Marginalization within the natural hair community

12 minutes to read
Article
Destiny Ursula
24/02/2020

The natural hair community comprises black or bi-racial men and women who decided to refrain from using relaxers and chemical hair treatments, in order to keep their natural afro-textured hair. This community arose as a result of discrimination towards natural hair, which caused an uprising that ultimately became the natural hair movement. Unfortunately, marginalization of certain types of hair, textures, styles and lengths is now observed within the community itself.

A short history of natural hair discrimination

Discrimination towards the black community with regard to their natural hair and hairstyles dates back to the 1800’s and 1900’s, in the times when colonialism was still globally accepted and had rapidly taken hold throughout the world. 

Black hair discrimination mostly came from the beauty standards of white people, which dictated that black hairstyles were associated with being unfitting and messy. The texture of black people’s hair is commonly very diversified. However, hair that is thick and has tight coils is stereotypically linked to black people (Nimocks, 2015). According to Mercer (1987), the term ”nigger hair” is a clear depiction of how racism degraded the image of black people's hair making it the second most visible stigma around being black. The division between "black" and "white" during the 17th and 18th century was a consequence of colonization and slavery. Individuals were valued by the colour of their skin and being black represented inferiority, lower class or no class at all. Being white, on the other hand, symbolized superiority, power and upper class. 

Even ads targeted towards black people are mostly about relaxers and/or products for relaxed hair.

During that time, a person's skin tone also represented their aesthetic value. Nowadays, such beliefs and attributes are not entirely the same anymore, yet racism is still present in today’s world, for instance, in stereotypical comments made about one’s hair. “Good hair” is generally related to white people’s hair and/or black people’s hair when it is not too kinky or too curly. The media has repeatedly depicted people with straight hair as the beauty standard and this counts for not only white women but also black women. 

Very often, black women are represented with straight hair and/or hair that have typically white traits. Even ads targeted towards black people are mostly about relaxers and/or products for relaxed hair (Thompson, 2009). This is a clear representation of a cultural hegemony in the black community, an occurrence where a dominant group (in this case, western society) determined what was acceptable, by oppressing another group of people (black people) who in the end accepted and embraced these norms even though it caused them harm.

Relaxer ads targetting black people

Thompson (2009) further adds that in today’s society the hairstyle that a black woman chooses to wear is often used to establish what type of occupation she can have or if she can keep the job. In western society, straight hair is commonly presumed to be more presentable and professional than natural afro-textured hair that is not chemically altered. For the longest time, black people wearing their natural hair were not deemed normal in the West. In other words, looking different from what was presumed to be normal (i.e., what was mainstream) could have affected a person's success in their career unfavorably. 

Even though there has been some degree of oppression towards black people through the years regarding their natural hair (especially concerning styles such as afros, braids, cornrows and dreadlocks), there was a time when afro hair symbolized black pride and the beauty of being black for people with African descent (Reidy & Kanigiri, 2016). 

According to White (2005), the majority of black women who choose to wear their natural hair are going through a process of self-acknowledgement, self-discovery and a general change in how they see themselves. This ultimately leads to them feeling prouder and stronger. Yet, wearing one's natural hair does not necessarily constitute a political statement. There are women out there that do not feel differently about themselves when wearing their natural hair. Some women choose to wear their natural hair as a result of personal preference or as an expression of their creativity. 

The natural hair community as crusaders

All of the above shows how black people’s natural hair has been stigmatized for generations by western society and has been considered to be less beautiful than straight hair. This has led to the uprising of the natural hair community: a recent movement that has started a trend of embodying the opposite of the generally accepted beauty standard. This can be linked to what Becker (1963) writes on crusaders, since black people were unsatisfied with the situation they were in and decided to do something about it for the benefit of the entirety of their community.

Recently, a lot of beauty brands have started promoting natural hair products and granting visibility to black women in their natural hair state. For example, L'Oréal chose Viola Davis as their international spokesperson in 2019, Estée Lauder assigned Anok Yai as their global spokesperson in 2018 and Clinique hired a black model with natural hair for a commercial in the same year. This amounts to endorsing and accepting women regardless of the color of their skin or hairstyle (Ellis-Hervey et al., 2016). 

Big beauty brands with natural hair women

According to Rowe (2015), the purpose of the natural hair community is to positively portray natural hair and "authentic" beauty through notions such as wellness, self-love, self-discovery and, most importantly, self-acceptance. It started with the efforts made by black women going against what was mainstream and putting an end to the use of relaxers or the practice of changing their natural hair textures; this was done not only to avoid the chemicals and toxins but also for them to become content with their own natural hair (Rowe, 2015). The transformation from relaxed hair to natural hair is often very powerful and emotional to black women due to the cultural stigmatization and scrutinization of their hair, which black people have had to endure historically. 

The natural hair community doesn't just focus on hair care but also informs women about making healthier choices in general.

The natural hair community not only impresses upon women the need to be informed and educated on their hair and hair products, but also provides a virtual and physical space for women to feel comfortable talking about their health outside the context of skin and hair products. This shows that the natural hair community doesn't just focus on hair care but also informs women about making healthier choices in general. For instance, the natural hair community motivates black women to exercise, drink more water and eat healthier.

Further, just like most sub-groups, the natural hair community also has its own slang. There is a certain way of talking among members of the community, which identifies this specific group. Some slang terms are: 

  • Bantu knots: a particular hairstyle worn by people with natural hair
  • Big chop (BC): cutting off relaxed hair in order to start the natural hair journey
  • Nappyversary: the day on which an individual decided to go natural
  • Pineappleing/high puff: a particular hairstyle that involves wearing one's hair on the top of one's head
  • Shrinkage: when one’s hair reduces in volume when it dries
  • TWA: teeny weeny afro
  • Fluff: using your fingers or a pick to add volume to your hair
  • Transitioning: being in the process of change from having relaxed hair to going natural.

Where are they active?

The natural hair community has expanded massively over the past 20 years since the movement started in the United States. Ever since the movement also became a trend, the community grew even bigger and this can be seen in their active presence in the online and offline world. Many women that went natural started posting about their journeys online to provide help and support to others, showing the various hair routines they can apply, what hair products they could use, the different hairstyles they can wear, how to keep their hair healthy and various other tips.

Natural hair YouTubers

Nowadays, this sub-group can be found on almost all social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, Pintrest and more.

Natural hair pages on social media

Besides having an active presence online, the natural hair community also makes its presence known offline. Throughout the year, several natural hair events are organized globally, where people can get education and advice on natural hair, meet other individuals with natural hair and support each other, receive free products and samples and much more.

What are the beauty standards within the natural hair community? 

Even though the natural hair community increased in size and positively affected how black people view themselves and their hair, it now appears to be shifting towards becoming a more commercialized movement. At the same time, we see that certain individuals within the community are starting to marginalize certain hair, textures, styles and lengths (Rowe, 2015). Amongst the  community, "hair type" has become an essential term. It refers to a categorization of hair textures, where categories are represented by a combination of numbers and letters.  

The reason this categorization exists is that some hair types need more care and maintenance than others. There are many videos on YouTube that explains the different ways natural hair can be. 

Hair types on YouTube

Lately, things have become more complicated. In the last years, the concept of hair types has been turning into an evaluative chart more and more. The higher you are in the chart the better your natural hair is. The last hair type on the hair type chart is 4b/4c. This hair type is more coily than the other hair types on the chart and is commonly associated with African people while 3b/3c, for example, is associated to mixed-race women. This goes back to “good hair” being defined by your skin tone. The media show women with this type of hair more often than 4c/4b are represented. This example shows how, even in the new movement for natural hair, there is a degree of idealism, a kind of normativity that includes and excludes.

This is also reminiscent of the times when white people divided black people based on how coily their hair was during the days of black enslavement in the United States. The slaves with less coily hair texture, which was closer to white people's hair, were sent to work inside while the slaves with more coily hair had to work in the fields. Of course, those that worked inside had better living conditions than the ones that worked the fields. 

Today there is still a kind of division for the natural hair textures of black people although it is found in the community itself. Members of the community look down on other members that have 4C type hair. Many natural hair youtubers have made videos voicing their experiences with negative comments received from other black people. Greaves (2019) also talks about the experiences of various influential youtubers and instagrammers that receive hate comments from other members of the natural hair and black community. Harrell (2015) conducted a study that illustrated how posts by women with 3B/3C were praised more and received more postive comments and likes compared to those by women with 4C coily hair.

Hair type C on youtube

Further, there is also another kind of discrimination found within the natural hair community, which is aimed at bi-racial people. When individuals are half white and therefore tend to have looser curls, their blackness and spot in the natural hair community is sometimes questioned. Blommaert and Varis (2015) use the term "enoughness" to capture such kinds of phenomena. According to them, "judgements of specific doses of features" are made in social groups. In the case of bi-racial people, they are seen as "not black enough" to be a member of the natural hair community.

Marginalization within

Considering everything that black people have had to endure for their skin color and hair texture in the past, it is dissapointing to see that there is discrimination today within the natural hair community itself. It is especially disheartening since this community was formed to support black people who want to wear their hair naturally. Even inside this community that is supposed to stand for acceptance, members are now being made to feel negatively about their hair by other members. This is a case of discrimination in a community that stands against discrimination. 

 

References

Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. The free press .

Blommaert, J. & Varis, P. (2015). Culture as accent: The cultural logic of Hijabista. Semiotica 203. 153-177. 10.1515/sem-2014-0067. 

Ellis-Hervey, N., Doss, A., Davis, D., Nicks, R., & Araiza, P. (2016). African American personal presentation: Psychology of hair and self-Perception. Journal of Black Studies 47(8), 869-882.

Greaves, K. (2019, March 4). 4C Hair Influencers Share How Texture Discrimination Within The Black Community Affects Them On Social Media. Opgehaald van Bustle: https://www.bustle.com/p/4c-hair-influencers-share-how-texture-discrimin...

Harrell, Y. (2015, May 9). The Development of Microaggressions in the Online Natural Hair Community: A Thematic Analysis.

Mercer, K. (1987). Black Hair/Style Politics. New Formations 3, 33-54.Nimocks, J. M. (2015). The Natural Hair Movement As A Platform For Environmental Education (Unpublished thesis). Pomona College, CA.

Reidy, S., & Kanigiri, M. (2016). How are Ethnic Hairstyles Really Viewed in the workplace? Retrieved from Cornell University, ILR School site.

Rowe, K. D. (2015). "I love this cotton hair!": Black women, natural hair, and (re)constructions of beauty (Unpublished master's thesis). Michigan State University.

Thompson, C. (2009). Black women and identity: what's haor got to do with it? Michigan Feminist Studies 22(1).

White, S. (2005). Releasing the pursuit of bouncin' and behavin' hair: natural hair as an afrocentric feminist aestheti for beauty. International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics 1(3), 295-308.