Unbonding our Edges: The Pain of Black Beauty Standards

Irene Wakarindi, Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

When the saga of a Black American woman’s hair misadventures became a social media sensation, Irene Wakarindi couldn’t bring herself to laugh. TikTok star Tessica Brown’s “hair that went wrong” is a sobering reminder of the pain that is intimately bound up with  persistent prejudices about Black women’s bodies

Until last week, I had never heard of Gorilla Glue. But the brand name was trending all over social media last weekend, and I was curious to see what it was about. I wondered if it had anything to do with the famous Silverback gorilla in Rwanda. Or if it was going to be about a funny video clip or cartoon meme about the world’s largest primates.

Instead, the reason that Gorilla Glue was in the news was because one day in January, a Louisiana woman who had run out of her go-to hair gel when she needed to lay her edges ended up slicking down her hair with industrial strength spray glue instead.

The result was that Tessica Brown’s hair quickly turned rock-solid, clinging to her scalp despite countless attempts to wash the glue off. “My hair has been like this for about a month now,” she despaired in a TikTok video that has now been watched over 35 million times.

While millions of people poked fun at her predicament, I couldn’t bring myself to laugh about it. Not because I am oh so self-righteous, but because Tessica’s pain felt so familiar to me. Black girls the world over have always shared stories about Black female beauty standards and the societal pressure to accept pain in the pursuit of beauty – even when we strive so hard and are still found wanting. In the Kikuyu language, for example, there’s a saying, “mwendi uthaka ndacayaga”. Loosely translated, it means that they who seek beauty ought to be content with the pain it brings.

When I was growing up, I learned that feeling pain so as to meet the societal standards of “beauty” was normal. On the weekends, we would sit down to have hair oil applied to our edges before an iron comb, or “hot comb” as we called it, was heated on the stove and run through our hair. For Black women and girls alike, pain in the pursuit of beauty and the quest to “tame” our hair is still normalised, whether we are wearing our braids, weaving a sew-in, or using chemical relaxers to create “good” hair. It’s normal to have to swallow paracetamol before having our hair done, because we know our heads are going to hurt for a day or even more.

In our daily lives, Black women have always had to deal with the intersectional pressures of racism, classism and sexism. It’s clear that our beauty standards are deeply rooted in past and present oppression; the way we look, from our hair to our bodies to our skin, is constantly undervalued. It seems that as Black women, try as we may, we can never come close to being as appreciated, as welcome, as “normal” as the women who live up to all those Eurocentric ideals of beauty: straight hair, white skin, slimmer facial features, different bodies.

In the workplace, in schools, and even in our own communities, anti-Black hair sentiments are all too often presented as normal, neutral and necessary. Even in Africa, Black hair and Black hairstyles ranging from afros, braids and cornrows to dreadlocks and twists are considered unprofessional and out of place. A recent academic study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science indicated that women who wear “typically Black” hairstyles are considered less competent, and are more likely to be victims of implicit bias during the recruitment process.

In 2019, an award-winning US news anchor, Brittany Noble, was fired after wearing “unprofessional natural hair”. And this is not a phenomenon confined to the Global North: in 2016, a South African school banned girls from wearing natural hairstyles on the grounds that it made them look “untidy”. Even today, it is striking that comments by renowned Jamaican activist and orator Marcus Garvey, who died in 1940, still sound audacious. In encouraging Black women to embrace their natural hair, he said, “Don’t remove kinks from your hair. Remove them from your brain.” Attempting to follow white Eurocentric standards of beauty, Garvey believed, denigrated the beauty of Black women.

The sense that Black women’s bodies are out of place is persistent, and ideas one would hope had been consigned to history keep turning up in new places and new guises, such as the online dating world of the 21st century. A 2014 study by OKCupid found that 82% of its non-Black male heterosexual users showed some bias against Black women. One can infer, moreover, that this is a bias that does not manifest itself exclusively online.

This, therefore, is why we must celebrate signs of hope that Black women are beginning to embrace their own beauty as it is, and leave behind the pain and self-doubt that comes from trying to conform to the traits and standards of other bodies, other cultures. A promising sign is the growth, in recent years, of the natural Black hair community. In Kenya, in Nairobi alone there are now close to 30 hair salons that are meeting the rising demand from women who want their natural hair cared for. Globally, the natural hair community is reaching far and wide via YouTube and social media channels, in a digital progression of the “Black is Beautiful” movement that began in the 1960s. A quick search on Instagram will turn up nearly 30 million “natural hair” posts, which suggests that celebrating the beauty of Black hair is now “in”. So “in”, in fact, that Black female entrepreneurs are now selling natural hair clip-ins.

Furthermore, recent market research by Mintel showing that haircare expenditure by Black consumers in the US was expected to reach $2.51 billion in 2018 also found that 40% of Black women said they preferred to wear their hair natural (with no heat or chemical styling). Hair relaxers, the same survey indicated, were expected to become the smallest segment of the market by 2025.

Around the world, Black women still find themselves in the crosshairs of other people’s definitions of beauty. Tessica Brown, whose tale of pain and shame has fortunately had a happy ending, was not the first or last Black woman desperate to ensure that not a single hair on her head was out of place. It’s time for societies – and all of us who live in them – to stop policing ideas of what beauty is. It’s high time that Black women no longer have to choose between embracing their identities, and embracing their personal, social, professional and economic potential.

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Irene Wakarindi is a Kenyan development professional and an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. She tweets at @WordsWithNash

Photo collage includes (CC-BY-2.0 Creative Commons) images:
cottonbro, Dellon Thomas, Askar Abayev (all Pexels)
Zach Vessels, Kim Carpenter (both Unsplash)
PXhere 1 and Pxhere 2
Main image, centre: Irene Wakarindi

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Unbonding our Edges: The Pain of Black Beauty Standards

This blog post was previously published on the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity website

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