This obsession with black women’s hair isn’t liberating
Black and anti-racist activists are suddenly deadset on reducing black women to their hairstyles
Photographer An Le made an excruciating apology to actress Lupita Nyong’o this week after she accused him of erasing her ‘heritage’ by editing out some of her hair in a cover photo for Grazia magazine. Nyong’o said the edit was intended to ‘fit a more Eurocentric notion of what beautiful hair looks like’. In his apology, Le agreed that the photo editing was an ‘unbelievably damaging and hurtful act’.
And so an artistic decision by a photographer has been politicised and presented as an attack on black women. Personally, I think the erasing of part of her hair highlights the incredible beauty of her facial features.
The singer Solange Knowles, whose songs include ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ and who argues that hair-braiding is an ‘act of beauty, an act of convenience and an act of tradition’, also received an apology last month from the London Evening Standard for airbrushing out the top section of her braided hair. The editing was labelled an act of racism and caused a social-media storm.
The inference here is that cropping a black woman’s hair from photos is a rejection of her identity. What a shallow view of black women’s identity these people seem to have. Well, this black woman is telling you that she is not reducible to her kinky hair, the size of her hips, the colour of her skin or the thickness of her lips.
We are told that natural hair is part of our heritage and needs to be celebrated – the implication being that those of us who decide to change our hair are not authentically black. This sanctification of black women’s hair is not liberating. It reduces us to our appearance, while policing what others can say and do. Let’s break out of this mould and make clear that we won’t be defined by our hairstyles.
Dr Christine Louis-Dit-Sully is a writer and researcher.