Oftentimes in different cultures and communities, there is a correlation between culture and hair, especially within Black and African culture.
When Ashley Garrin, a doctorate student in apparel, merchandising and design and a program specialist in the graduate college, was debating what she wanted to do her dissertation work on, she found the most interest in research centered on marginalized communities, specifically relating to Black women and their hair.
Garrin said although there is a great deal of information surrounding African American women’s hair, there is not enough academic research on the topic.
In her dissertation, "Hair and Beauty Choices of African American Women During the Civil Rights Movement, 1960-1974," Garrin focused her study on the point in the Civil Rights Movement when ideals of white beauty standards were no longer embraced by pro-Black proponents.
Garrin said it was around 1965 when a new acceptance of Black-identified visual aesthetic became more popular. This led to symbolistic hairstyles, such as afros, braids, cornrows and the wearing of African prints on head scarves and wraps.
“African American hair is intricately linked to the African American culture and lived-experience,” Garrin said.
In the dissertation, Garrin also talked about how hair is a way for African American women to show their devotion and their identity within racial or ethnic groups. They are influenced by the patriarchal and racial viewpoints and beliefs of society, which is why African American women’s hair has been negatively compared to hegemonic beauty standards where everything white is seen as positive while the former is perceived as negative.
However, Larissa Begley, an associate teaching professor of history, said society is more accepting of white women as a whole.
“Beauty standards were developed based on white physical features, whereas African features were constructed in strictly negative ways,” Begley said.
Begley said before trying to understand why society is set up the way it is now, it is important to look at the past and that these standards stem from enslavement and colonialism.
Europeans would measure African facial features, such as widths of noses. People with narrower noses and lighter skin were not seen as fully African but instead descendants of Europeans and Africans. This resulted in Europeans giving these people more power because they were considered intelligent, natural-born rulers and more beautiful, and Africans with darker skin and wider noses were then considered less intelligent and not as beautiful.
Begley added it is the same thing when it comes to women. A woman who received the benefits of womanhood went hand-in-hand with being a white woman. This established whiteness as the essence of beauty.
“The media entertainment industries continued to normalize whiteness as the standard of beauty,” Begley said.
Begley said there are multiple examples of African and African Americans who have faced discrimination because of how we, as a society, view Black hair.
However, Garrin said that during the 1960s and 1970s, many African American women were seen wearing an afro, which became a symbol of Black pride and also rooted in the Black Power Movement.
Garrin said although many African American women were wearing the afro as a way of making a political statement, even though the choice itself was political, some women were also doing it because their friends were doing it; it was in style and easy to accomplish.
This was vastly different from the dominant beauty standards held by African Americans in the past. Garrin said this adoption of this hairstyle was a sign of resistance to the dominant ideals and as well as a commitment to the racial equality movement during those times.
“Hair discrimination is the prevalence of bias or discriminatory acts based on someone’s hair or hairstyle," Garrin said. "… Many structurally racist policies and rules have been put into place to deter [African Americans] from being their authentic self.”
According to The CROWN Act, Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair.
The CROWN Coalition, the leaders of the CROWN Act Campaign, is a union of organizations dedicated to anti-discrimination legislation across the U.S. The CROWN Act Campaign is fighting to prohibit race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles, including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots.
Cody-Ann Lyn, a senior in political science, said her hair shows a part of her.
Lyn said it took her awhile to love her hair, but now when she wears it, it is a form of self-acceptance and that her hair is also defining of her race.
Lyn said she has been discriminated against due to her hair. She explained that when she was younger, during gym class, she was required to put her hair up, but since her hair was so full, it did not fully go up, and there would be some still sticking out. The other students would make comments about her hair being in the way.
“Black women hair is not the standard," Lyn said. "The afro has been seen as political, so [Black women's hair] is either undesirable or political; the latter offends people.”
When it comes to Tuyishime Florance, a student at Simpson College, she said her hair is a statement. She said that through her hair, she is able to dismiss Western beauty standards.
“My hair is a statement of who I am and where I am from,” Florance said.
She said she is able to wear her hair in a natural afro, box braids, locs, weave, etc. while also having the ability to change her hairstyles for protective reasoning and not as a way to fit into a certain beauty standard.
Florance said her hair screams pride and confidence: pride for the history of Black hairstyles and confidence in the progressive future of Black hairstyles.
She said she has not personally been discriminated against due to her hair. She wears her hair in protective styles, and on the occasions she wears her afro, she does not feel as if she is treated differently.
Florance said society is not accepting of Black women's hair due to the history behind the treatment of Black women and women of color. Florance explained that Black women have historically, and still are, seen as aggressive and violent beings who are dangerous to society; this is a perspective that contributes to the beauty standards for Black women.
Florance added that society perceives white and/or lighter-skinned women as more beautiful, as well as the hair and other physical attributes that come with those women.
“Society is not accepting of Black hairstyles because history has taught society to fear Black women and fear their physical attributes," Florance said. "I think that is why I take so much pride in my hair.”
Garrin explained hair discrimination is prevalent today because of the hegemonic society we live in.
“This is an important topic that should be discussed to break down barriers, stereotypes and assumptions," Garrin said. "Truly examining why people think whatever it is they do related to someone’s hair or appearance and how they are judging their worth as a person is important to overcome it.”