Resistance and Empowerment in Black Women’s Hair Styling by Elizabeth Johnson (2013, Ashgate)
A study revealed that Black women in the United States represented the biggest consumer of hair care products characterised by chemical relaxers and other hair straightening methods. This is an interesting statistical finding that commences Elizabeth Johnson’s book, ‘Resistance and Empowerment in Black Women’s Hair Styling’. A corollary of Johnson’s opening salvo is that Black women’s hair that do not conform to dominant cultural standards receive greater derision than that of their male counterpart. This may be the reason why Black women spend more to ‘correct’ their hair. To better understand this finding Johnson digs deeper into several directions: the historical narrative of Black hair of enslaved women and the Black women’s hair care and styling industry in twentieth century America.
After setting the contemporary scene on Black women’s hair care and styling in the United States and Black diaspora in the Introduction, Johnson explores in Chapter 2 the vilification of Black women’s hair in narratives of enslaved Black women in 19th century America. Chapter 3 is a fascinating quantitative study of Black hair care industry and media advertising in late 20th century America. Chapter 4 and 5 discuss the marketing and access to natural hair in new media and licensing laws in braiding shops in shops respectively.
The cultural and geographical focus of this book is actually much narrower than its grander claims. Johnson writes for an American audience who are already au-fait with the history of enslavement in antebellum America as there is little reference on the specifics of time and place for the less informed reader on the subject. There is some preoccupation with West African style braiding but Johnson’s attention to the cultural and historical underpinnings of how West African style braiding influenced Black American women’s hair styling leaves much to be desired. Again, Johnson’s target audience may not only be American readers, but perhaps African American readers who have working knowledge of Black women’s hair culture in the United States.
In Chapter 2, ‘Runaway hair – a culturally aesthetic bondage’, Johnson makes a compelling argument that the description in posters of runaway female slaves by their white enslavers demonstrated the discourse of slavery’s obsession with Black women’s hair. All the texts of the posters reproduced by Johnson reveal the denigration of Black women’s hair as in some manner less or worse than White women’s hair. The texts offers a key historical insight into how White people saw and described Black women’s hair.
Thus Johnson argues that enslaved Black women were fundamentally Othered by their hair. But in certain cases the Othering through hair fails when the runaway women do not exhibit the dehumanising descriptors of ‘wooly’ or ‘bushy’ hair associated with Black women. Biracial enslaved women marked as ‘Black’ with hair that resembled those of White women’s posed a threat to Whiteness and therefore required extra scrutiny. Runaway notices that raise concerns about biracial women who could pass as White highlight other characteristics, sometimes flattering, that would point to her status as less than White and ‘good’.
However, interspersing her exploration into White perception of Black women’s hair are interesting but oddly-placed vignettes of hair culture in different African countries. It seems as if the cultural construction of Black women’s hair in the United States has a history but hair culture in Africa does not. These vignettes suggests that hair culture in Western African countries is ahistorical and is the unadulterated evidence of how Black women’s hair in 19th century America might have looked. Johnson notes that the culture of Black hair styling began during the period of enslavement when Black women began altering the condition of their hair to mimic White people’s hair, i.e. straight and ‘beautiful’, qualities that connote positive social signifiers that Black women wished to attain rather than Whiteness itself.
In Chapter 3, ‘Hair care manufacturers and their impact on hairstyling’ is more coherently argued than Chapter 2. Its strength lies in its strong historical and quantitative focus on the consequences of white-dominated hair care companies that advertised in traditionally Black lifestyle magazines, Essence and Ebony. The rise of Black-oriented consumerism between the mid-1980s and 1990s coincided with a shift in dominant feminine aesthetics that favored big and curly hair. Despite the dominant hair trends during this period, images of Black women’s hair only enjoyed a narrow focus with straightened hair being the norm. The mid 2000s saw a rejuvenation for diverse Black women’s hair since the Black power movement of the 1970s as it was also a time of Black ownership reclaiming the hair care industry and when the embrace of diverse Black women was entering the internet age.
Chapter 4, ‘Marketing natural hair and natural hair blogs/vlogs’, is a companion piece to the previous chapter as it looks at the current role of websites, blogs, and vlogs in promoting the care and styling of natural hair, that is, hair that has not been treated with chemicals or heat for a short or long term effect. However Chapter 4, along with Chapter 5 discussed below, are Johnson’s weakest chapters. Johnson provides information on the range of websites on natural hair care and reveals how they offer support for young women who are hesitant to go natural in a culture that devalues hair diversity. But a coherent analysis is lacking on why websites and social media are powerful sites of communication and convergence for Black women who choose keep their hair natural.
The penultimate Chapter 5, ‘Marketing braids and West African hair braider’, reveals the manner in which American hair braiders’ are bound by different and complex licensing regulations compared to beauticians, a category ‘ordinary’ hair stylists belong to. There is a whiff of discrimination based on a lack of understanding of Black hair culture in the varying licensing laws across the United States. However, Johnson does not pursue this possibility, instead she rationalises the need to put health and safety measures ahead of underlying racism in licensing laws. Johnson highlights the variety of hair disorders such as traction alopecia due to prolonged or repetitive tension on the hair as a means to justify the need for stringent licensing control of braiding shops.
In the Conclusion, Johnson distills the findings of all the chapters into understanding why Black women continue to wear their hair in ways that are resistant to the dominant aesthetic of straight or wavy hair, hair textures of White women. Black women who wear their hair “unprofessionally” – in natural afros, in intricate braids, twists, or in head wraps – must face cultural messages about hair that are in conflict with each other, that straight or wavy hair is ‘beautiful’ while natural Black women’s hair is not. The tone of Johnson’s Conclusion is made rather inconclusive by the fact that her question of why Black women outspend White women on hair care and styling remains largely unanswered. Although certain hair styling methods, such as braiding and threading, require hours of preparation, there is little indication in her book that Black women’s hair care products and salon appointments cost much more across the decades than their mainstream counterparts.
Johnson’s interesting book is let down by editorial errors and page formating inconsistencies. As a reader, these can be distracting and frustrating, leaving one to question the editorial standards of the academic publishing company itself. Nevertheless, it is still a useful reference for how intersecting discourses of advertising and hair care industry, empowerment in new media, and the history of Black hair culture can contribute to how hair as history, culture, economic opportunity, and text is understood.
Alicia Izharuddin is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. where she specialises in gender and religion in Indonesian visual culture. Her other research interests include feminist activist movements in Southeast Asia and decolonising feminist and queer theory