Hair and the Black Woman
When I got pregnant with my oldest, I made a decision that I would no longer use chemicals in my hair and go natural. I remember reading somewhere that somehow it could potentially be harmful to my baby. I am not sure if this assertion is true, but to a new mom every warning can seem alarming. The cost to keep up with my salon visits was also a factor. It cost approximately 70 dollars each visit every six weeks.
I distinctly remember heading to the salon to get my hair cut. I would end up at the end of the day with almost no hair at all. In order to go natural, one must cut off the chemically processed hair. Heading to the salon was terrifying. I might have even cried.
For those who are unaware, Black hair is coarse, curly or both. Historically, women used objects such as straight irons to straighten their hair, but in the early 1900’s the relaxer was invented.
Relaxers are either lye or no-lye relaxers. Lye is a strong alkaline solution made of mostly potassium hydroxide. The FDA warns that any relaxer has the potential to burn the the scalp, but no-lye relaxers lower that chance. Once a Black woman (or any woman with coarse hair) applies a relaxer to her hair, it generally becomes straight.
I had chemically relaxed hair for as long as I could remember. I was semi-terrified to “go natural.”
Why was this so important to me?
For me, my hair had become an idol and centerpiece to my identity and beauty. If I had a good hair day, I felt good about myself. This all seems so superficial, but for many women beauty is important. For me, at the time, it was an aspect of my appearance that was too important. And for the Black woman, hair has historically played a significant role in our identity.
A Look at History
There are professors, historians, and artists who have spent their lives dedicated to the topic of Black hair and identity.
Dr. Tracey Owens Patton, director of African American and Diaspora Studies and a professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Wyoming, asserts the problem stems from the racist division in the United States and a desire for Black females to assimilate into the White culture of the time. Further, she argues that the Black female has continued to be compared to White women for standards of beauty. She explains in her article “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?”
Throughout history and to present day, African American women have challenged White definitions of beauty. What or who is considered beautiful varies among cultures. What remains consistent is that many notions of beauty are rooted in hegemonically defined expectations.
While definitions of beauty affect the identities of everyone, this article focuses on African American women and the intersection between beauty, body image, and hair. Specifically, this article looks historically at how differences in body image, skin color, and hair haunt the existence and psychology of Black women, especially since one common U.S. societal stereotype is the belief that Black women fail to measure up to the normative standard.
Given the racist past and present of the United States, there are several identity and beauty issues that African American women face. Since 1619, African American women and their beauty have been juxtaposed against White beauty standards, particularly pertaining to their skin color and hair.
During slavery, Black women who were lighter-skinned and had features associated with mixed progeny (e.g., wavy or straight hair, White/European facial features) tended to be house slaves and those Black women with darker-skin hues, kinky hair, and broader facial features tended to be field slaves.
This racist legacy and African American internalization of this White supremacist racial classification brought about what Jones and Shorter-Gooden have termed “The Lily Complex.” This complex is defined as “altering, disguising, and covering up your physical self in order to assimilate, to be accepted as attractive.[i]
In order to fully understand the significance of the topic, we must understand the history. I am not asserting all of Dr. Patton’s conclusions are my own, but I do believe her argument and concerns are worth considering, and in fact are common notions in our society.
Even as a child, I remember putting skirts on my head to give myself fake long flowing hair. My sisters and I would add bows to our “long hair.” I bought into the notion that long, straight, flowing hair was identified as beautiful in society.
Hair and identity continue to be topics of great interest in the Black community today. Many women are turning away from the chemically relaxed hair to the natural look. Filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa presented an Op-Doc on black women trading in their chemically processed hair for the natural look focusing on her own decision to do the same. The film and story was featured in the New York Times in May noting that the sales of chemical products had dropped by 17% between 2006 and 2011 as potential evidence for a natural hair trend.
And in November, I wrote a feature story about women in my hometown who have also traded in the chemically treated hair for the natural look. These references only skim the surface of this topic but if we dig and look into it, we can quickly see the significance of it in relation to how Black women view themselves.
Hair and a Biblical Worldview
So what is the Christian woman to think of all of this?
Though our conclusion may be different in terms of my Christian perspective, I agree with the general premise of what Dr. Patton has asked in her article: Am I more than my hair? As a Christian, the answer is simple: yes, I am.
As a woman who has been cleansed by the blood of Christ, I am much more than my hair. I would even go so far as to say that hair doesn’t matter in the least bit. God isn’t concerned about our hair-style; God is concerned about the condition of our hearts.
We see this theme throughout Scripture, but particularly when Peter is addressing husbands and wives. He writes, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4; emphasis mine).
He isn’t talking about a quiet woman, rather a woman who has been transformed by the gospel, transformed by the word of God. The moment God takes captive our wandering sinful hearts and changes the heart of stone into a heart of flesh, he also changes our identity (Ezekiel 11:19, 1 Peter 2:9). So the real question is what is my identity rooted in? Am I rooted in the Gospel or the world?
Paul appeals to us not to be conformed to this world, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
The good news is God saved us and he renews our minds (Titus 3:5). But we know our hearts and desires can be opposed to the Spirit that is within us. Paul understood this battle we face. He writes, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21).
Let me be clear, I am in no way saying a desire to be beautiful, or a desire to return to our natural roots (in terms of hair) is inherently sinful. No way. What I am saying is that if we are to think with a biblical worldview, it would seem that our highest aim isn’t to be identified by our hair or style and our highest concern shouldn’t be that either; rather we ought to desire to please and glorify the Lord.
Our identities aren’t rooted in our look (even if the world places stereotypical identifiers on us). Our confidence is that we are children of God; we are daughters of the Most High.
God is after an inner beauty that is grounded in the fear of the Lord. As we are all too familiar with, charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised (Proverbs 31:30).
[i] Tracey Owens Patton, “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair” Source: NWSA Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 24-51Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4317206
23 thoughts on “Hair and the Black Woman”
Black women’s hair throughout American history should be the title
Thank you for sharing this. My family and I are the only African Americans in our church as well and my oldest daughter sometimes compare her hair length with the other girls. My daughter has beautiful thick long hair but I don’t have her wear it down just yet. She thinks long hair is equated with beauty. But I try to tell her and am trying to exemplify that it does not matter if your hair is long, short curly etc. It is beautiful because that’s the way God made it
I meant transitioning
This is an excellent article. I am in process of transiting out of a relaxer and honestly I did get scared if wondering if I could keep up my hair without a relaxer. Thank you for the truth of God’s word. It is so on time!
Youngest (not you best daughter)
Thank you for writing this. My you best daughter was born in Africa (adopted). Her hair is very very very curly. Very tight curl and course hair. I love it natural but get lots of criticism everywhere I go. I get stopped all the time and questioned about what I doing with her hair. I knew getting hair “done” was a improtant but didn’t realize where it came from or why. (As far as not letting it go natural). I’m encouraged to keep it natural and try to teach her God made it and to love it herself. 🙂
Great article. I can relate to all that you wrote. I myself have made the switch and it has really been used by God to show me how do I really feel about the way He has made me. It’s also been good for my daughters to see how I look since we are the only blacks at our church. I want them to see that I’m proud of the hair that AA have and that I’m not my hair. One of my girls use to struggle with her being different than her white friends, but I don’t think she struggles like she used to due to me praying and striving to live by example that what God has made is beautiful and that no matter what my hair looks like, I’m still loved by God and my hair isn’t who I am. I’m made in His image and I’m to glorify Him in my life through my heart, not my hair.
It really does apply to anyone as you’ve pointed out. Thank you for sharing your interaction with the lady. I love moments like that because it’s often when I’m humbled by my self-focus or sin that I realize how alive I am in Christ! There’s a battle- praise God! Appreciate you, Kim.
Thanks for writing and reading, Chris.
Great article. This is one of those more subtle forms of racism that African American women face which is more difficult for Anglo-Americans/Caucasian folks to understanding. I had never thought of this issue until a friend kindly explained it to me, similar to how hou explained it well in this piece. I hope more folks, particularly Anglo folks, read the pieces put out on here. Its good for cultural awareness/intelligence. Also, thanks for bringing in the theology as well. We all are much more than our outward appearance and God certainly care far more about our character than what we decided to do with our appearance. Keep up the good work!
When I was a young woman, I was self conscious about my hair: poker straight, doesn’t hold a curl, fine, and on a humid day, there’s no point in styling it, because it has one mode: flat. For years, I did things to it. About three years ago, I was in line at the grocery store and a woman behind me spoke to me and said, “My dear, you have the loveliest hair.” She was wearing a kerchief, had no eyebrows, and was clearly in the process of chemotherapy treatments. I thanked her profusely. I wish I could have thanked her for more than the compliment, but for the chastening word that reminded me that we all have little insecurities on the inside, and as a Christian woman, if I’m caught up in them, then shame on me.
You are so right, Phoebe! We could all use a good reminder that God is not looking at our outward appearance. Good thoughts.
Amen! Yes, Lord deliver us all.
I’m so thankful this article was able to encourage you, too! Yes, those commercials aren’t very helpful. Glad you are able to push through the noise to find His truth!
Thanks for your kind encouragement, Lisa!
I join you in praying your 8 year old would find her confidence and security in Christ. Thank you for sharing! It sounds like you are doing a great job caring for her soul as she tries to understand her surroundings. Bless you!
Thanks for commenting. Yes, I think we can try to draw our significance from many things–other than God. I think you nailed it. God is so good to help us!
Nicely written, Trillia. Wondering if you’ve seen “Good Hair,” Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary about just this topic on which you write. (Well, not on the biblical perspective…) My eyes were opened to how much of my own self esteem is tied to my hair. I get it colored (went gray in my 20s…thanks a lot, Mom!), and blow dry it straight (it’s naturally curly and very susceptible to humidity).
In my experience, this is related to how I doubt my own value, and trying to solve that problem not by seeking God’s voice and words for me. I wonder if this is true for other sisters? If so, then we all need biblical reminders of how we are infinitely precious to God, wonderfully made, body and soul (Psalm 139: 14, The Message).
Thank you for posting this article. My daughter is bi-racial and struggling with this very issue. She is 8 and surrounded by friends with straight blonde hair. Not only does she want to be like her friends but desires a physical identity that is like her family. She is adopted. I have straight brown hair and my husband is a red head. We continue to reinforce how uniquely beautiful God has made her. Someday, by the power of the Holy Spirit she will see this and understand.
You are beautiful inside and out. I wish all women, would apply the revelation you’ve been given to whatever issue they struggle with…The things we end up making our identity. Satan preoccupies us all with some vanity or wound which we then maintain possibly for years. I so want this generation of women to grasp this with all their hearts. We are all made to love and be loved by God, and therefore beautiful in His eyes. We have to understand how He thinks in order to see ourselves rightly. Blessings sister, keep pursueing His heart.
I am 58 and God has given me a joy filled life. I need to be healthier and eat better. But the commercials that I can’t let influence me are the ones that say, my wife looks 10 years younger, I love it. Well I definitely don’t look ten years younger and thank God He does not look at our wrinkles. I can look my age or older. I loved the article and I pray that only what is important to Him will be important to me.
I’m a sixty-year-old white woman who fights a similar battle everyday. “Old” is not pretty, and “pretty” is everything in our fallen culture. Lord, deliver me ftom superficial values! Keep writing, sister!
Thank you for your article. I’m a white woman with wavy kinky hair who has used chemical straighteners for years. So, I don’t think your message is limited to black women. I think it’s for all women with every type of hair – but the same savior.