Don't Apply White Beauty Standards To Black Women

If you've checked Twitter or the intersectional feminist blogosphere today, you may be familiar with the #LessClassicallyBeautiful hashtag that's trending on Twitter in response to a New York Times piece that describes Viola Davis, leading lady in Shonda Rhimes' new How to Get Away With Murder, as such. Because Davis does not have a narrow nose, pale skin, and long, flowing locks, the Times has deemed her a physical outlier among attractive women. It's only the latest instance in a centuries-old tradition of suggesting that whiteness is the ultimate standard of beauty.

Twitter has erupted with black women posting photo after photo of themselves sporting glowing skin, natural hair, and big smiles. These women are beautiful, and there is nothing less than classic about it. But black women are told again and again (by the media, by society, by our own families and friends) that we should aspire to the white version of beauty, and no one is beyond the reaches of this lesson. Even two-year-old Blue Ivy has been criticized for having natural hair. When I dared to eschew mainstream ideas of acceptable hairstyles, I was met with criticism as well.

In March 2011, I headed to the barber's chair to chop off my smooth, silky tresses. I'd been using relaxers in my hair from the age of seven, so it was impossible for me to know what my natural curl pattern was. All I knew was that I was tired of visiting a salon every six weeks to have lye applied to my scalp. Witnessing the freeing natural-hair craze overtaking my alma mater, Bennett College, encouraged me to take the plunge on that warm spring afternoon in Greensboro, North Carolina.

I walked in with a slick Halle Berry–esque pixie (much like Davis' in the show, though she often wears her hair natural) and left with a fierce, blonde, Caesar cut. There was less than an inch of hair on my head. It was tapered at the neck, but completely shaved everywhere else. I was prepared for the gasps of disbelief when I first unveiled my new look — I even could have accepted speculating questions. But nothing equipped me for the backlash to my new hairdo.

“Girl, I don’t what possessed you to do that.”

“It’s cute, I guess, but don’t do that again.”

“You spend a few semesters at an all-women’s college and choose to lose your mind.”

And this was just the beginning of the hurtful commentary from relatives. While most of my peers adored it and often complimented the look, the response from those I cherish most was less than welcoming.

Opting to chop my tresses wasn’t an act of defiance. But to family members who pride themselves on long, flowing tresses that are soft to the touch and curly at the ends, my lack of bouncy, soft hair was a sin. Twelve strokes of a barber’s clippers and my family saw me as a lunatic who was lacking common sense and couldn't possibly make logical decisions about my appearance. I second-guessed the decision. I faltered in my confidence because these words became mantras that I constantly repeated and believed.

“That school has gotten to you. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”

“You’ve been turned out.”

“Are you a lesbian?”

The conflation of my hairstyle with my sexual orientation and ability to groom myself is nothing new in the black community. Our coifs can be political statements, assimilations into mainstream culture, and even odes to ancestors. Some black women purchase their hair while others wear it chemically-altered. But no matter how we style our tresses, our hair is a visible representation of our identity — and that often leaves black women, and our children, ripe for scrutinizing.

Having presumably unkempt tresses has always been abhorred in black American communities, according to historian Tiffany Gill. At the Politics of Black Hair conference at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, Gill explained why black girl hair is always tamed, and what this meant in black families.

“That was a sign that you were a cared-for child,” she said. “That was a sign that someone loved you enough to sit you between their legs and snatch your hair.”

But for Blue Ivy, a child whose mother has spent the majority of her life under bundles of weave, allowing her untamed ‘fro to roam free may be a vigilant act of love. In essence, Beyoncé allows Blue to be a carefree black girl, a term created and boasted through social media. Writer Patricia Ekpo offers a definition of the carefree black girl at Bluestockings Magazine :

These images depict black women smiling or laughing, often in natural settings such as fields, woods, or bodies of water, but they do not have to be. CFBGs often depict women with natural hair as these images seem to stem from an embrace of the eclectic and convey a “hippie” aesthetic with head wraps and beads. They sometimes feature women with multicolored hair and untraditional sartorial choices such as suits or un-matching prints. Many times they are selfies showcasing new hair and beauty choices but are more often pictures of black women doing things like riding a bike, dancing in the street, or lying happily in bed. An important aspect of the Carefree Black Girl is motion, movement that is un-choreographed, unmitigated, exuberant, sometimes languid, but always full of life. The key here is freedom. Freedom of expression, emotion, and presentation.

Blue Ivy Carter is a carefree black girl, but in a world where black girls are subjected to racism, sexism, and colorism. As Gill explains, black people adopted specific hairstyles to convey respectability — or an appeal to be seen as human, and thus, worthy of cultural respect. Blue's kinky ‘fro has true consequences, just as Davis' features do. As Kara Brown explains, these societal demands “teach people of color that their personal beauty increases the closer it is to traits commonly associated with whiteness (i.e. lighter skin and straighter hair).”

All black girls and women deserve affirmation when it comes to their hair and skin and features. Whether skin is dark or light, their coils are kinky, straight, curly or a mixture of the three, teaching black girls to love their physical selves is critical to affirming them as beautiful, as worthy, as not what the media portrays them to be.

I wish I’d had that affirmation when I debuted my blonde Caesar, but more than three years later, I am completely comfortable with my decision. I proudly wear my hair, and my family has finally accepted that I'll never again wear a relaxed style. Here's hoping all black women can find such acceptance. No matter how society categorizes it, we are all beautiful.