Why Your Well-Meaning Discourse About The H&M Messy Hair Ad Is Actually Doing Us A Disservice
It's time we stop defining our hair by parameters that oppress us.
September 25, 2019 at 5:28 pm
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H&M came under fire this past week for what many have considered their second racially insensitive ad campaign. Children from varying ethnic backgrounds modeled for the retailer brand donning messy hair, but it was one photo of a dark-skinned Black girl that caused a stir of backlash. Given the cultural and sociopolitical history of contempt towards Black hair, it's not hard to understand why this image evoked a visceral reaction in so many Black folks, though many people within the community have come to the ad's defense.
Some have blamed respectability politics for eliciting outrage over the child's messy type 4 hair. Others suggested that nappy hair is good hair and there was no need to feel shame over the ad. Though slowly dying with the rise of the natural hair movement, the age-old debate of good hair vs. bad hair in the Black community still prevails, and even in the most well-meaning discourse, it is doing us a disservice.
Certainly critique is warranted towards a fashion brand who has a history of tone-deaf infractions which one could only assume is a result of not having enough people of color on their creative team. Had they had a Black person involved in the decision making for this ad, they would've been able to offer insight into why unkempt hair is a particularly touchy subject for Black folks — hair is not just hair for us.
Hair is a measure of our pride, self-worth and, whether we choose to subscribe to it or not, how much we are respected. For centuries, Black hair has been the subject of policing and ridicule, and for much of our history, we have accepted manipulating our hair into acceptability as a beauty norm. Though we may not have always been afforded the freedom of being respected in society wearing our hair as is, the mutability of our hair has given us a wide range of choices in how we choose to wear it.
When examining this ad, we should consider the choice made by the guardian of this child who signed off on the decision to portray her in this way. If they wanted to adhere to the often ridiculously high standards for hair on Black children within the community, they could've opted out. Instead, they made the decision to have their child participate in this campaign with messy hair just like the rest of the kids — and why not? It is, after all, an accurate depiction of what type 4 natural hair can look like when it's messy.
Over the past 10 years we've seen the natural hair movement expand and evolve into a multi-million dollar industry. Black women have ditched chemicals, not just for political reasons, but because for the first time in our history we've prioritized hair care over presentation. We know how to nurture it, whereas previous generations only knew how to make it look more presentable (conks, relaxers, Jheri curls, etc). We ditched hair grease for curling creams and pink lotion for leave-ins, but the amount of time we spend tending to our hair remains unchanged. We spend hours watching YouTube tutorials, roaming through beauty supply stores, going to hair salons and sitting on folding chairs in living rooms getting our hair braided. Regardless of style, the labor-intensive maintenance of our hair is non-optional for the modern Black woman (unless of course, you are bald or have a teeny weeny afro). For many of us, an image of a Black child with unkempt hair in such a public space is not just offensive, it's unrelatable.
While we deserve to take pride in our hair regardless of what state it is in, the fact remains that hair can be neither good nor bad, it is hair. It has no moral compass. The idea that hair could be bad is rooted in anti-Blackness dating back to slavery and was further reinforced during Reconstruction Era beauty standards pioneered by Madam C.J. Walker. Hair can be healthy, dull or unkempt, none of which are exclusive to texture, race or color. When challenging the notion that a Black girl should have perfectly coiffed hair at all times or even the idea that portrayals of unmaintained hair are culturally insensitive, stating whether our hair is good or not is ineffectual because it is in essence a subscription to the very respectability politics that have policed our hair for our entire history in this country.
Whether you find unkempt Black hair to be offensive or feel completely indifferent about it, it all boils down to personal preference. Having the choice to wear your hair natural, weaved, relaxed, dreaded or otherwise is one of the most glorious things about being a Black woman. Though in that glory, we share the tacit reality that with these choices, we are always faced with potential consequences. Will we be called nappy or baldheaded? Will we lose our jobs? Will we be kicked out of school? Will we be judged?
As someone who spent the late 2000s fellowshipping in forums like Black Hair Media and has been natural for over 10 years, I have firsthand experience with these fears. I remember wearing a small afro for the first time and how ugly I felt, yet still feeling a desire to learn how to accept myself in my natural state. Through my transition to natural hair, I fostered my own unique look and gained a level of confidence I never had before. I eventually decided I would no longer straighten my hair for job interviews. I did not want to deal with the emotional turmoil of working in a place where the sheerness of my hair growing out of my scalp the way God intended was seen as unprofessional. I went from doubting my beauty and questioning the respectability of my hair to challenging those who felt it was their place to be the authority on it. I willfully removed myself from spaces that refused to include me as I am.
As we work towards deconstructing outdated perceptions of Black hair within and outside of our community, we must also dismantle the notion that opinions about our hair are even worth considering. When we define hair as good or bad, we are operating within the system that has oppressed our hair for centuries. To say our hair is an important part of our culture would be to wildly understate its significance; it is sacred. And like all sacred things, it is to be respected without apology, appraisement or explanation.