A Focus on the Relationship Between Hair and Identity as a Black Woman

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The purpose of this essay is to examine Black identity and representation in the United States. The lack of social representation of Black individuals and the misrepresentation of those depicted promote narrow identities in which women are told to belong. Historically, narrow social representation has been used to control the images of black people by characterizing them in prejudicial ways.

Social representations of Black people confine them to certain roles and appearances, which are seen through common definitions surrounding Black femininity and Black masculinity. Black bodies, of both men and women, are objectified and perceived as exotic to non-Black people. Due to external forces, such as underlying social and political meanings assigned to hair, Black women have continuously been subjected to excessive manipulation to their hair, which impacts the way they perceive themselves and construct their identity.

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Beauty is a concept that varies depending on region and culture. American society, specifically, assigns value to physical appearance which stems from the objectification of women. Those identifying as Black and a woman belong to two of the most marginalized groups in America. The classification of Black people as the inferior race and women as the inferior gender amplifies the effects of both. The intersection of these two identities is worth examining together to understand how racism and sexism impact the formation of their identity. Black women are limited by the stereotypes and roles expected of them. Women, in general, value their physical appearance because of these social expectations.

Beauty began as a tool of oppression and developed into a tool of the US capitalist society. Appearance, and hair as an extension, signals a woman’s status and access to opportunity. The policing of Black hair begins during childhood in schools and follows women throughout their development and into their careers.

Black hairstyles are described as distracting, dirty, and unprofessional, which places unnecessary strain and pressure to manipulate their hair to conform. The prevalent Eurocentric beauty standard impacts Black women’s perceptions of physical attractiveness, self-esteem, and identity (Thompson, 2009). Black women have consistently been told that their hair is not desirable and is not “good” hair. To Black women, hair is never just hair.

History of Black Identity

Categorization of people began in the New World when Europeans desperately attempted to separate themselves from Blacks. Racial formations were a socially constructed creation of identity categories that structurally placed Black individuals at the bottom. This social stratification focused on this concept of “race,” which was used to define social and political relationships between groups of people (Omi and Winant, 1994).

This hierarchy, based in social and political context, deprived Black women of rights and privacy while labeling them as unattractive. Enslaved Black women who lived in the house began wearing wigs which White people used to distance Black people from their African hair traditions (Thompson, 2009). The distinction between Whites and Blacks within the social world was used as a tactic of control, and thereby assigned destructive meanings to Black people.

Before Black people were enslaved and brought to North America, hair held cultural and spiritual weight through presentations of creatively crafted styles such as twists, braids, knots, and dreadlocks. A women’s hairstyle expressed their family background, tribe, and social status. During enslaved periods, women turned to using headscarves to hide their unkempt hair because they no longer had the time or ability to keep up their hairstyling practices.

The perceptions of hair are deeply rooted in the time of slavery, which is when the term “nappy” was used to describe hair. The term “nappy” is derived from a nap (a tuft of cotton before its harvest) surfaced during the production of cotton on slave plantations. Some slave owners even shaved off the hair of enslaved people, stripping them of rank and identity.

Social Representations

The pervasive social representation of Black women during slavery was the “Jezebel” caricature/archetype. Black women were perceived as innately hypersexual beings as a stark contrast to White women. The Jezebel was a seductive, tempting, lewd woman, whereas White women were pictured as self-respecting, sexually pure, and modest women who exercised self-control. During this time when White men owned Black women, they felt entitled to engaging in sexual quests with them, something that would be better described as rape.

This was an unequal power dynamic specific to the relationships between White men and Black women. The masters kept the continuous cycle of enslavement alive through impregnating Black women to supply future slaves, also known as slave breeding. Since White people believed that Black women had an “insatiable appetite for sex” and they were property, legally it was not defined as rape. The sexual relations between the master and an enslaved Black woman caused the mistresses resentment which led to the development of another stereotype of Black women which was the “Mammy.”

The Mammy caricature was made to discredit the claim that White men found Black women sexually captivating. The Mammy was depicted as a female slave who was a dark-skinned, overweight, asexual, submissive caretaker. Mammies performed the domestic duties within the household, such as cleaning, cooking, and nursing their White slave owner’s children. The Mammy was an idea created by White Southerners to paint Black women in an unattractive fashion, defining them as sexual beings just not ones that White men would be interested in (The Jezebel Stereotype, n.d).

As time went on after the abolishment of slavery, Black women began to imitate White hairstyles. By manipulating one’s appearance to mirror that of White women, Black women were told that they became more desirable. As advertising developed, the disjunction between ideal and realistic beauty widened. Advertising was used to market certain products to Black people which reinforced the idea that what they looked like was not good enough.

This is a common idea still sold to all women by the beauty industry, highlighting desirable beauty as the opposite of what one can attain naturally. The first hair product sold was the hot comb used to straighten one’s hair. This became the go-to practice to manage their kinky and curly coils. Straight hair became the accepted texture for Black women to have. Black women developed an obsession with unnaturally straight hair and began inventing mixes of products to contribute to the straightening of their hair such as lye and potatoes. This chemical mixture had the ability to burn the skin off of their head, but this plus the use of a hot comb resulted in smoothing hair enough to mimic European silky hair.

Despite decades of self-hatred, Black women began to embrace their blackness during the Civil Rights Era. In the 1960s, the afro hairstyle emerged as the Black is Beautiful movement began. During a time of political activism, this hairstyle served as a symbol of rebellion, pride, and empowerment as the Civil Rights Movement transformed into the Black Power Movement.

Previous to this period, Black was considered an insult and Black Americans attempted to distance themselves from this identity (Riggs, 2004). Due to the racial meanings assigned to the Black racial category, the features of Black people were seen as inherently unattractive. Even lighter-skinned Black individuals distanced themselves from dark-skinned people because they internalized the racist ideas regarding blackness (Riggs, 2004).

The Black is Beautiful movement focused on eliminating this racist notion and promoting to Whites and Blacks alike that their skin color, facial features, and hair, was not something to be perceived as inferior. This movement encouraged women to stop the altering processes of straightening their hair or bleaching their skin as an act of self-love and acceptance. Women who rejected the “socially acceptable” presentations of hair came to represent cultural independence. This movement strived to develop positive images and representations of the Black community.

Eurocentric Beauty Standards

Hair is an intrinsic part of Black identity, and it is important to recognize how skewed the standard of beauty is in the United States because of its exclusion of Black women. The Eurocentric idea of beauty indicates a white woman with fair skin and long silky hair. These standards affect Black women in every dimension of their lives: education, career, personal relationships (mate selection), mental and physical health, and self-esteem.

The conformity of Black women to these restrictive beauty standards was a tool of control and acceptance as the inferior people. The relationship between Black women and hair shows intersections between blackness, femininity, and the beauty standard. Nappy hair has consistently been associated with ugliness in the United States which led women to alternative hair management techniques, such as weaves, wigs, and protective styles.

The majority of Black women undergo their own personal hair journey that consists of a struggle to embrace their hair in its natural state, a period of intense and damaging manipulation, and then the physical healing of the hair. Many young girls are subjected to social conditioning of what defines socially acceptable hairstyles.

The majority of Black women portrayed in the media, including actresses, singers, dancers, models, political figures, and so on, sport a European hairstyle with their long, silky weaves. With the lack of representation in all of the media presented, there is no question as to where Black women are given the subliminal messages to assimilate by hiding their natural hair. Throughout this process, Black women are forced to build a healthy relationship with their hair which has positive impacts on their self-esteem.

“Good” hair was considered white European hair; “Bad” hair was afro-descendant hair. These notions of good and bad hair are deeply rooted in prejudicial views. Women with “bad hair” continuously manipulated their hair because it was seen as informal, unprofessional and ugly (Badillo, 2001). These perceptions still exist today, forcing Black women to endure physical, emotional, and financial pain. Physical pains present themselves in ways such as chemical burns from hair relaxers. Emotional pains include time commitments, along with the psychological strain arising from the disjunction of what a woman naturally looks like, and what she desires to look like. The financial investment is strenuous whether a woman decides to be natural, use protective styles, or chemical enhancement. Society heavily dictates how women perceive themselves because of the standards of beauty reinforced.

Modern Context

During the Black Power Movement, Malcolm X challenged Black Americans to deeply investigate the societal pressures forced onto them by their White counterparts, “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips?” Malcolm X advocated for the acceptance and empowerment as a people to confront the shame they felt for their appearances and question why they continued the superficial practices that oppressed them (Gardner, 2017).

This Black is Beautiful movement recognized the unfair, negative perceptions of Black people which stemmed from the racial categories created to serve White supremacy, and in response, Black Americans publicly defied assimilative practices by wearing their hair naturally. Black women proudly proclaimed, “I am quite happy being nappy” (Gardner, 2017).

The Natural Hair Movement reemerged in the late 2000s in the form of twitter hashtags, formation of a YouTube natural hair community, and movies, such as Nappily Ever After. Social media platforms were utilized by Black women to share their hair journey and encourage others. This movement concentrated on similar themes to the Black is Beautiful movement: combating internalized racism, increasing positive representation, and promoting self-acceptance. The emphasis on natural hair is not to disparage women who do use waves and wigs but to define natural hair as beautiful and worthy of respect, just like any other hair type.

Hair became a political issue when companies and schools began to facilitate discriminatory practices against Black women in which they lose their job or face punishment in school. Black women are told to “appropriately groom” their hair to fit in, while non-Black women are glorified for imitating the natural hairstyles of Black culture. In 2007, a Black woman sued American Airlines after being fired for wearing her hair in braids. In 2014, the United States Army issued a policy banning traditional Black hairstyles.

In 2015, Zendaya was condemned for wearing dreadlocks on the Oscars red carpet when the host commented that they make her look like she smells like weed. In 2017, a 17-year-old girl was told that she couldn’t wear her hair in an afro. There are many situations similar to those in which a Black woman’s hair is said to be unkempt, inappropriate, out of control, or distracting when natural or in braids, dreads, or cornrows. Instances like these reinforce the standards that have previously forced Black women away from their cultural roots and into assimilation.

Black women should not have to alter their hair to be accepted in schools or jobs. Ignorance and lack of cultural awareness are the sole drivers of comments and actions like these, and the only way to combat this is through educating those unaware. Appearance and beauty continue to be the defining factor of value in a woman, which contributes to the pressure to meet the accepted standard of beauty. Today, Black hair care is a major industry and the use of weaves and wigs are not solely based off of self-hatred. As Black representation increases through films like Black Panther, the relationship Black women have with their hair will strengthen and stabilize.

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A Focus on the Relationship Between Hair and Identity as a Black Woman. (2021, Sep 20). Retrieved from


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