The Racial Politics of Hair by Karie Luidens

Last week I was prompted to reflect on my own head of hair in the context of a makeover for a photoshoot. I knew the images from that afternoon’s shoot would be promoted online. I knew my reflections would be promoted along with the images. Body and mind, both on display: talk about a trigger for self-consciousness.

And nothing puts blinders on one’s thinking quite like self-consciousness.

Now that all those photos and words are out there, I’ve been able to step back a bit and shed those blinders, and I feel there’s more that needs to be said.

“Let Your Hair Go Glam” is a perfectly adequate portrayal of one white woman’s ambivalence toward styling her “pin-straight, thin-straight hair.” For my limp, genetically Germanic locks, big volume requires effort. Significant effort. It means devoting a lot of resources to imitate the beauty standards of Victoria’s Secret and Cosmopolitan and other cultural institutions that set the standard for mainstream beauty ideals in notoriously white-centered ways. Leaving my hair flat is a passive act of rebellion: I’m choosing not to validate VS and Cosmo by investing my time, energy, and money in pursuing their standards.

Leaving my hair flat is a passive act of rebellion: I’m choosing not to validate VS and Cosmo by investing my time, energy, and money in pursuing their standards. That’s my experience, and it’s a legitimate one to write about… but.

That’s my experience, and it’s a legitimate one to write about… but.

But the way I wrote about it is problematic. I suggested that straight is natural and neutral, whereas curly is hyper-feminine and hyper-sexual, period. Wrong. This is not representative of all women or even most women—just certain white women.

Significantly, I referenced Beyoncé’s video “Run the World” as an example of powerful women with highly styled hair. But take a good look at the women who are standing strong and kicking up dirt on either side of the queen. My phrase for them was “dolled up,” which does reflect their makeup and costumes, but not my main focus: hair. Most of them appear to be rocking a naturally voluminous texture.

For these women, big curls aren’t a nod to mainstream American glamour. Precisely the opposite: they’re a rejection of all the effort it would take to meet VS and Cosmo’s ideals. Ignoring that fact like I did is more than a self-centered oversimplification, it’s a huge Eurocentric oversight.

If anyone unfamiliar with the politics of hair is wondering whether I’m overthinking this, note that hair has long been a heated racial issue. European Americans have set the mainstream beauty standard over the centuries based on what springs from their own scalps; African American women have been alternately excluded from that standard, pressured to conformto it, and encouraged to rebel against it. They have been othered and exoticized by a white culture that criticizessmearsregulatestouches, and appropriates their natural hair texture and associated styles.

European Americans have set the mainstream beauty standard over the centuries based on what springs from their own scalps; African American women have been alternately excluded from that standard, pressured to conform to it, and encouraged to rebel against it.

So I want to acknowledge that I misused Beyoncé’s video as an example of hair that was styled to conform, when a second look revealed it to be just the opposite, an example of hair whose natural texture was emphasized, arguably in defiance of conformity. And I want to apologize not only for the error itself but for the long history of white-centric mentalities that contributed to it.

Because I’m part of the racial majority in this country, I had the luxury of writing about hair while wearing blinders to the race issue and fixating solely on my own femininity. That could’ve been okay; you can only fit so much in one post, especially once framed by a personal anecdote. But I brought race into it when I wrote about Beyoncé and her dancers as if they shared my hair issues when they don’t. They would each have their own story to tell.

Based on my experience enjoying a makeover, I declared that women should feel free to play with their hairstyle, getting the thrill of a bit of glamour without worrying that heightened femininity is frivolous. Hence: “Let Your Hair Go Glam.” But my preferred headline? Let your hair be whatever you want it to be. All individuals, anywhere on the gender spectrum, of any ethnicity, should feel free to do or not do with their head of hair as they please, for whatever purpose. Go big, go flat, go asymmetrical, go rainbow—or just let it go entirely. The choice is yours to make as often as you like.