Six People Open Up About the Beauty and Diversity of Black Hair
For this photo series, Allure's digital hair editor Jihan Forbes asked six people to open up about the relationships they have with their natural texture and what the idea of "good hair" means to them.
Growing up as a black child in a Western country, it didn't take long for me to realize that society has some, well, views on black hair. In mainstream society, white women with so-called beach waves and straight, smooth strands are lauded as beautiful. Even within our own communities, toxic attitudes surrounding our hair linger — looser, glossier curls are oft represented as "goals," while undefined kinks are something to be creamed, gelled, and twisted until they clump into a totally different pattern.
The Perception Institute's 2017 "Good Hair" study suggests that “a majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias toward women of color based on their hair.” Fortunately, perceptions are changing: The number of women relaxing their hair is steadily declining, and stars like Lupita Nyong'o and Solange Knowles proudly rock their texture on the regular. But while things are shifting, it's at a sloth's pace — and that's why I tapped six people who are determined to swiftly kick those biases right in the butt.
Each subject boasts a different texture, and each possesses a unique relationship with their hair. As such, we wanted to showcase these individual experiences and styling preferences not only through the interviews but in the portraits captured by photographer Quil Lemons, too. "I didn't want to go far away from each model's personal hairstyles," explains Seto McCoy, who styled models' hair for this shoot. "I wanted to enhance it and let them be free in their element." Even as mainstream society grapples with accepting black hair, we wanted to show our subjects embracing theirs without shame — no matter what they chose to do with it.
Jari Jones, 27
Activist, Model, and Actress
Jari got an early lesson about so-called "good" hair, as her looser curl pattern prompted her family to make comparisons between her and her other black relatives. "It was very common for people on both sides to say, 'Oh, you have good hair.' I never really understood what that was," she says. Those comments introduced her to the pervasive negative attitudes toward natural black hair. "I think it's so embedded in our culture, especially [when people say things] like, 'I hope my baby comes out with good hair.' It starts at a young age and I think it definitely needs to stop."
It was all this uncomfortable fuss (and some instances of invasion of space) that caused Jari to lock her hair. "I had it locked for about 15 years. I loved [my locs]. I did different styles. That was another thing. People say, 'Oh, you can't do anything with dreadlocks.' I was like, 'Girl. You think so.' I had lots of different colors, I had it in different styles. I used to put it in a Mohawk, I used to curl it, I would braid it up — I was something."
Good hair is the most ignorant term. I really, especially in my
friend group, am detached from that kind of language.
These days, her hair is super short now that she's cut it all off, and her natural growth is still coming in. Jari likes to make up for the lack of length by playing with wigs. And, as she tells us, she specifically wears hairpieces that mimic an Afro texture. "I make it a point to wear natural hair because I think it is very important for me to do so. I rarely wear straight hair, which just doesn't fit my face. I have a wide face, so I need volume — big hair. I wear Afros, kinky hair, and braids."
As for what she thinks about "good" hair? "It's the most ignorant term. It's to show one's proximity to whiteness, I think. Or at least not blackness. And I really, especially in my friend group, am detached from that kind of language. I think it's just as bad as saying racial slurs."
Gabrielle Richardson, 23
Model and Artist
"Even at a young age, I could tell the difference when someone was treating me a certain way when I had my hair in a natural style, versus when I had it straight," Richardson told Allure as the manicurist buffed her nails. "You can definitely hear the coded language — how someone talks to you, even as a child. Someone is telling you the way you look is unkempt."
When you say that it is 'just hair,'
you're ignoring the history and the struggle of what
that black woman had to go through.
There is subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging everywhere, and it typically starts early. Which is why it is particularly problematic that the same hairstyles black women are penalized or ridiculed for are suddenly presented as chic and innovative on a non-black person. It's a double standard we know as cultural appropriation. Often when people do point out appropriation in these instances, they are met with the response that it's "just hair." It's not a big deal.
"That's a very woeful ignorance [to] ignore the history and the struggle of what that black woman, in particular, had to go through," says Richardson. "In New Orleans, they made a lot of black women cover their hair at one time. We had to struggle just to be able to legally wear our hair how we want."
It's especially an especially painful history to think about when you consider the beautiful, important role hair plays in black culture. Hair holds an extremely important significance. It's ritualistic. It connects us to our old traditions and also helps us reinvent them. "I love when you're hanging out with your friends and they are doing your hair. That's just such an intimate thing that black women have with each other… It's something that gets passed down. For centuries, there have been black women braiding each other's hair. As long as there are black women, it's never going to end. I think that's really beautiful and intimate moment we can mostly only share with each other."
Ebonee Davis, 25
Model, Actress, and Activist
One thing many former members of the relaxer club can tell you is that once you go natural, you begin to learn the full spectrum of styling possibilities for your hair. Braids, twists, locs, fluffy updos, blowouts — there is just so much to choose from. But thanks to the prevalence of sleeker textures in our culture, many people, even folks who do hair for a living, aren't aware of all the options. "Sometimes I'll go to set and hairdressers will say, 'Oh, your hair's already done,'" Davis shares. "I usually have it in a wash-and-go. They'll say, 'There's not much we can do,' and I'm like, there's so much we can do. There are so many options. It's like architecture. You just have to know how to get in there and work with it."
We have to unlearn all of that
colonization we underwent, and really begin to discover how
magical we are.
What is most puzzling is that even at a time when black hairstyles like cornrows or Bantu knots are gaining popularity in the mainstream, many hairstylists are lost trying to execute those styles on black hair. I've been through it personally, as a beauty editor. It is especially problematic when you're a model with an Afro. When your job is to look good, it's not helpful when the people tasked with making you that way don't know what they're doing.
"The world is created with whiteness as the standard, the baseline for everything," Davis says. "When whiteness is the standard, anything outside of that is going to be seen as weird or inadequate. You're programming people to believe that the way that they're born, the way that they move through the world, the way that they look, their appearance — everything about them is inferior or inadequate."
Davis is working against such attitudes by making a conscious decision to be thoughtful about why they're there in the first place and to break free of those feelings. "We have to deprogram and unlearn all of that conditioning, all of that colonization we underwent, and really begin to discover how magical we are, how much potential we have when we are operating from our place of truth. This is who I am. I'm going to be this way unapologetically."
Mikelle Street, 27
For Mikelle, embracing his hair was all about expressing himself. "Since I was really young, I've known that I should have long hair. I just didn't know what it would look like, how I could have long hair and be a guy and that be OK," he tells Allure. "Locs were not on my brain at the time."
Street says he went back and forth through his high school years experimenting with short hair and with cornrows. It wasn't until the barber he'd been going to for a decade died before he decided to commit. But he didn't plan for said commitment to be particularly long-term. "I told myself, I'm going to have locs while I'm in college. When I leave, I'm going to need to get a fucking job, so I will cut my locs when I graduate," he explains. "That was me confronting this idea of the respectability politics in this and [the notion] that it's not respectable to have locs. You can do this while you're a college kid and you're finding yourself, but you've got to get a job [after]."
The idea that locs, braids, and other protective styles aren't "professional" is one that we are still trying to combat in society. And for many black people, having to think about whether or not they'll be seen as employable after doing something so basic as taking care of their hair, can be an unfortunate rite of passage.
I love that my hair is an extension of me. It's an extension of my
mannerisms, of my mood.
"Needless to say, I did not cut my hair — she's still long," he assures me. "But that was the moment that I really had to confront the idea that there are specific ways that black people can have hair and be [seen as] acceptable to [certain groups of people]."
Still, no matter how anyone feels about Mikelle's locs, he wholeheartedly knows that they suit him: "I love that my hair is an extension of me — of my mannerisms, of my mood," he explains. "I've talked to my friends recently about getting my hair cut and everyone's like, ‘I cannot imagine you with your hair cut because it's so much a part of who you are.’ At this point, I don't think there is a shorter-hair version of Mikelle.”
Growing up in Nigeria, Aighewi was blissfully unaware of some of the attitudes the West has against black hair. "I've always known my hair was different, but I didn't think it was a negative thing. It was just my hair," she says. "I learned that it was negative when I came to America and people told me that my hair was nappy. It was actually black girls that were telling me my hair was nappy."
Her peers pressured her to get a relaxer, though it didn't interest her because it "seemed really painful." Little did she know, she would experience that pain in the future thanks to her career in modeling. "This French guy relaxed it and I said, 'My hair really isn't an Afro, but it's poofy.' And he goes, 'Trust me. I know how to do ethnic hair.' He did it, and all my hair fell off."
They wanted me to relax my hair, and I was like, it seems really
painful, and I'm not into it.
Aighewi says she never saw her hair as part of her identity. Rather, it was more a vehicle for self-expression. But her experiences in the modeling industry illuminated how black hair is often treated in the West. "I would lose out on jobs because of my hair. I thought I could go in like the white girls when they come in [with their hair] all fucked up, and then, one hour later, look like Beyoncé," she recalls. "Nope. They'd say they don't understand my hair, as opposed to getting a person who can actually do black hair. I would lose jobs. I had to always come to set with my hair done."
Though there is still much ground to cover, Aighewi is seeing some change, at least amongst African-Americans in the U.S. "I'm happy now that in the past [few] years African-Americans are realizing all the internal abuse that has been carried on for generations," she says. "There's a movement of black pride that's happening that is similar to what we have in Nigeria and Africa."
Aighewi also mentions that in some African cultures, people can be dismissive about the struggles African-Americans and other black people face around the world when they are living in majority-white countries, many of which colonized or enslaved African-descended people. This is simply a misunderstanding of what life is like for many black people in the West.
"[There is this idea that] you're in the land of milk and honey, and yet you're suffering. That's what Africans always said," she explains. "But I always said, [that's] looking at it so black and white — no pun intended. You don't realize there's a mental cage. Now, I feel like people are learning more. Girls are realizing, hey, I liked my hair straight because that's all that's in media. I like my hair straight because I couldn't get a job [with it kinky]. My mom made me relax my hair when I was four, so I thought that was beautiful."
Salem Mitchell, 20
Salem Mitchell is still getting to know her hair. The model has been rocking one of the most popular protective styles, braids, on her hair journey — and she's gotten quite a bit of attention for it. She recently made headlines for speaking out after an Instagram user called her box braids "ghetto" when he saw them featured on Vogue's Instagram page. And it is not an uncommon sentiment. "I want people to normalize protective styles like braids and locs," she says.
I want people to normalize protective styles like braids
It's not just her own experiences that compelled Mitchell to take up this mission. "I had a friend come to me saying, 'I'm a babysitter for white kids in rich neighborhoods. My hair is really damaged and I can't keep putting heat on it. I don't know what to do. I can't cut any more of it off.' She told me, 'I really want to get braids, but I'm nervous that their perception of me is going to change.' That just made me feel really sad because she has to choose between feeling comfortable at work, making money at 19, and having a healthy head of hair. I wish people didn't have to feel that way."
Protective styles like locs and braids help kinky-curly textures retain length, moisture, and allow the hair to flourish. Sure, they look great, but they also have a very important function — keeping the fragile texture of kinky hair from the wear and tear of manipulation.
"It's cool watching as I transition through protective styles, how much my hair grows and how [it starts to] resemble the length of the protective styles I do," says Mitchell. "I love the thickness and watching my hair get healthier. I had a very unhealthy hair journey; I didn't know what I was doing for such a long time. It wasn't until I was 16, I was like, 'Oh my God, my hair is awful, I really need to do something about it.' And then by the time I was 18, I finally started working on all the problem areas and working on strengthening it." Her efforts have been a labor of love. "I like seeing the growth. It looks better than it did last year, and I like it more than I did last year."
Wardrobe Styling by Marion Kelly. Hair by Seto McCoy. Makeup by Delina Medhin. Manicure by Sarah Nguyen.
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