Since I (Jessie) was young, my life has consisted of “suffering for beauty” in order to conform to eurocentric standards of hair. When I was four, my grandmother gave me my first relaxer, which made my scalp feel like it was on fire. The metal hot comb, used to straighten my hair afterwards, burned my ears. Two years ago, I decided to do the “big chop,” which meant cutting off the relaxed parts of my hair so I could wear my hair naturally, without any chemical straightening products. This decision was a long time coming. When I was reading Minh- Ha T. Pham’s blog post, “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion,” I connected with many of the ideas that she discusses in the article, such as when she explains how women of color “consciously and unconsciously fashion themselves in ways that diminish their racial difference”1. I have been taught to fashion myself in a way that follows dominant societal expectations of beauty, such as using relaxers in my hair to make it appear straight, and more in line with the hair of my white peers. I was socialized to believe that any curl or kink was ugly, and that I should aspire to straight, Eurocentric norms for beauty2.
Being at Carleton, a typical PWI (predominately white institution) only increased my anxiety and insecurity about my hair because I wanted to fit in. I didn’t have the time or the resources in Northfield to keep up my hair routine that I had been doing for as long as I could remember— there was no one to relax my hair or fix my weaves throughout the term. My hair was unhealthy and damaged from years of relaxers. So, after years of fitting into the expectations from society, I said fuck it. I did the “big chop” the next day.
Relaxers and weaves are a way for many black women to feel as though we have agency over our image, to avoid the stares and insults that come when we wear our hair naturally, and feel “normal” in a culture that expects everyone to look relatively identical. However, the upkeep for relaxers or weaves is expensive, time consuming, and can damage your hair. The natural hair movement has become popular because of how it opposes the pressures of Eurocentric standards of beauty and gives women the chance to exercise agency in their lives and wear their hair the way they want to wear it.
Natural hair and the “big chop” are not just about changing physical appearance, but changing (desocializing) the mind and demonstrating to the world that natural hair is just as beautiful as relaxed hair or weaves, making the movement revolutionary and deeply political. Furthermore, this tradition of using fashion to express culture and make a statement on beauty standards and imbalances of power has a long history. Author Tanisha C. Ford conducted considerable research into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. “I discovered that SNCC women adopted their denim attire for both practical and political reasons,” she said in an interview with Threadbared Magazine. “And, their overalls and au naturel hairstyles caused quite a stir on their college campuses and among many elder activists.” I was following in a long tradition of black women utilizing beauty as a political statement3.
However, it must be noted that this does not mean that black women wearing weaves and straightening their hair are considered to have a lack of agency or false consciousness. The key ideology that this movement is built upon is agency, or conscious and informed choice: black women can do whatever we want with our hair, free from the confines of eurocentric standards. This relates to scholar Kathy Davis, who focuses her feminist ideology on agency and the cultural dope phenomenon, which states that women in a culture cannot help but blindly adhere to the norms that the culture requires of them. Davis rejects this theory, and asserts instead that women have agency in their decisions to confirm or reject a cultural norm, whatever that decision may be.4 I conformed to Eurocentric beauty standards until I was an adult, but then employed a more revolutionary agency to completely reframe how I conceptualized of beauty. I had to actively desocialize myself.
The endurance of pain by women in the hope of being perceived differently is a constant battle she must face. As we live in a society where fashion shapes how we are read by others, according to Pham, a choice must be made on how to employ our agency. Fashion and beauty, though dictated by cultural norms, can be utilized for our own political purposes, as the women in the SNCC demonstrated so many years ago. When I wear my natural hair I demonstrate a conscious rejection of the socialization that had been performed on me by my culture since birth. When I did the big chop, I employed my agency to say that the suffering I experienced in a quest to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty had to end, and I actively changed the way I thought about beauty to achieve this. I am beautiful, and my natural hair is beautiful, and I am proud to follow in the footsteps of the many activists that came before me.
Jessie, Henry, Emily, Belle, and Mandy
Davis, Kathy. “Remaking the She-Devil: A Critical Look at Feminist Approaches to Beauty.” Hypatia 6, no. 2 (1191): 21-43.
Jael, Morgan. “Black Girl Solidarity: Can Black Women Come Together in Solidarity ? (an Introduction).” Secrets that Sell, 2015.
Nguyen, Mimi Thi. “Interview: Tanisha C. Ford, Haute Couture Intellectual.” WordPress, 2012.
Pham, Minh-ha T. “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion.” Ms Magazine, 2011.