When I was a kid, my sister and I used to put T-shirts or towels on our heads and pretend we were in a shampoo commercial, tossing our “long hair” over our shoulders, feeling the weight of it on our backs. I wanted hair just like the white girls using Pantene and Herbal Essence ― long, thick and shiny ― which was nothing like my own: shoulder length, thin and only shiny after it had been good and greased up.
My mom, like many Black mothers, took multiple steps with my tresses to get them as close to manageable as possible. Hot oil treatments, deep conditions, relaxers, hot combs, flat irons and roller sets. Anything to save me from the dreaded fate of being nappy-headed and looking like Bunny Foo Foo. Basically, from looking like a mess and causing both my mom and me embarrassment.
Many Black girls will be familiar with this routine: sitting between an older woman’s legs (or in a salon chair if they had it like that) and getting their hair gelled up, slicked back, pressed, permed, brushed and combed to make their hair more “beautiful,” “presentable” or “manageable.” As a Black community, we spend billions of dollars on products to maintain our hair.
I’m older now, times and style have changed, and in recent years, Black women have undergone something of a hair revolution. Shiny, bone-straight strands that I can toss over my shoulder are no longer the goal. We’ve learned about the dangers of relaxers, we’ve educated ourselves about Western beauty standards, we’ve challenged our own internalized notions of beauty and started on a natural hair journey.
“While hairstyles have changed, the expectation has remained the same: Look presentable, keep that hair manageable, make it look beautiful.”
We created our own products and became mixologists in our kitchens trying to make something for our hair that we couldn’t yet find in the “ethnic hair care aisle” or the beauty supply store. We launched YouTube channels to learn and teach each other how to navigate this new territory of natural hair care. Hot combs and no-lye relaxers became a thing of the past. Our vocabulary expanded to include twist out, wash-n-go, faux locs, Senegalese twist, box braids, protective styles, 4C, 3A and other hair types to identify our natural curl patterns.
We were proud of the unique textures, style and culture that surrounded our Afro hair. Yet while the styles have changed, the expectation has remained the same: Look presentable, keep that hair manageable, make it look beautiful. And unfortunately, our standard of beauty with natural hair still shies away from kinks, puffs and nappiness.
We were faced with this truth this weekend when H&M released yet another controversial ad campaign featuring a Black child. A dark-skinned young model was shown with her hair in a puff ball ponytail with her edges wild. Her hair was thin, dull and clearly damaged, unbrushed and unstyled. Black people were uproarious on social media, calling the brand racist and saying the ad showcased their poor treatment of Black models. At the same time, some viewed the ad as a necessary representation of kinky Black hair that we have long needed to see, pointing out that other kids in H&M ads have messy hair and that Black models shouldn’t be singled out.
H&M responded to the controversy and backlash saying: “We truly believe that all kids should be allowed to be kids. The school aged kids who model for us come to the photo studio in the afternoon after school and we aim for a natural look which reflects that.”
This may be true, and in some ways, it’s even admirable that the brand doesn’t make up or Photoshop children. It said it let the kids be themselves and, therefore, it let them see themselves as they are in a media landscape where there is still so little representation for people of color. H&M’s new head of diversity and inclusion, Ezinne Kwubiri, stood by the company’s decision on her personal Instagram account.
I understand where H&M is coming from, but that doesn’t divorce it from the responsibility it has to its Black patrons. That it didn’t realize or have the wherewithal to see that the public display of a Black child’s hair in that state would be distressing to Black women is a problem. That it didn’t occur to someone in charge that this image would trigger, anger, embarrass our community is harmful. That no one thought of how this image would recall the countless stories of Black models being faced with styling crews who have no idea what to do with their hair or makeup is unacceptable.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s too little and far too late for H&M to be in this game of servicing Black folks but unaware of the culture and nuances of its Black clientele. It’s time brands of all kinds understood the lives and needs of Black people.
It’s also past time that we all changed our minds about what’s considered beautiful and therefore presentable when it comes to Black hair.
“We have an opportunity to change what it means to be beautiful, presentable, and to accept nappiness as something to be celebrated, not brushed away.”
While we may have abandoned hot combs on Easter Sundays, burning relaxers and hours spent in the salon chair getting a sew-in, we’ve adopted new ways to manipulate our hair, because it still isn’t good enough as it comes out of our scalps.
The norm hasn’t changed as much as it has simply shifted from the old standard of beauty to a new one. We’ve embraced our curls, but we still desire length, shine and hair that bounces and coils when it gets wet. Some of us don’t have curls, we have kinks, fuzzy edges and naps. Our hair coils close to the scalp, it doesn’t hang past our shoulders, it sticks up and out from all directions.
It’s different and it’s still beautiful.
Kids shouldn’t have to keep carrying the burden of misrepresentation, anti-Blackness, miseducation about healthy hair and warped beauty standards. We should all relieve ourselves of the pressure of presentability and take pride in showing up as we are.
I am glad, though, that this conversation happened. Before this ad, how often do we see nappy, kinky, coily Black girl hair that hasn’t been twisted, stretched out or shined up and gelled down? Maybe if we saw more of that there’d be fewer little Black girls like me running around with T-shirts on their heads pretending to be something they’re not.
It’s time to take the next step in our natural hair journey. We have an opportunity to change what it means to be beautiful, presentable, and to accept nappiness as something to be celebrated, not brushed away.