When I walk for miles at a time on my family’s treadmill in our basement/gym, I am almost always watching television. If I’m watching Hulu, that means enduring the commercials. But it was one commercial that finally hit me in a way I didn’t expect.
You might have seen one of L’Oreal’s commercials about its Revitalift serum. The commercial features Eva Longoria, Gemma Chan and Aja Naomi King. While I didn’t really have any opinions on Longoria or Chan’s hair, I found I had a ton of thoughts on King’s pulled-back hairstyle.
Her hair, which I assume was a ponytail, was artfully messy, with flyaways decorating the scraped-back sides of her hair. “Why do they have her looking so messy on this commercial?” Keep in mind, her hair wasn’t really that messy. But I was still anxious and frustrated with the idea that the stylist might have done King a disservice–that other people would use her hair as an excuse to denigrate her beauty.
I remember my concern was if other people would think she looked worse than Chan or Longoria, or if people would make fun of her. Or just as bad, I was afraid of the possibility of other Black people would make fun of her or think she wasn’t a good representation just because of her hair.
But then I caught myself. Even though I’d seen that commercial before and had similar thoughts, this time I felt disturbed by my thought process. Why was I thinking this? Even though the commercial is about an anti-aging serum, why was I focusing on what people would think about King’s hair? It was then I realized that my fears were part of the internalized paranoia Black women grow up within America, especially when it comes to our hair.
Hair is a big deal with Black women, me included. We Black women all have our own unique journeys with hair. But the one commonality is that we have all been made to feel weird about our hair and its relationship to race. Either it’s too “nappy,” too “straight,” an obstacle to assimilate into white society, or a signifier that you might have assimilated “too much.” If you have a looser grade of hair, then some people feel like you’re more beautiful than women with tighter coils. Ditto if you have longer hair versus shorter hair. If you have kinkier hair, your hair has to be able to become voluminous and eye-popping; if your hair only grows into a tight afro, forget about it. There are so many litmus tests for Black hair, and the contradicting rules mean that no Black woman can ever feel too secure within the confines of “acceptable” Black hair.
When it comes to hairstyling, similar contradictions abound. Styles people with naturally straight hair can get away within the mainstream, such as an intentionally messy bun, are seen as stylish on those people. But on a Black person’s head, she is apt to become a subject of ridicule by Black and non-Black people alike. A case in point, is Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, who faced intense criticism from the internet just because her bun was getting messy as she was literally competing, i.e. jumping, somersaulting, and twirling, stuff not many of us can do.
People tweeted at the time of Douglas competing between 2012 and 2016, “gabby Douglas be having more bad hair days than me.” “Can somebody do something to Gabby Douglas hair please?” Who let Gabby Douglas out of the house with her hair lookin like that?” “I know this isn’t important, but can someone get Gabby Douglas a hair stylist? Looking crazy on TV right now.”
As Renee Martin wrote on Medium, many Black women and girls have been chastized about having “nappy edges” on television, usually by other Black people. As she wrote, “To be Black and female in this world is to eternally be found wanting, and for Black women in the public eye, it’s impossible to scape policing, criticism, and shame.”
“…The most insidious parts of the ongoing attacks against Gabby’s hair is that they are being perpetuated by Black women,” she continued. “Black women don’t have the privilege of being seen as individuals, and so we police each other in fear that the actions of another will affect us, too. These acts of discipline are often framed as a kindness, akin to telling someone they have spinach in their teeth. But in fact, they stem partly from internalized racism, partly from the conviction that only impeccable appearance and demeanor can spare Black people from the worst effects of white supremacy…It’s why, during the ’60s, protesters marched in their Sunday best. It’s why Black parents today still stress appropriate attire and presentation to their kids.”
Indeed, I’ve also heard my parents’ anxiety about how my siblings and I looked when we went outside. They never thought we were ugly and always encouraged us to see ourselves as beautiful. But still, we always went outside with fresh hair, appropriate clothes, and a greased face. Someone might think racist stuff about us, but they weren’t going to get any amunition from our appearance.
That anxiety, particularly with hair, carried over into my adulthood, too. At an outing, I’m usually overdressed when I’m not trying to be. On a Zoom call, even with friends, I will most often have a full face of makeup and freshly-styled hair. Only recently have I begun just showing up as myself on a zoom call, and when I did, I felt naked and open to being judged. In all of these times, my edges, the kinkier parts of my hair, have been a big concern. Usually, they are tamed with gel and lotion, otherwise, I would hear questions from well-meaning family if I’d finished styling my hair, and I understand why, because I’ve grown to have the same questions myself. If my edges aren’t tamped down, I feel undone, like someone will judge me just because of how my hair behaves.
Enter the L’Oreal commercial featuring King with flyways. It was a more glamorous version of Gabby Douglas’ hair, whose hairstyle was ruffled by tumbling for the gold. King’s was ruffled for fashion, but I still hoped she wouldn’t be made fun of by others watching the commercial. But like I said, I checked myself. I thought about how I didn’t have those same worries about Chan or Longoria, even though Longoria’s hairstyle was the same as King’s. I realized that as much as I fight against America’s racist programming, I still learned some damaging stuff. “King’s hair has just as much right to be messy as Longoria’s or Chan’s,” I told myself. “I need to leave her alone.” And so I did. And in my mind, I thanked her for that lesson.
The lesson from this story is that we all will never fully outgrow the damage we’ve internalized. Even the “wokest” among us still has some junk to uproot. And realizing that the junk is there doesn’t make us bad, nor does it make us any less aware of racist issues in the nation. It just means we’re human, and humans by nature are gullible. Once you know better, you do better. So now that I know better, I hope I will remember to do better when it comes to accepting Black women’s flyaways, including my own.