Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
A few weeks ago, natural-hair website CurlyNikki posted a Q&A with white beauty blogger Sarah Stevens as part of its series of “Curl Crush” style interviews. In it, Stevens talked buns and braids and a lifetime of wearing her hair in its natural state. And, the Internet had a conniption. A young, white woman discussing her hair history on a predominantly black site made lots of people uncomfortable — and some angry. And, it raised the question: Is there room for white women in the natural-hair space?
At its base level, the natural-hair movement is practical. It’s a vehicle for women to access bloggers, websites, and their peers to learn how to best care for and style their locks. But, that’s just the basics. The real “movement” of the movement has always been about black women finding self-acceptance. So, how do women who are not of African descent fit into that equation?
To answer these questions, it’s important to first understand why this has caused so much uproar. I think of it this way: Imagine you’re 5-foot-2 and apple-shaped. You go swimsuit shopping with your friend who has a body like, say, Halle Berry's. As you’re in the fitting room, slinging suits over the side of the stalls, she attempts to commiserate with you about how hard it is to shop for swimwear because her boobs are so big (and perfect). All you can manage to do is hit her with some major side-eye and think, Girl, please.
It’s a playful analogy, but it illustrates the main reason people reacted so strongly to Stevens’ post: It seemed to suggest that her experience was just the same as a natural-haired black woman’s. And, when attacked on social media, Stevens responded defensively (though who could blame her?), effectively stating that because her hair isn’t chemically treated, it is “natural.” But, by using this word, she implied a level of similarity to black women that doesn’t likely exist.
None of this brouhaha is Stevens’ fault, of course. She was unintentionally set up to fail, given boilerplate questions that CurlyNikki uses for all its Q&As — a big mistake because those queries don’t account for the inherent difference of a white woman’s experience. White (curly-haired) feminist activist and writer Shelby Knox summarizes, "I'm never going to go into a job interview and be judged based on preconceived racist ideas about my hair…I’m never going to have a child who’s made fun of because her hair isn’t 'right.'"
Knox does add that she gets some of her best tips and tricks from blogs, “But, I’m not on there commenting, ‘Yes, but from my perspective as a white woman…’” And, if given the opportunity and the right environment, Stevens would likely agree with that, too. What reasonable person wouldn’t?
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
With a subject so prickly and emotionally charged, I thought it wise to get some context from a few luminaries in the beauty community. Jodie Patterson, cofounder of DooBop, a website that caters to "brown beauties" and all women with textured hair, offers up some perspective: "I did a mini-documentary...where I interviewed women of many ethnicities — Asian, white, African-American, Latinas. I found a lot of similarities among them in how they approach their hair," says Patterson.
She adds, “You ask a woman about her hair, and she tells you about her life: how she felt in high school, how her mom styled her hair, how her significant other reacts to her hair.” Because of this, Patterson says we shouldn’t be thinking about hair ethnically because we all have a shared experience of journeying to self-love.
At Duafe, a bustling Philadelphia salon, patrons can often be overheard discussing natural hair and beauty standards. Its proprietor, Syreeta Scott, is a celebrity stylist and natural-hair-community veteran, and her salon has been a hub of the movement for years. “About 85% of my clients don’t like the direction in which the natural-hair movement is going," she notes. "They’re starting to feel like white women are dictating the images that define beautiful, natural hair — and that lacks authenticity.”
Scott herself, though, takes a come-one-come-all approach: “All people have their issues with beauty — Asian, white. If they want to hop on this train, come on.” The stylist further explains that, though changing images in the natural-hair community could be a problem, her number-one concern is that her clients achieve self-acceptance. That way, there would be only one image that defined a woman’s sense of beauty: her own.
Lori Tharps, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University who literally wrote the book on black hair, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, with Ayana D. Byrd, agrees that inclusivity is key. Tharps says it’s flawed thinking for any social movement to be exclusive. “If you’re going to define black women embracing their natural hair as a movement, the goal is to make some kind of progress. We want to move beyond the restrictive place we were before,” says Tharps. “The movement is clearly for, about, and created by black women, but that doesn’t mean others won’t benefit — just as Asians, Latinos, and anyone else who has been treated poorly has benefited from the civil rights movement."
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
There is, of course, something very appealing about this notion of inclusivity: all women learning to love their special mix of physical characteristics and personality and embracing it as absolutely gorgeous. But, as far as the natural-hair movement is concerned, how do we address the alienation of the black women who started it all? The key, as Knox hinted at earlier, is for everyone to acknowledge our difference, not ignore it.
Personally, I’m lazy, hair-wise, so I’m uninterested in doing stuff to my 'do. I’m not length checking, doing twist-outs, or even stretching my ramen-noodle-type curls with a blowdryer. I use a good conditioner and a styling gel that doesn’t flake, and from there I air-dry. But, I realize that my non-effort is a privilege afforded to me by my curl pattern. I’m perfectly fine with my hair as it grows out of my head, no manipulation (aside from semiannual highlight appointments) necessary.
I have friends with kinkier textures. Hair that when wet or exposed to NYC-level humidity draws up to half of its stretched length. Women for whom wash-and-go equals baby ‘fro. And, though we all think those are awesome, these ladies are simply not comfortable wearing their hair like that to jobs in finance or law.
Yes, it’s beautiful hair, often so soft and fine it feels like cotton-meets-silk. But, I recognize that I'd be a fool to compare my natural-hair journey to theirs. My go of it is clearly easier, logistically, and my curl pattern (or the fact that I even have curls and not Z-shaped kinks) is arguably more acceptable to society at large. Some understanding goes a long way.
Even so, the fear that white women could be co-opting the movement — that when it comes down to the business of black hair, money, and power will be removed from the black community — is still real. CurlyNikki, for instance, is owned by Texture Media. It’s a privately held Internet company owned and run by white women that, according to its media kit, addresses an audience that is 54% black.
But, that is no reason for black women to act as gatekeepers, closing the door in everyone else's face. As Tharps previously noted, women like Stevens aren’t looking here to build a business by appropriating black culture. They’re simply looking for solutions.
So, should curly girls be allowed to join #teamnatural? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below. Please be respectful, though — we recognize this is a very sensitive issue, but let's keep the comments section a safe place for intelligent discussion.