About BMC 277: Media and Diversity

This course asks students to critically examine the role of the media in facilitating and challenging the social constructions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in U.S. culture.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why Black Women’s Hair Matters:Black Hair Care Products and Empowerment

Shayna Bane

“There is no woman’s hair style that can be standard, that says nothing about her. The range of women’s hair styles is staggering, but a woman whose hair has no particular style is perceived as not caring about how she looks, which can disqualify her for many positions, and will subtly diminish her as a person in the eyes of some,” Deborah Tannen explains in There Is No Unmarked Woman (1993). This is especially true for African American women who filter their money into the $9 billion industry that is Black hair care (“Chris Rock's Good Hair,” 2009).
Questions like “Does your hair really matter?” are being posed to African-American women on blog sites (Michelle @ Fierce Glamour Blog, 2009). Powerful African-American icons like Oprah and Tyra are unveiling their “real hair” (Winfrey, 2009) (Banks, 2009). Comedian Chris Rock is taking a look at African-American hairstyles in his upcoming documentary “Good Hair” (“Chris Rock's Good Hair,” 2009). Essence recently featured an article called “The Root of the Issue,” covering a discussion on Black hair between several Black female stars with varying styles (Mayo, 2009). Hair is certainly not a new issue in the African-American community, but it does seem to be gaining greater significance and public awareness (crossing from strictly African-American discussion into mainstream media) as of recent.
The issue is open to many perspectives. When asked by Essence, “Some will say for those who wear their hair straight, ‘They’re a sellout.’ Why do we still hate on one another?” Tonya Lewis Lee explains, “…for some it’s about going against the system. So for them, it’s courageous if you go natural. If you go straight, you’re assimilating.” The discussion also dealt with issues of what “good hair” means right now, self image based on hair, and Black women changing their hairstyles for men – Black or White (Mayo, 2009). These are just a few of the dilemmas Black women face within the overall matter of hair. Time featured an article in early September entitled “Why Michelle Obama’s Hair Matters” (Desmond-Harris, 2009). It could be argued that it matters because Time magazine has an article entitled “Why Michelle Obama’s Hair Matters.” It matters because there is such attention being paid to her hair. It matters because an empowered African-American woman is being defined by her hair. The first lady cannot even escape the role of hair as an indicator of strength for African-Americans. The Time article quotes a stylist as saying, “Girl, ain't no braids, twists, afros, etc. getting into the White House just yet ... LOL" (Desmond-Harris, 2009). The ideology of what makes a black woman’s power legitimate is very much influenced by the media. The quote suggests that power (the White House being the representation) cannot be exerted by someone with the hairstyles mentioned above, based on society’s current view.

Time magazine is not the first, the last, or the only source of media to place an emphasis on hair. In 1981, an award-winning reporter, Dorothy Reed, who is also a Black woman, was suspended for wearing corn rows on the air (Prince, 2009). While she was reinstated and there are no longer discriminatory rules to prevent Black women from styling their hair naturally for broadcast, it is still rare to see an African-American female anchor without weaves, relaxers, and the like. The president of the National Association of Black Journalists, Kathy Times, told the Maynard Institute’s online column, Journal-isms, "[Hair has] always been an issue for Black talent in newsrooms. I would love to wear my hair natural, but so many anchors and reporters conform with the majority's expectations. I could go on all day! Even our own peers discourage us from wearing our hair 'natural'" (Prince, 2009).

One of the primary media that is a major source of the message “Hair is power” for Black women is the African-American hair product advertisements. These ads tell Black women their hair does matter – and more so than the average hair ad featuring women of other races. The messages in many of the Black hair product ads revolve around success, power, and strength. Just as Michelle Obama draws her strength not from her education, her family, or her values, but based on media emphasis, her hair.

In the 70s, ads like the Raveen Relaxer System above were commonplace. This one outright says that if a Black woman is hired, it’s not because of her resume, but rather because her hair is relaxed. And while an advertisement like this probably wouldn’t make it without plenty of controversy in the new millennium, ads with the very same message pass without detection today.

The Soft Sheen – Carson ads above were extracted from the November 2009 issue of Essence magazine, “Where Black Women Come First.” The first ad, for Triple Repair Hairdress, states, “Our roots make us stronger.” The copy implies that strength is based on hair and having hair like the woman in the ad makes a Black woman stronger. The second ad states at the top, “Proving, once again, that strong is beautiful.” Using the Anti-Breakage Therapy advertised here is supposed to make the Black woman more beautiful by strengthening her hair. It also implies that this woman is strong because she’s beautiful – because she used this product. The Black hair care companies’ main marketing strategy is and has been for years to sell power in a bottle. While the chemicals and techniques may have changed over the years, the message is unwavering. Black hair care advertisements perpetuate the notion that Black women’s power rests in their hair – power is equated to “good hair.” Black women are sold a false image of empowerment in these ads.

Banks, T. (n.d.). My real hair. Finally. Retrieved from http://www.tyra.com/view/story_01ABOUT_FACE

Chris Rock's Good Hair. (2009, September 29). Retrieved from http://www.oprah.com/article/oprahshow/20090916-tows-chris-rock-good-hair

Desmond-Harris, J. (2009, September 7). Why Michelle Obama's hair matters. Time, 174(9), Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1919147-2,00.html

Mayo, K. (2009, November). The Root of the issue. Essence, 40(7), 136-144.

Michelle @ Fierce Glamour Blog. (2009, September 30). Does your hair really matter? I believe it does. [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/beauty/user-post-does-your-hair-really- matter-i-believe-it-does-518303/

Prince, R. (2009, October 7). "Good hair" on the TV news set. Journal-isms, Maynard Institute, Retrieved from http://www.mije.org/richardprince/good-hairquot-tv- set Tannen, D. (1993, August 6). There is no unmarked woman. Retrieved from http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/tannend/nyt062093.htmWinfrey, O. (Producer). (2009).
Girl talk about "Good Hair" with Chris Rock [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7r8pnBBUsM

1 comment:

  1. The first ad, for Triple Repair Hairdress, states, “Our roots make us stronger.”

    Extremely ironic given the fact that these chemically altered hair styles are the very antithesis of "our roots" as African people.

    This was a very interesting post. As a student of media and its impacts on black women I found it illuminating. I was not aware that Time had published a story about black women and their hair. I will have to look that up.