without this knowledge many black women opt for treated hair because it is easier-for the stylist!! Education in the beauty industry and refusal to acknowledge difference disadvantages black women who deserve the same care from professionals. The Natural Movement provides women with the education and access to resources.
Fashion is also a big element in the Natural Hair Movement. Jewelry and fashion at the market were Afrocentric or made in Africa or other diaspora regions. At first I was under the impression that these fashions were an imitation of African Fashion, but after browsing fashion blogs, thumbing through photos, observing the women in the markets and through casual conversations I realized that fashion in the Natural Hair Scene is conscious hybridization of urban and African styles. Despite a distance from the concept of race, women in the Netherlands still experience what W.E.B. DuBois (1993) called double consciousness in his book The Souls of Black Folk.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness…; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (DuBois 1993: 8)
They are conscious Dutch fashions, and understand what the mainstream deems fashionable. Using African textiles in combination with Natural Hair creates an image that juxtaposes a woman’s acceptance of her Dutch-ness and express her Africa-ness and Blackness. It’s a physical third space in the fashion world. Naturals are creating an embodied symbolic language using their hair and by extension fashion.
An Expert Opinion and Analysis
On my Natural Hair Journey in the Netherlands I had the privilege to interview two Natural Hair Professionals who were very informative about the movement, and two of the most beautiful souls I could have the privilege of meeting: Felicia Leatherwood, celebrity hair stylist and Hair speaker and Anoseka Schmidt, founder of the Natural Nation in Amsterdam. Both women had an interesting outlook and opinion of the Natural Hair Movement.
I had encountered Felicia Leatherwood in many natural hair searches, saw her speak and style at the Luv and Learn Your Hair Event and was put into contact with her by the wonderful people at Curls of Nature, hair gurus in the Netherlands. Felicia has been working with Natural hair since she was a young girl “determined to prove [black girls’] beauty”. Felicia called the Natural Movement a “secret revolution.” With no more leaders in the Black Community, the Natural Hair Community is the new leaders, creating a new standard for the community, a new standard of beauty. The goal is to make natural hair normal or otherwise equal in the beauty world. The Natural Hair Movement opened up the platform for new voices to be heard without the pressures of race and without a hierarchy, which is why it has such a global footing across the African diaspora. Any woman can be natural and all women are beautiful and loved.
Anoseka Schmidt styled the lovely ladies of the Miss Black Hair Nederlands pageant and is a stylist in Amsterdam with a salon in or near the Belmont area of Amsterdam. She also has had an interest in hair from a very young age. She opened her shop because she saw a need, felt comfortable, had love and wanted to give love, because “with love you reach so much”. In addition to her salon she plans on giving workshops and creating her own beauty products in the near future. According to Anoseka Schmidt, natural hair in the Netherlands was first popularized with the men and locs, because of the length it provided and through exposure on YouTube. Overall what I found most interesting was her critique of the Natural Movement and the natural hair experience. According to Schmidt, in the Netherlands both women and men need to understand who they are as a Black Nation and an African Nation. They often skip the crux of the movement and view the hair as just hair without understanding their greater insecurities. Black women need to search within themselves; if you listen to your hair it will tell you what it wants to do. When asked why the emphasis on her she told me rather simply, shrugging and without hesitation, “Hair is another language. You are your hair. It says something about you, its embedded in the history. What you portray and show has been twisted; you compare yourself and have a psychological insecurity. It’s superficial but deep, I have had clients who cry deep in being.”
Something that both women talked about that resonated was the stake the US has in influencing the Natural Hair Movement globally. Despite the moves that the Natural Hair Movement is making globally there is, albeit loosely or more rigidly, a dependence on the US beauty culture. The US not only produces a large number of the images that women look to, they also produce the products, the styles, the trends, and the education about hair and natural hair. Since 1906, what started with Madame CJ Walker, a southern women from the cotton fields to a modern woman testing, creating, and selling the world’s first line of global hair care products for people of color with little scientific knowledge, has also stayed centralized in the US. The actual information that is known about black hair is recent and comes from playing with the hair. Women in other nations are in waiting for America, when they do not have to. This reflects the conflict with hair has as commodity or object for professionals only or some other authoritarian. Somehow America has risen as the Mecca of hair; it sets the standard and controls what is ultimately “your” hair. The Natural Hair Movement is supposed to be a reformation of power, politics and choice, and women are still intrinsically participating like they would with greater beauty industry. When I asked when the world would go natural or accept naturals, the answer would consistently be “When Beyoncé goes natural,” which I heard from both stylists and natural women. Personally I believe the destabilization of the US with regards to natural hair will shift, especially with the rise of more salons, spread of education and product lines created in the Netherlands, but the pervasiveness of a global identity through imagery poses a risk for the change. Natural Hair makes women more powerful, but there needs to be less of a fear to play.
To echo Clifford Geertz, woman is an animal suspended in webs of significance she herself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning, and we create meaning through interaction. Hair is a source of power and pride for black women, much like the biblical Samson. Hair is powerful because it shapes one’s sense of self and one’s sense of others and sense of themselves through other. Hair is powerful of the statement and expresses one’s self. Hair is powerful because there is a collective consciousness about hair. Hair is powerful because it is directly related to black identity and “realness.” Hair is powerful because it requires care. Hair is powerful because of the politics that inform and influence how, where, when and what hair should look like. Hair is powerful because despite influences, history, imagery and idolatry it gives women a choice and a voice.
The choice is one of the most powerful elements of the Natural Hair Movement. Once a women is able to accept herself in its totality, without discomfort or fear of her own body, and sees her natural hair as just as beautiful untreated as she is treated she is truly free. Whether a woman chooses to relax her hair or not, she should be able to accept herself without consequence internally or externally. In youth many black women report an inability to choose their own hair, but as women age and transition into adulthood, you choose the woman you want to be. After high school, locs were my first hair choice and I personally felt empowered and after a while more conscious and self aware of my body. I broke free of my mothers and grandmothers, and whiteness, but in doing so opened up myself to others. I received more question, and looks, sparked conversations and interest. A woman with natural hair represents the power and strength to resist and simply exist standards of beauty and systems of repression that seek to define them through normalizing and privileging others with a certain type of hair. For the love of hair, all hair is beautiful. Black is beautiful.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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