In the United States, for example, the percentage of women who do not alter their hair but keep them in its natural state, has increased from 26 to 36 % between 2006 and 2011. As a result, the sale of hair straighteners and other similar products has decreased by 17% over the same period (Black Women Embrace Natural Hair. Lewis, Brionna. Sentinel [Los Angeles, Calif] 11 July 2013: D.5.). Several public and popular figures, such as the African American actress Viola Davis created a stir when she came to the 2012 Oscar Ceremony with a short natural hairstyle, or artists such as Jill Scott and Solange have become part of this movement, and in the process, have reinforced it.
This movement, however, is yet to be analyzed fully. This may be the case because it is still a rather recent phenomenon. Some believe that it is, at least in part, due to the damages caused by the chemicals that African women use in order to change their hair texture appearance. More particularly, hair loss and hair greatly weakened by corrosive chemicals are recurrent and serious afflictions.
To this, one must add the daily and serious constraints, such as avoiding contact with water in order to avoid that that altered hair revert too quickly to its natural state.
This being said, however, it would be quite shortsighted to solely focus on the physiological aspect of the question. Indeed, one would then make the mistake of ignoring the profound symbolic dimension of hair and hairstyles. After all, those African women who lose their hair because of chemical corrosion, could very well resort to wigs or weaves, but they don’t because they have chosen to keep their hair as is.
Hair, Societies, and Cultures
In order to understand the significance of the Natural Hair Movement, it is imperative to realize that hair and hairstyles play a very significant role in cultures and societies created by human beings. The latter, like all mammals, have hair of varying densities on their body. Unlike other mammals, it is on their head that one may find the highest concentration of hair. Hair’s appearance changes according to the number and shape of hair follicles, as well as according to the structure of the proteins that make up hair. Large follicles, for example, produce a large quantity of hair. Hair’s color also varies based on the presence or absence of melanin. Thus, pale hair is melanin-deficient. Overall, hair is a “biological accessory” which changes from one person to person, but also with age, health, genes, etc. One may lose all of their hair without enduring any pain (Firth, 1973, p. 263).
It may, as Firth suggests again, because of its malleability that humans use hair as social, and more recently, racial differential marker.
Indeed, as cogently summed by the anthropologist Firth (1973, p. 271), hair and hairstyles function as important symbols of social, cultural, and personal identity: “In all cultures, it appears, hair has social as well as personal significance. There is material from all over the world to demonstrate how styles of wearing the hair of the head are used as indicators of social difference, varying according to age, se, marital and other status and crisis situations. What is particularly important is that these styles are often not just aesthetic modulations or a matter of individual preference; they are strongly conventionalized, given moral approval and used as instruments of social expression and social control. They are not just signs, they may be symbols too.”
Let us consider, as an example among countless other cases, Korea during the Ly Dynasty, and more particularly, under the influence of Confucianism, when hair was extremely important, for hairstyles were expected to indicate and remind all of their place in a profoundly hierarchical society. During that time, cutting one’s hair was simply out of the question. Such an act was perceived as self-mutilation prejudicial to one’s parents, since a child was supposed to belong completely to his or her parents. Long hair was then a sign of filial piety. Hair, however, could not be left free but had to be braided for young children (one braid for boys, and one or two braids for girls). When one reached adult age, the braids were kept in a knot placed on top of the head for men, and behind the neck for women. Hair kept free was automatically associated with unbridled sexuality and lose morality – and was consequently frowned upon. Thus, In Korea, hairstyles functioned as an age, sex, moral, and filial piety symbol. Social class differences were inscribed in the intricacies of the knots as well as in the delicacy of the hairpins used to keep the knot in place. Needless to say that in such a context, Korean men and women had very little room as far as hairstyle choice was concerned given the profound social and cultural symbolic meanings imbued in hair. They were themselves quite attached to this social symbolism. Indeed, when at the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese started pressuring Korea to “modernize,” and that, yielding to that pressure, the king of Korea passed a decree ordering the cutting of knots (he and members of his royal court cut theirs to show the example to the people), violent revolts ensued. Some of the royal court were simply killed by the people, and the king himself had to flee to Russia, from where he rescinded his obviously ill-conceived decree (Nelson, 1998).
Korea is only cited here as an illustration of the widespread social and cultural significance of hair and hairstyles. Once more, there are few, and probably no societies where hair is not infused with particular meanings, and where conventions related to hairstyles cannot be found. African societies are, of course, no exception.
In Mende society, for instance, women are expected to have clean, shiny, well-groomed, and advantageously arranged hair. A woman whose hair is not well kept is not seen in a positive light, and automatically assumed to be immoral and promiscuous. Men’s and women’s hair must imperatively be black. Brown hair is reminiscent of dirt and hair must be dyed if it is not black enough (Boone, p. 96).
In addition, women must not cut their hair either. Indeed, a generous volume of hair is highly valued, not only as a sign of beauty, but also, as Boone (p. 186) explains so well, as a profound spiritual expression: “A woman with long, thick hair demonstrates the life-force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity, a “green thumb” for raising bountiful farms and many healthy children. Coiffure, therefore, encodes yet another prayer for life, more abundantly.”
Hair as a Site of Resistance
Given that hair and hairstyles function as social control mechanisms, it is not difficult to imagine that resistance to the social status quo cannot easily, if not necessarily, involve a rejection of conventional hairstyles. Thus, the way one chooses to arrange one’s hair, what one decides to do or not do to one’s hair, is not a matter of chance, but reflects in final analysis, a political choice. In Western societies, where long hair has long been associated with femininity, short female hair cuts were often perceived as a feminist revolt against patriarchy, the demand that white females be granted the same the same privileges as white men (including hairstyle!), and sometimes, even the sexual rejection of men, that is, homosexuality (Firth, 1973, pp. 267 sqq).
An example of hairstyle as a form of resistance that is much closer to us is the rise of the afro in the sixties. Afros came about in the context of the Black Power Movement in the United States, and conveyed the double notion of black racial pride and Pan-African solidarity (REF). Afros quickly spread throughout the black world. Obviously, afros represented a challenge to the social and racial hierarchy that prevailed then. While the sight of afros disturbed those opposed to that challenge, straightened hair was considered by Black Powers sympathizers as the expression of an unacceptable racial servility and emulation of the white race, and therefore, as shameful (Byrd & Tharps, 2001).
So, what should we make of the current Natural Hair Movement? Is it too a resistance phenomenon?
To read the next chapter of our analysis: Read `The Natural Hair Movement’ – Part II, in two weeks!
Byrd, Ayana & Tharps, Lori L.. 2001. Hair Story. Untangling the roots of black hair in America. New York: St. Martin Press.
Boone, Sylvia Ardyn. 1986. Radiance from the Waters. Ideals of feminine beauty in Mende Art.New Haven: Yale University Press.
Firth, Raymond. 1973. Symbols. Public and Private. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Lewis, Brianna. Black Women Embrace Natural Hair. Sentinel [Los Angeles, California] 11 July 2013: D.5.
Nelson, Sarah. 1998. Bound Hair and Confucianism in Korea. In Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures, Alf Hiltebeitel & Barbara Miller (eds). Pp. 105-121.