Applied Psychology OPUS

Hair Alteration Practices Amongst Black Women and the Assumption of Self-Hatred

Chanel Donaldson

Both academic research and popular culture often assume that Black women who alter their natural hair to make it straight are practicing a form of self-hatred (Banks, 2000; Thompson, 2009). The assumption is that hair straightening practices are “indicative of a hatred of black physical features and an emulation of white physical characteristics” (Banks, 2000, p. 43-44). In other words, Black women alter their naturally ‘kinky’ or ‘nappy’ hair because they want to distance themselves from an African heritage to appear White. In the United States, the White social position holds the most power and has the most privilege; being White means being automatically associated with positive characteristics, whereas being Black means being associated with negative characteristics. The social hierarchy that places Whiteness at the top and Blackness at the bottom makes logical the assumption of hair straightening as an attempt to associate oneself with Whiteness. However, it is erroneous to believe that hair straightening is a reflection of self-hatred and an attempt to be White in all cases.

Though ‘looking White’ is often the assumed motivation, there are many more factors that play into a Black woman’s decision to straighten her hair.  To dismiss all hair straightening practices as a form of self-hatred is an over-simplification that fails to take historical context and culturally embedded motivations into consideration. In order to come closer to a more complete understanding of the pervasiveness of hair alteration practices among Black women, five factors are addressed in this review: 1) slavery and internalization of White standards of beauty, 2) media and advertisements, 3) assimilation and economic security, 4) the easiness of maintenance, diversity in styles, and personal choice and 5) hair alteration as a cultural script. These five determinants play a huge role in a woman’s decision to alter her hair but are often overlooked. By highlighting the more nuanced, culturally embedded motivations for hair alteration, one can better understand why the practice has continued to be an important part of Black women’s daily lives for the last century and a half. The following review paper looked to explore these often-unrecognized alternative explanations for hair alteration by asking: For what reasons, besides self-hatred, do Black women alter their natural hair?

Slavery and Internalization of White Standards of Beauty

Slavery, racism, and White supremacy have had lasting negative effects on Black identity. The devaluation of African physical features, including hair, came as a result of being thrust into a cultural context where Blackness exists as the antithesis of beauty. A hierarchy imposed on Blacks by slave masters privileged those with lighter skin, straighter features, and straighter hair over those that reflected more African features (Abdullah, 1998; Banks, 2000; Patton, 2010; Robinson, 2011; Thompson, 2009). As a result, many Blacks developed a color complex, representing an intragroup preference for features that minimize African ancestry (Robinson, 2011). The “incorporation of anti-self and alien-self attitudes” (Abdullah, 1998, p. 198) into how Blacks see their own beauty is representative of the internalization of White supremacy, as well as a daily struggle to fit Black hair into the paradigm of White standards of beauty (Robinson, 2011). The implication of the color hierarchy imposed on slaves has been the collective restructuring of Black beauty ideals to parallel White ideals, which do not include African-like features.

The internalization of White beauty standards is particularly problematic for Black women because it acts as a barrier to attaining the ideal of femininity. The historically acknowledged picture of femininity in American society – pale skin, long hair, and non-working – did not apply to most Black women (Weathers, 1991). American femininity has thus “existed where the Black woman is a backdrop, an antithesis to white women” (Weathers, 1991, p. 59). In an attempt to fit into the model of White beauty, Black women have taken part in many ‘Whitening’ practices that include hair straightening. Such practices allow Black women to come closer to, but still never actually attain, the type of beauty they desire. Hair alteration is effective in transforming the Black woman into something that is simply adequate or sufficient rather than beautiful (Banks, 2000).

Despite White beauty being something that is unattainable for Black women (Rock, 2009), hair straightening techniques remain popular because they represent a chance to come a bit closer to the ideal. Beginning in the late 19th century, Black women (who have hair that is typically short and tightly curled into ‘kinks’ or ‘naps’) have resorted to the application of Sodium Hydroxide-based chemicals, which ‘relax’ or ‘perm’ the hair, heated tools such as hair irons or hot combs, or a combination of both to alter their hair. Since neither texture nor length of natural Black hair conforms to the traditional picture of American beauty, Black women must take drastic measures in order to come close to the dominant standards (Robinson, 2011). The internalization of White beauty ideals so thoroughly permeates Black women’s self-perceptions that hair alteration is more about feeling beautiful on a personal level than it is about looking White.  Not necessarily self-hatred nor a desire to be White, hair alteration is about working within internalized beauty paradigms to attain one small piece of what society defines as beautiful.

 Media and Advertisements

The preference for straight hair that originated in the days of slavery is especially highlighted in the media and advertisements. When thinking of Black female celebrities, it is a challenge to pick out any that have kinky hair (or at least celebrities that wear their hair in its naturally kinky form instead of altering it). Black women who are glorified for their beauty  tend to have long, wavy hair, because American standards of beauty encourage an adherence to whiteness (Patton, 2010). Straight hairstyles are also privileged in advertisements and Black hair magazines, with very few, if any, showcased styles that do not require straightening (Patton, 2010; Rock, 2009).

Not unique to the Black community, women and girls in all cultural groups draw upon images in the media to shape their definition of beauty. Media messages that promote straight hair include Black magazines and Black manufacturers of beauty products (Abdullah, 1998). The absence of celebrity role models and images of women in advertisements with kinky or natural hair subliminally links the natural image with non-beauty. The existing images reinforce a negative portrayal of Black women’s natural attributes by encouraging them to straighten their textured hair (Abdullah, 1998). If images of beautiful Black women with natural hair are few and far between, it is easy to understand why many women and girls could feel pressure to alter their own hair. Though hair alteration as a result of media and advertisements represents an emulation of White characteristics, it is not a direct reflection of self-hatred. In this case, hair alteration represents a means to emulate celebrity role models and mediated standards of beauty that fit within the framework of the dominant society’s standards of beauty.

Assimilation and Economic Security

            The example of altering kinky hair to emulate a celebrity role model can make it seem that hair straightening is always a free choice. However, in many cases the process is a social and economic necessity. Black women also use hair alteration techniques as an assimilation mechanism based on a “belief that on some level their daily lives could be affected in negative ways unless they straighten their hair” (Banks, 2000, p. 46). Historically, Black women adopted certain White cultural ideals such as the “groomed image of docility” as a survival tactic: they wanted to convey a non-threatening image to White society (Abdullah, 1998, p. 199). When interviewed for the documentary Good Hair (2009), actress Raven-Symoné related her understanding of hair straightening as a way to blend in and make those unfamiliar with Black hair, especially Whites, comfortable; relaxing one’s hair, she says, is a way to make everyone around you relaxed. The continuation of hair alteration techniques reflects a continued effort on the part of Black women to assimilate into ‘normal’ society by blending in and embodying a non-threatening image.

            As an extension of the assimilation concept, hair alteration can also represent a woman’s attempt to remain attractive in the job market. In the professional world, a Black woman with natural hair is often deemed unkempt and unemployable (Abdullah, 1998; Badillo, 2001; Rock, 2009; Thompson, 2009).  In fact, it is common for employers to take “punitive measures” to prohibit natural hair in the workplace (Thompson, 2009, p. 836). In one highly publicized case, Cheryl Tatum, a 37-year-old Hyatt cashier, was fired for refusing to take out her braided hairstyle. Her supervisor called the style “extreme and unusual” and considered it to be an overall breach in the company’s dress code policy (Byrd & Tharps, 2001; Shipp, 1987). If Ms. Tatum had chosen to straighten her hair, she likely would not have been fired. In instances where “the poor face serious obstacles and social insecurity,” a refusal to straighten one’s hair “can turn out to be expensive” (Badillo, 2001). In such circumstances, the decision of whether or not to alter one’s hair becomes rather involuntary.

            When the decision between conforming to the dominant standard of beauty through alteration and remaining natural is also the decision between economic security and destitution, it is easy to see why women submit to the pressure. Hair alteration practices by Black women can serve as an assimilation strategy as well as a representation of the lengths “black women in particular, have to go to in order to succeed” (Banks, 2000, p. 63). Rather than an action reflecting self-hatred, hair alteration can be a means of social and economic self-preservation.

Easy Maintenance, Diversity in Styles, and Personal Choice

            Despite the overwhelming and sometimes oppressive pressure, Black women can also have a personal preference for straightening their hair. When Black women who alter their hair are asked why they choose to do so, the overwhelming majority of women speak to the concepts of easy maintenance, diverse styles, and personal choice (Banks, 2000; Robinson, 2011; Rock, 2009). Put simply, many Black women feel that straight hair is more manageable and easier to comb (Banks, 2000). Women with kinky hair are often looking for a quick fix: “coarse, tight coils” of kinky hair are more difficult to comb than straightened hair, which is looser and thinner, making the process of combing easier (Robinson, 2011, p. 368). Caring for natural hair generally requires more effort and is more time consuming than caring for straightened hair. In cases where women are motivated by easy maintenance, hair alteration makes hair styling quicker, easier, and in general more convenient.  

            Just like women who alter for convenience, some women have a personal preference to alter their hair because they feel they can achieve a wider range of hairstyles. Arguably, kinky hair is more versatile than other types due to its unique ability to hold creative styles such as twists, braids, and curls (Robinson, 2011). Still, Black women often feel that there is a wider range of possibilities for styles with straight hair. Such a discrepancy is perhaps a result of the media bombarding women with images of straight hairstyles but not with natural hairstyles, which could make straight hair seem more versatile than kinky hair. Regardless, in this case the decision to straighten one’s hair is a direct expression of personal choice and preference.  

            In addition to easy maintenance and versatility, hair alteration can be a process of individual affirmation (Weathers, 1991). The personal choice ideology says that the decision to alter hair or leave it natural is a personal preference based on personal desire (Banks, 2000). Some argue that “straightened hair should be considered just another option amid a plethora of styling options,” rather than being “critically evaluated” for its social implications (Thompson, 2009, p. 838). Quite different from self-hatred, Black women may feel that their own hair alteration practices are representative of a desire for convenience and an expression of personal style.

Cultural Script

            Though Black women articulate a personal desire for straight hair, it is important to acknowledge the larger cultural script at play dictating the practice as a norm. Hair alteration amongst Black women is, in general, an expectation; it is difficult to find a Black woman living in America who has never before relaxed her hair. As actress Tracie Thoms said of her natural tresses in Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair (2009), “It is unbelievable to me that keeping my hair the same way that it naturally grows out of my head is something that is so revolutionary.” A three year old getting her second relaxer perfectly encapsulated this expectation when she told Rock, “Everyone is supposed to get a perm.” Hair alteration has become such an integral part of the Black female identity that it is done automatically, without much thought put into it (Banks, 2000). As a Black woman, to alter one’s hair is to follow the group standard.

            Like the three-year-old girl in the documentary, Black girls are coached from an early age about their hair. Dominant standards of beauty are so thoroughly internalized that most feel like the option to leave their hair natural does not even exist (Banks, 2000). Messages from the media, the normalcy of the practice, and the hair valuations of others (mothers in particular) help reinforce the concept that hair alteration is the only acceptable hair practice. To be accepted, to be beautiful, and to be desirable, Black women are told to alter their natural hair. As opposed to self-hatred, hair alteration embodies the mode of adherence to a strict and powerful cultural norm.

Limitations and Discussion

            The current literature suggests that women with natural hairstyles are more likely to agree with the self-hatred theory, whereas those with altered hair are more likely to find alternative explanations (Banks, 2000). As a Black woman who alters her natural hair in order to make it straight, I am aware of a potential personal bias, and would like to make the readers of this review aware of it as well.

Regardless of potential biases based on personal connection, this review provides numerous explanations behind the popularity of hair alteration practices for Black women that counter the reductive assumption of self-hatred. To dismiss all hair alteration by Black women as an expression of self-hatred is offensive, judgmental, and a gross oversimplification because it fails to take into consideration the many culturally embedded motivations of hair alteration. Most simply, the self-hatred theory reflects a general ignorance of Black hair culture. Hair alteration takes place as a result of the combination of historical legacy, media images, economic security, personal choice, an adherence to cultural norms, and many other factors that were too numerous to quantify in this review. A more nuanced picture of Black hair culture and the motivations for alteration informs our understanding of the unique and frequently overlooked identity struggles Black women face at the intersection of race and gender. In acknowledging these struggles, hopefully we will get closer to eliminating them altogether.


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