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Why Is Academia Ignoring the Natural Hair Movement?

Avatar • Aug 9, 2014

Mixed race woman in front of a blackboard, close-up

During my junior year of college, I approached my professor and discussed my interest in studying the rise of the natural hair community as a topic for my senior thesis. This professor was perplexed and gently directed me towards another area of study. I had no idea when I initially approached the professor in 2004, that the natural hair movement would explode over the next decade. Blogs, Youtube channels and a global network of women around the Diaspora*  would play an important role in reclaiming the beauty of natural hair. Despite all of these advancements, I found it surprising that there still remains a lack of social science research on the natural hair movement. Although research that examines the complex perspectives and profound impact women of color have on representations of beauty and identity exists, it hasn’t been given the attention that it deserves. Why? I have a few guesses and I welcome your perspectives, whether you agree or disagree.

The Existing Conversation

The discussion about natural hair is typically framed around the general topic of tutorials. Books on natural hair primarily provide instruction on how to style, wash and care for the hair. When I first explored the idea of going natural in 2004, I found guidance in one such book, titled Plaited Glory by Lonnice Bonner. Other books such as The Science of Black Hair by Audrey Davis-Sivasothy and Marti Dumas, provide tutorial guidance as well as valuable information about how and why afro-textured hair responds to certain products. The books have done a lot in regards to helping women learn about their hair and therefore  have made the transition to wearing natural hair easier. However, the question still remains: Why have women made the decision to wear their hair natural in such high numbers in such a brief a time? The answer might seem pretty pedestrian if you think about your own experience. You and those you know may have simply gotten tired of relaxers and felt wearing your hair in its natural state was a more practical option. While this may be true, I would argue that the speed with which thousands of women have embraced wearing natural hair and the response by hair companies (have you looked in “ethnic” aisle at Walgreens lately) qualifies the natural hair care movement as a social movement because of its international impact on culture and the beauty economy.

Why the Silence in Scholarship

There has been some academic research that documents the powerful impact of the natural hair movement over the last decade. However, the most popular work has been in the form of journalism that focuses on one or two aspects of the movement, such as the role of bloggers and vloggers. I would argue that one reason for the dearth of academic research on the issue is an unfortunate trend in social science that focuses on the problems faced by some groups, rather than their revolutionary successes. While I believe this is limiting, I think it also provides an opportunity for women of African descent across the Diaspora to control the message about a movement that we have created and will continue to sustain. In social science, women of color and specifically black women, are often studied in the position of an oppressed group. Case in point: I can barely go one week without reading a study or citation that discusses the high rate of single black women/black women with children born out of wedlock.

What about the significance of black women, who in the span of decade, have harnessed social media, created blogs, vlogs and hair products in order to self-educate and challenge a standard of beauty that reigned in our society for hundreds of years? The natural hair movement, I would argue, is much more than “just hair.” It is not just about individual style choices. Collectively, this movement demonstrates the ability of a so-called “oppressed” group to mobilize cultural, economic and technological resources to define their story and shape their movement. Therefore, the relative silence in academe is due to in part to the challenge of reconciling the empowerment of a group that has long been characterized as weak due to racism, sexism and classism.

The advantage of this is that we maintain ownership of this story and are in a position to frame the movement based on both our personal and communal experiences. As a social scientist, I know that if I ever endeavor to formerly document the impact of the natural hair movement, it will not be without the voices and perspectives of women from all walks of life and from different parts of the African Diaspora. While our stories are often framed by the media and co-opted by other groups, it is my sincere belief and desire, that this particular movement remains centered on the contributions and impact of women of African descent.  If and when academic scholarship attempts to change that focus, “we” (I’m also pointing a finger at myself) should challenge the honesty and truth of that scholarship.

 

Do you view the “natural hair movement” as a broader social movement or is it simply just about hair preferences?

Do you agree or disagree with my conclusion that scholarship on natural hair should be focused on women of the Diaspora? 

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LaNeshe
6 years ago

I think the natural hair movement definitely has a place in African American Studies departments. Making it a diaspora wide focus is important, but like many things I think African Americans have a unique journey that doesn’t necessarily mirror all countries.

Jade
Jade
6 years ago

It’s because social scientists rather focus on Black pathology than successes. It’s simply as that. People rather love reading about what’s wrong with Black communities than about any positive changes. I call it “Black pathological porn.”

Agatha
Agatha
6 years ago

The natural hair movement and its incursion in academic studies is important for ALL Africans, not only african americas. And yes, African americans have a unique journey, but so do the Afro-Brazilians, The haitians, etc. Every people of the diaspora have their unique journey. Focusing the natural hair movement uniquely on African Americas, or Assimilating it to be more related to African Americans than other Africans is denying our cultural resemblance and pluralism both at the same time. Furthermore, it reflects the American culture of individualism.

B
B
6 years ago
Reply to  Agatha

BGLH is an American based blog and for some reason the Black people from other countries don’t want to accept that. You keep saying “What about us! What about us!”. Personally, I feel like they do a fine job of featuring Black people from around the world but that is my American perspective and to be quite frank, American culture is not generally about focusing on the going ons internationally with anyone. Since we have so many diverse cultural experiences here in just the Black community they have more than enough to focus on. I’m not stating whether it is right… Read more »

#Adoseofreality
#Adoseofreality
6 years ago
Reply to  B

Umm…what? Isn’t Leila, the founder of BGLH, originally from Jamaica? Isn’t Geniece, the writer of the article, originally the Caribbean as well? Please get your facts right before you try and perpetuate that this website is supposed to be focused on African-Americans only. There are Blacks all over the world, not just in America, hence the title “Black Girl Long Hair”, not “African-American Girl Long Hair.” I’m really not trying to be snarky here. It just annoys me when some Blacks (American, African, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Asian, etc) try to push other Blacks out of something (not just hair) that we all… Read more »

B
B
6 years ago

Under their contact page http://bglh-marketplace.com/about/contact/ It says “BGLH is based in Chicago, Illinois”. And I never said it is supposed to be focused ONLY on African-Americans. In fact I said “Personally, I feel like they do a fine job of featuring Black people from around the world…” Nothing in this article made me think it was ignoring the validity of other Black people around the world. It was merely focused on America because this is an American based blog and that’s what I was trying to explain to that comment. The perspective of the writers are American because they live here… Read more »

#Adoseofreality
#Adoseofreality
6 years ago
Reply to  B

You’ve completely missed the mark with all your comments, and you most certainly did imply several times that this website is (or should be) focused on Black Americans. I urge you to go back and re-read what you wrote. Your example of going over to an African blog and expecting them to be inclusive of an American experience does not make any sense in the context of what we’re talking about here. I think you keep missing the point that this website is not limited to Black Americans, despite the fact that its base/HQ is in America. (I’m assuming) Leila currently lives… Read more »

O
O
6 years ago
Reply to  B

It maybe an American based blog but definitely one person who writes for it lives in a couple of European countries, and other Black people who are featured on it live all around the world. In regards to to trying to compare with an “African” based blog you are displaying the culture imperalism other posters have complained about. Africa is the second biggest continent in the world (bigger than North America) and is made up of 55 recognised countries. Each of these countries is made up of different groups with their own cultures and traditions. So which country in Africa are… Read more »

mlank64
mlank64
6 years ago

Exactly.…it is our hair that unifies us. i follow youtubers from Africa,France, England, and everywhere. I feel so connected…one of the reasons I obtained a DNA test. After looking at all those beautuful nigerian and ghana beauties…I had to know what part of Africa my ancestry came from in my family. Its more than just hair…its understanding that the struggle cuts across the African diaspora. The history of blacks didnt just start in the United States, but has a beginning that is rich and full which connects us all.

B
B
6 years ago

@#Adoesofreality “you most certainly did imply several times that this website is (or should be) focused on Black Americans” Um, yes…that is part of my point. Though it is not a question of “should” so much as a reality based on who is writing a majority of the posts; Americans. My issue is that people are coming here acting like that is a problem and that every article needs to be worded in such a way that includes a worldly Black perspective which I think is nearly impossible unless they are professional, well educated sociologist and anthropologist and lets be… Read more »

#Adoseofreality
#Adoseofreality
6 years ago
Reply to  B

Smh. You keep missing the point. If you still can’t understand what I and some of the other posters are saying, then let’s just agree to disagree and leave it at that.

B
B
6 years ago
Reply to  B

@#Adoseofreality If you refuse to actually acknowledge my point then there is no reason to continue to engage with you. But agreeing to disagree is not only a waste of a statement and total cope out in any discussion but it doesn’t even make sense in this situation because it isn’t clear if we disagree as you haven’t acknowledged any of my points.

If you can’t handle the discussion that’s fine but don’t try to have some last word with a meaningless statement that doesn’t reflect the debate at hand. That’s a lazy and dismissive tactic.

Candace
Candace
6 years ago
Reply to  B

Take a quick scroll through this blog and you will find tons of references to Africa by various writers. Hair styles like our African ancestors, hair care products like our African ancestors, clothes like our African ancestors, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. However, all of that is discussed only in so much as it applies to black Americans and their consumption of black African culture. In short: people want to identify with Africa, but don’t actually care to learn about the experiences of their African sisters. Your post neatly sums up the crux of the problem that non-American black readers have… Read more »

B
B
6 years ago
Reply to  Candace

I’m not going to pretend to know all the ends and outs of the relationships between Africans and Black Americans. I know there is some sordid history and I’ve definitely read it through comments here and experienced it in person. Some Africans seem slighted when Black Americans talk about their identification with Africa. I’m not saying that Africans shouldn’t feel that way but I do feel that something is very misguided and misplaced when that feeling translates into assuming a American based blog (see http://bglh-marketplace.com/about/contact/) with a majority of American writers are going talk about the African perspective in every… Read more »

Candace
Candace
6 years ago
Reply to  B

Again, you’ve hit upon the core issue without having much understanding of why it’s the core issue. It’s not about feeling “slighted.” No one feels slighted because black Americans express a feeling of identification with black Africans. The issue is (again) when black Americans continuously talk about their affinity with Africa with absolutely no understanding/interest in the experiences of African and non-Americans of African descent. It’s like meta cultural appropriation, really. The difference with the white women featured on the blog is that no one on here is talking about having hair like their white ancestors, no one is talking about… Read more »

B
B
6 years ago
Reply to  B

@Candace the core issue for me is that people are trying to dictate what writers write about and I think that is not only inappropriate but disrespectful to the writer who is putting their time and work into their piece. I also think there is a problem with people not being okay that this blog has an American perspective. Being okay and at peace with that should be a part of said personal growth. Commenters should feel free to write about their experience in regards to this topic but to put the writer on blast for not recognizing Africans is… Read more »

Treacle
Treacle
6 years ago
Reply to  Agatha

I agree. As someone living outside the US I can’t help thinking with a sigh, this is a bit reflective of the negative appearance given out on occasion that Americans are still steeped in that super-power mentality that asserts they’re the centre of the world and therefore such matters start and end with them. I’m sure not all think this way (God I hope not!) but that’s the impression many outside the US have. My plea is ‘Please don’t perpetrate it USA.…Agatha makes a very valid point’. Cheers.

B
B
6 years ago
Reply to  Agatha

I’m using the language the other commenter used (Agatha: “important for ALL Africans”). I tend to agree about clumping African countries together (people don’t tend to do that with Europe) but it’s not the main focus of my point.

I’ll pose a question for you that is in line with the point I’m trying to make “Why is it a problem that a blog with mostly American writers to focus their writing from their American perspective?

Kaila P
Kaila P
6 years ago

I was gonna do this for my research project for Caribbean Studies, my teacher discouraged me from doing it not because he didn’t believe it was a good topic but because the word limit wouldn’t allow me to fully encompass the entire issue. SO I just did something on natural disaster sigh

Maria V.
Maria V.
6 years ago

Because wearing your hair the way it grows out of your head is not a movement.

Kulture Clash
Kulture Clash
6 years ago
Reply to  Maria V.

Clearly your not an individual of color because if you were you’d be able to understand that a movement isn’t necessarily to motivate anything/anyone but to establish and show case the spotlight on what already is the true authentic presence of the subject matter… So please STFU and go educate yourself Or better yet Stay the _______ off this site!!!!!

Some manners please!!!
Some manners please!!!
6 years ago
Reply to  Kulture Clash

Is it possible to respond to a comment without being so rued. To some black women it’s not a movement. You people (read nutty natural fascists) should rest please. JEEZ!!!!

Some manners please!!!
Some manners please!!!
6 years ago
Reply to  Kulture Clash

Is it possible to respond to a comment without being so rude. To some black women it’s not a movement. You people (read nutty natural fascists) should rest please. JEEZ!!!!

Janaye
Janaye
6 years ago
Reply to  Maria V.

I agree. I’m a woman of color who’s transitioning to natural hair. I’m not on a journey. I’m not part of a movement. I’m just doing something different with my hair. I love being black and I’m proud of being black. Wearing my hair in a way that is convenient, flattering and also happens to be how it grows out of my head doesn’t make me any prouder of being black. I’m not making a statement. I think it’s sad that black women have allowed something so superficial to become something life altering.

The One
The One
6 years ago
Reply to  Janaye

Hopefully soon enough you’ll realize or learn that you don’t have to declare your actions to be part of a movement for it to be just that. Rosa Parks didn’t set out to start the Civil Rights Movement when she sat defiantly on a bus seat. She was just physically and mentally tired. Just because it wasn’t her intent to start or join something doesn’t make it any less of a catalyst. You may be “just doing something different” with you’re hair, but you’re one of MILLIONS deciding to do the same “something different” with their hair at the same… Read more »

LBell
LBell
6 years ago

My first thought upon reading this, after having spent much of the last decade in academia: Considering how many black female graduate students and faculty were natural long before this latest “movement” came along, maybe it’s already been covered/considered old news? My second thought: There’s a book by Noliwe Rooks called Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women. It’s actually on Google Books now (just checked). I believe it was her PhD dissertation but I could be wrong. It goes into the history of not just black beauty culture, but the ways in which advertising affected how black women saw… Read more »

Treacle
Treacle
6 years ago
Reply to  LBell

Yes, I notice natural hair has always been popular amongst black academics on the whole. Certainly black female authors, to name a few examples. Part of the uniform almost!

O
O
6 years ago
Reply to  LBell

I have to agree with LBell’s first thought about this — it’s probably been covered. I’m from the UK and noticed long ago that Black women who were in certain professions, where in the upper reaches of their profession or where academics were more likely to have natural hair than others long before this current wave of natural hair “movement”. So a Black women in a specialist professional role would be more likely to have natural hair than a receptionist in the same business, and women like social workers who worked in a majority Black department would more likely have… Read more »

Dananana
Dananana
6 years ago
Reply to  Geniece

Yes! I also think it’s interesting that there seems to be a lack of scholarship on the natural hair community’s role in other, broader social movements such as the ongoing wave of anti consumerism. There’s plenty of social research about the growing trend towards self-sufficiency, but I haven’t seen any focused on natural hair.

Chelsea Johnson
Chelsea Johnson
6 years ago
Reply to  Geniece

I am a PhD student and just wrote a paper on this exactly! The only recent work on this topic is a book by Elizabeth Johnson (2013) Resistance and Empowerment in Black Women’s Hair Styling. She does not talk about natural hair as a movement but does address the recent importance of blogs and how race affects the production hegemonic/counter hegemonic displays of beauty. Would love to talk to anyone further about this! Just came back from Europe to talk to Black women overseas. Hopefully I’ll be the one to fill this gap! I’m glad to see this topic on BGLH!

Sino
6 years ago

Hi Chelsea,

Regarding your comment:

Would love to talk to anyone further about this! Just came back from Europe to talk to Black women overseas. Hopefully I’ll be the one to fill this gap!”

I’m a graduate student and I would love to co-author a research project with you on natural hair. Please see my post below. My name links to my site where I can be reached.

Mary
Mary
6 years ago

I have always find that academia lags profoundly when it comes to covering, studying and adapting to new phenomena. That could be part of the reason, but maybe others feel otherwise…

Mary
Mary
6 years ago
Reply to  Mary

I have always found***
I always find the typos after I post. =/

Candace
Candace
6 years ago

I don’t know. It sounds as though you weren’t too sure about your topic and as a result weren’t able to give much information about what you wanted to research and why.

For example, I would imagine that if you’d said something about comparing and contrasting the socio-political natural hair movement of the 1970s with the natural hair movement of the 2000s, that it might have stirred interest.

NubianPrize
NubianPrize
6 years ago

What the author seems to have missed is the fact that wearing natural hair is really not all that new. Even the discussions about afro hair in the workplace are old news. It happened back in the day. People forget, new generations are born unaware of the past & so history keeps repeating itself. I wore an afro in the 60’s-1981 when they first came out, then I got a curly perm for years before going natural again in 2009. Afros became so popular back in those days that anyone who had curly hair.…black or white.… grew one. In college,… Read more »

B3 Fearless
B3 Fearless
6 years ago
Reply to  NubianPrize

My 10 year old son just finished reading about Neil de Grasse Tyson lured by a cover with him looking at stars in the sky. He enjoyed it!

TWA4now
TWA4now
6 years ago

It was a good article. As far a academics…we have a long way to go, but there are books, blogs, vloggs.about it…mainly I am intrigued about the history of natural hair and why we started straightening and relaxing our hair in the first place (society and acceptance). It was and it much more than hair to me. I personally went through a mental, physical, and spiritual transformation…long story. It is always more much more than hair…for most women or for me. It is accepting ourselves and falling in love with ourselves and not be dictated by what society say we… Read more »

sasha
sasha
6 years ago

I believe that hair is a broad subject and it can be explored in African American studies, women’s studies, sociology, anthropology etc. The real dilemma for a potential is probably the lack of scholarly research available to conduct research.

Commonsense
Commonsense
6 years ago

I don’t think you should have let your professor steer you away from doing your thesis on the subject. You should have done it anyway. This is why certain things never get done, because people aren’t strong enough to follow their hearts and minds!!!!! You could have taught your professor a thing or two about something they don’t know about!!!!!!!!

O
O
6 years ago
Reply to  Commonsense

When professors steer people away from a subject they either do it because:
1. The subject has been before but badly, or
2. They are fed up of the same thing being rehashed again.

When you choose a subject for a thesis you need to do some proper background research into it then you really need to narrow the question down. So those concentrating on bloggers and vloggers have done this.

Sandi
Sandi
6 years ago
Sandi
Sandi
6 years ago

Perhaps this can help. In the morning session one of the speakers talks about how hard it was to get her professors to agree to her writing an academic paper about black hair. Perhaps this is an issue many other academics have.

https://africana.sas.upenn.edu/…/politics-black-womens-hair-symposium- friday-march‑1–2013
?

Sophi
Sophi
6 years ago

This post is somewhat broad and I’m not quite sure what the specifics are of what the author would like to see in an academic study. To answer the question I think the “natural hair movement” is more about preferences. Woman who want to wear there natural texture are and women who want relaxer are doing just that. And to be honest, I haven’t seen much of an impact in society as a whole. I still see relaxed women on tv and/or a racially mixed woman with bouncy curls…same as always. However, I will say that communities of naturals and… Read more »

O
O
6 years ago
Reply to  Sophi

@Sophi when you decide to research an area the first thing is to find the area then work out some questions — this explains why the author of the article mentioned a broad area. Also not everyone you see with type 3 curls in adverts is mixed raced. Only if you know/have met Black men and women with hair like that personally do you realise that there is variation in Black hair like with skin colour. In regards to not seeing an impact in society as a whole have you been to your local Black Beauty supply store recently? Have a… Read more »

Alyssa
Alyssa
6 years ago

I agree with you Geniece!

Sino
6 years ago

I actually feel that academia has assisted me by both educating me and allowing me to take the first step towards social change and the acceptance of natural hair from a scholarly perspective. In the 90’s I came across a book in one of the newly developed courses for African American culture in a Philadelphia University (sorry but the name of the book escapes me) which educated me on how sodium hydroxide, lye (the base of chemical relaxers) was found to alter the texture of African hair. It stated that slaves had had their heads pushed into vats of lye… Read more »

Chelsea Johnson
Chelsea Johnson
6 years ago

Also, just wanted to say that research takes time and funding! It’s really expensive to do a Diasporic approach justice. Further, if you care about where and who publishes your work (for career and tenure purposes) you are most likely trying to convincing groups who see no importance in talking about black hair that the work is worth printing and sharing. Of course there are more topical journals that would be more likely to publish, but they are usually less highly ranked This is probably one reason why there are so few academic publications and so many blogs/journalistic pieces. It… Read more »

lockstress
lockstress
6 years ago

The old addage..power in numbers here is what it is. WE ARE A POWERFUL group. They don’t want to celebrate that. That will in turn debase EVERYTHING they’ve taught from generations on.
We don’t need the recognition. We are making waves using technology and we will CONTINUE TO PROGRESS!
EMBRACE HOW GOD CREATED YOU!

youngin girl
youngin girl
6 years ago

Hey, This is an interesting and debatable topic. I think it deserves its place in African American studies too. Black hair does have history and I think alot of women don’t realize the real reason behind the aversion for their hair/texture because they don’t know the story about the European standard of beauty teachings that were passed down from generations. I read a timeline on “Thirstyroots” called “Black hair history” about two or three years ago and I was impressed. I think I was 16 and I’m 18 now so it deserves a place in the class so women can… Read more »

Napturally Kia
Napturally Kia
6 years ago

omg! i would be the first one to sign up for a “history of afro textured hair” class!

Latifah
6 years ago

I think the movement is the result of many women coming into a higher level of consciousness: preferring to look more like “themselves”, being concerned about what chemicals are going into their hair, wanting to be an example of self-love for their daughters. Not that unnaturally straight haired women cannot and do not value themselves; there are many reasons we straighten our hair (economics/ to keep or get a job; time and convenience). This research should focus on women of the diaspora; we are the ones who started it! At the same time, a big part of me doesn’t really… Read more »

The Darling Kinkshamer
The Darling Kinkshamer
5 years ago

The natural hair movement has greatly affected me, I have learned so much that I never have before. Social media has probably fueled the movement beyond what it was. I didn’t have many black friends with natural hair as a teen, therefore I found my tips on youtube.

As for academia, maybe there are not as many black women in the academic fields that would write about natural hair? I am sort of an academic, but I’m in a stem field with a background in lit. 🙂

The Darling Kinkshamer
The Darling Kinkshamer
5 years ago

I’m so sorry, that’s just horrible. A research study about black women and our attitudes towards our hair and physical exercise would be interesting! People create surveys and projects on almost anything and everything–why not natural hair?

Mellie
Mellie
4 years ago

Original Beauty by Ayana Haaruun and Melodye Watson is the first academic paper turned book that highlights the rise of the natural hair blogging and vlogging among black women.

Isabel Cruz
4 years ago

Natural hair movement can be a social movement, but the needs of Blacks are so far beyond the curls (and baldhead).

cheryl
cheryl
5 years ago

I can attest to the fact that this is indeed an issue. When considering topics for my PhD dissertation, I approached a white female professor about the possibility to investigating the connection between black women’s hair and health issues in the black community (the fact that obesity is an major health concern for black women and a reluctance to ruin our hair is an impediment to exercise), and I was discouraged. The professor told me that would not be a “legitimate sociological area of inquiry”! How wrong was she?!!! Unfortunately, there are not enough black women in academia who serve… Read more »

starzzzy
starzzzy
5 years ago

Well, since I have yet to see a book written about this topic, why not get some ladies together and get to writing before some white person does? Self publishing is a real option today. If we want to be in control of the narrative about our personhood, we have to take the opportunity to do so.

SHL
SHL
5 years ago

There are a few reasons why academia would choose to ignore the movement. Some disciplines (anthropology and sociology, perhaps even economics) may see the value in such a study. On one end there is the surface argument that being natural is not new and so is not a hot topic to study. The other is whether or not the natural movement is significant enough to warrant such serious attention? Further there is the very old and ugly truth that would have to be confronted. The historical placement of the black body and black beauty into subjugation and not worthy of… Read more »

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