Fostering a positive or neutral body image is hard work. Living in a world that promotes thinness, beauty and youth (at all costs) is tiring. By now, you probably know I’ve struggled and still struggle with all of this. But what I’ve been realizing is that for a lot of people – especially people of color – this struggle is even more challenging than I could have imagined.
My church is in the middle of a teaching series called “Woke” and it’s addressing how – living in a world of division, prejudice and racism – we can bring about God’s Kingdom to earth. God’s Kingdom is not like our earthly world of “otherness.” It instead turns others into sisters and brothers. This teaching series is challenging me to learn more and stand up for my sisters and brothers of color.
So, that’s why I’m writing this post today: To share an issue in the realm of body image/beauty standards that I’ve been ignorant to for too long.
A Heavier Burden
Last year, I read a book that not only helped with my body image journey but started to open my eyes to the beauty burden many people of color carry. In Beyond Beautiful, author Anuschka Rees writes, “Our society’s beauty ideals are bad news for every woman’s self-esteem, but women of color undoubtedly carry a heavier burden because — despite the fact that around four out of ten Americans do not identify as white — our beauty standard is still Eurocentric. The media is still full of subtle and not-so-subtle messages telling women of color that the more Caucasian you look, the better.” Rees delves into two Eurocentric beauty standards: light skin and straight hair. Today, I want to focus on hair, but check out this Instagram post if you want to learn more about the global market for skin-lightening products.
A Little History
To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about hair until reading this book. I realize I have the privilege to not worry about my hair – beyond the length I should cut it or whether it needs to be washed. But what I started to learn from Beyond Beautiful is that for African Americans, hair is a complex topic, and its complexities date back to the days of slavery. Tracey Owens Patton, director of African American Diaspora studies from the University of Wyoming shares in the book that “Historically, the relationship between African American women and their hair goes back to the days of slavery and is connected with the notion of the color caste system: the belief that the lighter one’s skin color, the better one is and that straight hair is better than kinky hair.”
In Beyond Beautiful, writer Cheryl Thompson shares that approximately 70 to 80 percent of black women chemically straighten their hair. She continues, “When you consider that for the past one hundred years manufacturers have almost exclusively only promoted the idea that natural black hair needs to be altered, it all begins to make sense.”
Within the last ten years, there has been a natural hair movement taking place. More women – including celebrities – are wearing their hair naturally, more hair care brands are catering to natural hair, and more people are talking about natural hair — in the form of books (e.g., Hair Like Mine) and even a short film – Hair Love – which won an Oscar at the 2020 Academy Awards.
But the love for natural hair hasn’t spread everywhere.
A few weeks ago, when the Kansas City Chiefs were on their way to the Super Bowl (woo hoo!), I saw this post below shared by a friend on Facebook. Read the whole thing.
You read that right. In the majority of the United States, men and women can be fired from their jobs and/or face disciplinary action at work or school for wearing their hair natural. (If you want to argue that with certain hair policies ‘those are the rules,’ ask yourself WHO came up with those rules.)
When I worked full time, my biggest hair concern before I left the house was ‘Do I want to spend an extra 20 minutes blow drying and styling my hair?’ and usually I said ‘no’ and threw it back in a wet bun. I never feared job security based on my hair. I never worried what misconceptions people might have about my hair. I’m realizing that not having to worry about discrimination is a privilege that far too many people don’t have.
It’s time that I start to care about hair. And I hope you’ll join me.
Below are a few things we can do to fight hair discrimination and promote understanding.
- Sign this petition to end hair discrimination in workplaces and schools. But don’t stop there. Email your legislator in support of the CROWN Act in your state. The CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair) protects against discrimination based on hairstyles. It’s been passed in only three states (California, New York and New Jersey), so there’s more work to do. (For my friends who live in Kansas, here’s a great resource).
- Learn more about natural hair. Watch the video below. If you see an article or story about natural hair, read it. Don’t skip it just because your hair is different.
- If you’re a parent, grandparent, teacher or anyone with children in your lives, read books that feature characters who don’t look the same as your loved one. Be intentional about showing kids the diversity that exists in our world. The library is a great place to find books like Hair Love, Hair Like Mine, and I Am Enough. Although not hair-specific, I also love the book Colorfull which talks about celebrating the colors – including skin colors – God gave us.
- Show the child in your life the short film Hair Love. My five-year-old loved it.
I’ve still got a lot of learning to do. So if you have hair or beauty standard experiences you want to share or resources you’ve found helpful, I’d love to hear from you.