The Sociology of Hair and the Global Natural Hair Movement
By Chelsea Johnson
I’ve spent the last few years thinking a lot about hair. As PhD candidate in sociology studying race, gender and embodiment, I see hair as a starting place for unpacking broad stories about self, politics, and society.
While hair seems at first an individual matter, our experiences clearly show that hairstyling is also very social. Wash days are when many of us learned from our mothers, sisters, and grandmothers how to care for ourselves and how to prepare our bodies for the outside world. Like many Black girls who grew up in the 1990s, I learned that straightened hair was the epitome of beauty—a look fit for Easter Sunday. To this day, the smell of burning hair instantly takes my mind back my childhood kitchen in early spring.
Hair also communicates our identities and commitments to those around us. Recall how the recent blockbuster film Black Panther used an intricate display of dreadlocks, braids, cornrows and fades in the service of its larger messages about culture, race, and conflict between Africa and its diaspora. The way we style, cut, shave, laser, braid, relax, or sculpt our hair suggests our ethnicity, age, religion, class, gender and politics to others. For examples, people often associate Dreadlocks with Rastafarianism, weaves with Black glamour (hello Real Housewives of Atlanta), and picked-out Afros with radical Black activists who declared “Black is Beautiful” in the 1970s.
The social aspect of hair is a fundamental premise of my dissertation research. My work focuses on the natural hair movement to help sociologists better understand Black women’s perspectives on race, class, and gender in the 21st century. In calling it a natural hair movement, women of color have insisted that their hair is not only an aesthetic choice, but a political one too. Black women are simultaneously challenging white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic exclusion through the natural hair movement by rejecting ideas that long, straight hair is more feminine, professional, or beautiful.
With the help of social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Tumblr, natural hair has become a global phenomenon over the last decade. Accordingly, my research has taken me across the United States and to South Africa, the Netherlands, and Brazil. I discovered that the natural hair movement expresses itself in unique ways around the world, since political climates differ across the African diaspora.
Black beauty politics tends to interact with other, state-based social movements to shape how women experience, discuss, and think about the power of hair. For example, alongside the male-centered, street-focused Black Lives Matter Movement to end police brutality, the natural hair movement allows Black American women to make their gendered experiences of racism and their right to bodily integrity legible. In the United States, you may notice that we talk a lot about organic product ingredients and natural hair as a form of health care. In South Africa, however, dismantling grooming policies against natural hair in schools has become the centerpiece of young girls’ demands for decolonized education alongside the Fees Must Fall Movement.
In the Netherlands, the politics of natural hair is often discussed alongside critiques of Zwarte Piet, a Dutch Christmas character who dons a curly wig and blackface (Google it to see for yourself!) The large Afro-Surinamese and Afro-Antillean population in Holland widely considers the clown-like character an offensive reminder of the Netherland’s violent, suppressive, and racist colonial history. Reclaiming natural hair and resisting Zwarte Piet are twin sides of effort to acknowledge the impacts of past and present Dutch racism.
In Brazil, natural hair politics emerges alongside Movimento Negro, meaning “Black Movement” which calls for racializing Brazil’s state policies to account for Afro-Brazilian people’s limited access to higher education, housing, and sustainable employment. Afro-Brazilian women’s transitions to natural hair are often a first step to developing a Black political identity and racial consciousness, as well as a practical defense for affirmative action eligibility.
Natural hair is beautiful—but my research finds that it is more than just that. Black women are powerfully declaring that their hair has personal, cultural, and political meaning. A sociological analysis highlights how the natural hair movement is doing important social justice work around the world.
What does your hair say about you?