Media attitudes toward hair reveal racism

this week, the Internet has been ablaze regarding Giuliana Rancic’s comment on E!’s “Fashion Police” about actress Zendaya Coleman’s dreadlocks at the Oscars. Rancic remarked that Coleman’s hair looked like it smelled like patchouli oil, which was followed by another remarking “or weed.” While celebrity drama is usually baseless noise, this incident brings glaring issue in our society to the forefront regarding beauty standards for women of color, especially those of mixed ethnicity.

As a multiracial woman, reading this news caused a resurgence of painful memories. It reminded me of being ridiculed at my predominantly white Catholic school, where, from first grade on, girls would point out how “frizzy” and “poofy” and “big” my hair was. Even when I got older and entered a much more diverse public school in fourth grade, the boys joined in on the jokes about my hair, which did unthinkable damage to my self-esteem. From the ages of seven to 14, the idea of anyone seeing my hair in its natural state terrified me. I blew it out weekly and flat ironed it daily, spending hours trying to make my hair as straight as possible. When my aunt would blow out my hair for me, pulling it tight around a huge round brush, she would answer my “Ow!”s with “Beauty is pain. Do you want your hair to be straight or not?” I cried countless tears over my hair and wondered why I could not have inherited my father’s wavy, German locks rather than my mother’s thick, curly mess. It took an unsolicited chop from my aunt, who deemed my hair too damaged to go on, for me to begin to accept my hair in its natural state. Being another multiracial woman, I am almost certain that Coleman has endured similar struggles with her natural hair, especially as a person in the public eye.

For women, hair is one of the largest determinants of beauty, and we are made well aware of this from a young age. In the media that girls consume, it is extremely rare to see an actress or pop singer wearing her hair naturally curly, kinky, or anywhere in between. Instead, these child stars, including Coleman herself, are consistently shown with straightened hair. This could be the fault of the industry and its style standards, but I am convinced that many of these girls were probably unopposed to wearing their hair straight. By the time they reach school age, minority girls have already been exposed to words like “kinky,” “nappy” and “wild,” and have been inundated with images of beautiful women with long, flowing, straight hair. Why wouldn’t they want to embody what everyone around them insists is beautiful? From blowouts to expensive products and and dangerous chemicals, girls and women of color go to great lengths to achieve what is unnatural and to fit white standards.

If you go into any salon with “mixed” or “ethnic” hair, as they’ll call it, hairdressers will assume that you want your hair blown out in the end. I have had numerous hairdressers suggest hairstyles for me that are simply unattainable for my natural texture, such as bangs and choppy layers; when I reminded them of this, they said “Well, you can just straighten it.” The lack of education in non-white hair that hairdressers receive is alarming, considering the fact that women of color spend so much more time and money on their hair. I was informed last week that in beauty schools, students are instructed on basic technique which is usually practiced on straight hair and that optional additional education is still needed to learn how to style ethnic hair. Because this requires extra time and money, most do not take these courses and are incapable of working with hair that is not straight. Inspiration for natural styles is also scarce, especially for girls of mixed ethnicity: just Google “Naturally Curly Hairstyles.” The results are mainly not even natural hair, but hair that has been styled curly and therefore lacks the volume, weight and unpredictability of natural hair. Because ethnic and multiracial hair is so diverse, it can seem difficult to represent all variations, but unrealistic representations do not help in the least. When it comes to maintaining a natural style, it can become quite expensive when you have to pay for a cut, exorbitantly priced products (such as JessiCurl, Ouidad, and Mixed Chicks,) diffusers and other special tools, making heat or chemical straightening seem more economical and alluring.

Fortunately, twist outs and braided styles are more practical and gaining popularity thanks to websites supporting these “niche” styles. However, some mixed hair cannot sustain these methods and finding easy styles can still be tedious for those whose hair does not fit a certain definition. Coleman’s decision to wear dreadlocks should not have even been a point of conversation—after all does anyone remark when Rancic wears her hair in a ponytail—but because of the prejudices within American beauty standards. Something must be done both in the media and in homes to halt the discrimination that women face when they decide to “go natural,” which should not have to be as big of a decision as it currently is. In Coleman’s very astute response to this incident, she said that “[her] wearing [her] hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough.” More people in the public eye should follow Coleman’s example and help spread this message to the POC community. Perhaps more importantly, role models in the home should follow suit: it is also up to mothers, aunties, sisters, brothers and fathers to instill in our youth that they can ignore and break down the norm starting with their hair.


—Sophia Burns ’18 is a student at Vassar College.

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