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?