‘Nothing is quite so exquisitely feminine as long locks. Mermaids, Disney princesses, Renaissance paintings – all of these art forms depict women with flowing tresses. Men like your long hair for the same reasons they like high heels and dresses; because it looks feminine.’
Nope, this isn’t a sardonic section from a feminist article from the New York Times, this is the gospel according to hair-development.com which, in an article entitled The Science Behind Why Men Find Long Hair Attractive, also states that long, shiny, luscious locks signify fertility, youth, elegance and (interestingly) responsibility. Apparently ‘growing long, healthy hair signals a degree of commitment and responsibility, qualities which are both attractive to the opposite sex.’
Well, we Black women are pretty f**ked then.
OK, I should admit that hair-development.com is a UK human hair extension company, so arguably they have a vested interest in perpetuating this narrative. However, with a quick search on the old google, one can find many articles, studies and click bait also making the same claim:
Long Flowing (European) Hair = Femininity = Attractiveness.
Well luckily for us we can order our human hair tresses from hair-development.com (and just about every Black hair retailer) and sew, bond and clip our femininity into place in time for July 19th. Perhaps, according to hair-development.com, ‘buying’ long, healthy hair also signals a degree of commitment and responsibility? With prices up to £289.95 it certainly signals a disposable income or a pretty good credit card.
Of course, we know that this ‘science’ is problematic for many women. Women with fine or thin hair, women with alopecia, women undergoing chemotherapy, women who like a short haircut, and of course women who have a problem with being judged against this performative notion of what it is to be female. But, for Black women, the relationship between hair and femininity is particularly nuanced.
Firstly, type in hair and sex and you will find countless articles completely centring white women with European hair. One of my favourites is Bustle.com’s article What Your Hair Says About Your Sex Life , which features a sexual analysis of different hair styles, which are all European. Apparently, women with straight hair ‘want everything to be impeccable [with] fragrant candles, dim lighting, rose petals’ and women with long wavy hair ‘are emotional and nurturing like puppies or nurses [who] don't just bang, they make love.’ There is one exception, which is shown with a picture of Nicki Minaj with a green, beehive, Afro. It is labelled ‘Unconventional Hair’ and apparently signifies that ‘these women have sexual fetishes that make 50 Shades of Grey look like child's play’. Hmmm. Lots to unpack there.
Secondly, no matter how healthy and/or fertile we are, our hair grows out of our head in a helix shape (similar to our DNA). It therefore grows (in appeared length) slower than European hair, and in a different direction. We also have fewer hair follicles and due to the shape of our follicles our hair can break or damage more easily than European hair. Contradictory to the ‘thick, strong, tough’ stereotype, our hair needs nurture, care and tenderness, (as do we).
So surely these ‘beauty standards’ are unrealistic for Black women? Of course, our hair can and does look amazing, healthy, and for some of us it can be long. But pitching ourselves against the same beauty standards as European women is surely problematic. So why do we keep doing it? And what are the costs?
My first real memories of my hair evoke pain, discomfort and disdain. My white mother struggled to deal with what was growing out of my scalp. There were tears, shouts and a few hairbrushes thrown across the room. And that was just my mum. Things changed dramatically when she sought the help of a Black hairdressers in London. They gave her much wanted advice, tips and most importantly a box of Soft and Beautiful Just For Me children’s hair relaxer. I was aged seven. I salivated at the young Black girls on the box. They had long hair, fringes, tonged curls and slicked ponytails. Of course, my hair never looked like the girls on the box when my mum did it - she didn’t blow dry or flat iron it for starters - but apparently it did become more ‘manageable’ and ‘easy’ and seemed to grow slightly more down than out.
When I was a young teenager, I began going to the Black hairdressers myself. They upgraded me to an adult relaxer, which despite the increased stinging and obligatory scalp burns, was welcomed by me. They also seemed to love my hair and took time to blow dry it and flat iron it out after the relaxer. The result was that I walked out with hair that looked exactly like all the white girls. For up to a week, if lucky. Everyone commented on how good it looked, even my dad. I’d spend hours in the mirror, flicking it or running my fingers through it. I felt pretty and attractive and feminine. For five days.
a thing that reduces tension or anxiety.
I relaxed my hair for the next twenty years without much thought. My quarterly hairdresser appointments were considered a necessity. I had long hair, bobs, fringes (bangs). I went blue-black, blonde, layered and dip dyed. I loved the smell of the relaxer, the slight tingle, because it meant that within a few minutes my kinky-curly-frizzy-roots would be flat, smooth and slick. Even as the towel was removed, and my wet hair was revealed, I could see and feel the difference. I felt immediately better and left the salon like I was leaving a spa treatment. I always tried to coordinate these appointments with nights out or dates (preferably not sex, as that would ruin it), as it felt wasted to go home whilst ‘looking my best’. I never considered having my hair natural on purpose. Hair dryers and GHD’s were as important as clothes - and as an actress I marketed myself with straight, relaxed hair, so turning up with anything other would be a no-no.
It was falling pregnant with my son that made me stop. Nothing political or to do with self-acceptance at this stage. Well, at least not consciously. I was shocked to find that relaxing your hair was not advised during pregnancy. I looked up the ingredients and decided if it wasn’t good for my baby then it can’t be good for me. And I never went back. I also realised that I could still achieve a European-looking blow out without the need to relax it. The lost hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds spent burnt me nearly as much as the relaxer did. But sustaining the European hair look was harder without the it. Any amount of humidity and it was over. And then the (reiteration of the) natural hair movement came and combined with an increasing awareness of white supremacy and the powerful love for my child’s natural Afro hair, I felt less and less good about looking ‘good’. Something didn’t sit right.
Of course, I recognise that being mixed, my natural hair is different to my full black sisters and therefore my cross over was less risky, less severe and less challenging. Because the truth is I had no idea how to deal with my hair naturally and with a tighter curl this can be even harder to manage – both physically and mentally. The further away you are from the engrained Eurocentric beauty standards, the braver you may have to be to cast them off completely. (This isn’t always shade related either. Not all mixed women have coiled ringlets and not all colourism is to do with skin.)
When I started a new relationship with my hair, which was mostly internal, I had to learn how to feel ‘sexy’, ‘attractive’, ‘professional’ and ‘done’ with my hair natural. I had to ignore the fact that Black men gave me less attention than when I had long blow-dried hair. That wasn’t easy. I had to find ‘femininity’ without being able to flick my hair or have a long fringe to peep through. But isn’t that what life is about? Peeling back the layers of who we think are to find who we really are? Being curious and questioning? Learning and unlearning? Continuously aligning our thoughts and beliefs with how we show up in the world?
We know so much now, with the likes of Emma Dabiri showing us the deep-rooted history of Black hair. With movements like the Dove CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful & Open World for Natural Hair, helping to challenge beauty standards and hair discrimination, We know how enslaved Africans had their heads shaved and were no longer allowed to embrace their rich, centuries-old hair traditions. We know how in America and the Caribbean, enslaved women used to sow rice into their children’s braids for sustenance, and patterns into cornrows for escape routes. And we know how Afro hair was referred to as ‘wool’ to dehumanise us. We know that whilst our white female counterparts needed to be looked after, protected and hidden, we were out in the fields working. We had to be seen as tough, rough and strong. We had to be seen as the antithesis of western femininity.
So here we are in the twenty first century. Women. Trying to get away from all these labels and cages given to us by the patriarchy. Stepping out. Redefining. Saying no.
But yes, for us Black women, our journey is a little different. Our relationship with western femininity is perhaps a little more complex. Our unlearning of societal beauty ideals is maybe a little more painful and our reclaiming of our bodies is, in many ways, a lot more urgent.
So, while my hair is no longer silky straight or luxuriously long as hair-development.com, says it should be, it is healthy and soft and big and wild and adaptable and free.
Which feels like the kind of woman I want to be.
And as for men, I have no doubt that some do find long, flowing hair more attractive. Afterall I’ve known some dark-skinned men who only find light skin attractive. And that is for them to unpack, preferably in therapy.
Black Mums Upfront have proudly partnered with Dove, a founding member of The CROWN Coalition, to ensure no woman is judged or held back because of her hair. The CROWN Coalition is advancing anti-hair discrimination through new legislation called the CROWN Act, and the Dove CROWN Fund invests in Black-led grassroot organisations. This aims to eliminate barriers to progress for women and girls in the Black community, in turn empowering the next generation, and driving long-term systemic change.