Talking About Good and Bad Hair

Jasmine Smith

Graphic by Nicholas Joly

As part of the Love Your Body Day celebration The Women’s Resource Center and The African and African American Resource center, located in the Pedroso Center, held a discussion on the “Politics of Black Hair.” Four panelists, Dwan Buetow, Olivia Perlow, Tracy Barfield and Shantez Tolbut discussed their “hair stories” and talked about issues in the black community with body image and the pressure that the media puts on black women to look a certain way. In order to get the reasons behind the issues that come up for black women and their hair one would need to go back into history and take a look at the significance hair has held.

In African cultures the way one wears their hair may be a reflection of one’s status, gender, personal taste, etc. For example, infants of both sexes had their heads shaved, save a few tufts of hair in the front to protect the fontanel. Asante priests were allowed to grow their hair into long matted locks into a style known as mpesempese (sometimes translated as I don’t like it), uncut hair was usually seen as a sign of dangerous behavior. This was also a hairstyle worn by madmen and royal executioners. It was also customary to only have ones hair done by a trusted friend or relative. Letting an enemy or a stranger do one’s hair could result in them using it in a charm or spell that was meant to harm the owner.

As time went on, hair styles evolved with the times. Hair was an amazing way to express oneself and hairstyle shaming was rare. When Africans were brought to the Americas to work, a lot of the slave owners divided the slave up by not only by skin color but also hair texture; darker-skinned tougher-haired slaves worked in the fields, while the lighter-skinned smoother-haired slaves worked in the house. When slavery ended, African Americans started trying to emulate white people. The standard for beauty was a white woman, which meant straightening their hair to be as smooth as a white woman’s hair.

These biases influence how African Americans style and view their hair even today. The division of slaves by hair texture has continued through putting down those that have what has been dubbed “slave hair” and dark skin. Being lighter with straighter, more manageable hair is seen as the highest form of beauty there is. Similar to many African cultures, if one wears their hair in a wild manner then they are considered mad. Certain hair styles might even be seen as unprofessional. Panelist Dwan Buetow’s “hair story” detailed the pressure she felt to change her hair to fit in with that of her mostly white colleagues in the corporate world. “Out with the afro, in with the hot comb,” Buetow said. Buetow also said that when African braids were all the rage, her colleagues would ask “Who would respect someone with hair like that?” as though one’s hair defined the measure of respect one gets and gives. “I am not defined by my hair, but I’ll do what I want with my hair,” Buetow said in response.

The unrealistic standards of beauty started to cause rifts within the Black community. Shantez Tolbut said in her “hair story,” “My friends and I would go get a new weave every few weeks. It was rough.” However, while on YouTube Tolbut found a Natural Hair community. “I realized that I could look nice with just my natural hair, so I decided to try it out.” Tolbut continued by saying, “My mother and my grandmother were not happy when I cut my hair and started going natural, ‘That’s the only thing you have left!’ they said. But I have found a new confidence in myself and that is something that I own that nobody can take from me.”

When asked how it made her feel when people treated her differently because of her hair, Olivia Perlow stated, “It makes me feel enslaved. I should be able to wear my hair how I want but can’t because of the Eurocentric beauty standard…We must negate the standard.” The panelists all agreed that they had overcome one of the greatest challenges that a woman faces; to love herself for who she is. The women concluded by saying they now try do make sure that all women know how beautiful they are.