Photograph by Rose Othol, Makeup by Toni Derry

Questioning Beauty Standards: The Politics of Afro Hair

Photograph by Rose Othol, Makeup by Toni Derry

The culture of beauty standards within the black community are heavily charged, and therefore require a nuanced approach when looking within the cultural dynamics. Recently, I have noticed a positive outlook wherein naturalism is embraced, and the tight curls that once were a source of shame, now majestically frame the faces of proud women of African heritage. In noticing these changes, it was the ideal opportunity to interview Rohmarra Kerr, a talented stylist who artfully creates ornate hairstyles on women of colour. As the conversation unfolds, we shall see how hair is not only an aspect of beauty, but how it ultimately operates as a socio-political signifier in society.

 

An astute approach is embraced by Rohmarra, as she encourages her customers to see beauty in Afro-textured hair; during the stylings, a process of deconstruction is at work, as the preconceived notions of ‘nappy’ hair is gradually replaced by positive beliefs. Rohmarra emphasises how she ‘tr[ies] to make them feel just as beautiful as anyone else,’ as hair texture and skin colour have been the two features that are often the focus of black racial shame within the Eurocentric standard of beauty. Maxine Craig, author of Ain’t I A Beauty Queen has observed that ‘grooming practices …[are] personal actions that could be taken to win respect despite living in a hostile environment’; the body of a black woman is the battlefield of contrasting ideals, and therefore must be prepared to face the backlash of the dominant aesthetic model of beauty. One of Rohmarra’s greatest challenges as a hair stylist is ‘convincing [her] Afro-Caribbean customers that their hair is not tough,’ as they tend to resort to using weaves and chemical straightening procedures to make their haircare more ‘manageable.’ In light of this, we can see how acceptance is central to being comfortable with oneself, as being understanding of the societal ‘Other’ leads to enlightenment and personal happiness. Interestingly, Maxine Craig observes that ‘a black woman’s straightened hair [is] a dignified form of self-presentation’ in everyday life; it appears that assimilation into society requires the individual’s abandonment of their authenticity, in order to operate within Maxine Craig’s notion of ‘white visions of female beauty.’

 

Photograph by Devon, Make Up by Mermaid Painting

Photograph by Devon, Make Up by Mermaid Painting

 

On a wider scale, there is a symbolic element to Afro hair, in which it functions as a powerful image of struggle, marginalisation and ultimately, rebellion. Rohmarra observed that for ‘such a long time, the European standard was the acceptable form of beauty in our society….[and] if your hair was not European textured…[with that sleek look to it, you weren’t even [considered to be professional].’ This notion of being ‘taken seriously’ on the basis of appearance has been clearly damaging to the self-esteem of many women of African descent; the notion of ‘shame’ perpetuates, as those who do not have European features feel excluded, and consequently devalue their own, natural phenotype. Rohmarra went on to point out that ‘hair in itself had [made it more difficult] to move [beyond] the social barriers,’ and therefore created a hierarchy within the European and black communities. In the United States, the legacy of slavery lives on within the division between light skinned and dark skinned people of African descent; within the female canon of ‘black’ beauty, mixed race women are praised for their ‘good hair,’ which is typically softer with defined curls, as opposed to the ‘nappy’ and ‘tough’ texture of hair that mono-racial black women have. Unfortunately, through the binary language of lightness and darkness, a sense of division within the black community is exacerbated through this conflict of images.

 

Photograph by Devon, Make Up artist: Toni Derry

Photograph by Devon, Make Up artist: Toni Derry

 

The growth and understanding of ‘black culture’ inside and outside of the black community has particularly affected the exploration of the black female experience. However, maximising awareness is Rohmarra’s central concern, as not enough ground has been covered as of yet. Despite this, Rohmarra has noticed that ‘now, embracing your natural hair texture is like holding up the middle finger to ‘The Man’; self-expression is of the essence, and through this movement of self-acceptance, more black women are taking a stand. However, Rohmarra was also quick to note that black women ‘are not ornaments, we are human’, which indicates that ‘blackness’ is not viewed in terms of its humanity, but rather in its symbolic status. In particular, Rohmarra noted that ‘a big problem that hasn’t been eradicated yet’ is the occurrence of strangers touching Afro-textured hair without the owner’s permission, to which she adds that it is something ‘that needs to be destroyed.’ By touching a person’s hair without their permission, it illustrates that ‘blackness’ is still for public consumption, open to ogling and touching, but it is not yet honoured and understood.

 

The vast complexities that are embedded within Afro-hair culture serve as valuable points of exploration; not only can we trace the aesthetic fashions through history, but we can also understand the socio-political consequences of being ‘natural’ within a Eurocentric model of beauty. As we reach the juncture between the past and present conceptualisations of beauty, the challenges faced by women of colour show that indeed, the personal continues to be political.

 

To cast a deeper look at Rohmarra Kerr’s work, check out https://rohmempire.com

 

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