How Women Of Color Are Using Natural Hair to Change Mainstream Perceptions of Beauty

Kinky, curly, coily, wavy—these are a few descriptions of hair textures that naturally crown the heads of women of color. In mainstream media, though, actual depictions of that follicle diversity is a rarity. The emphasis, instead, is on an outdated and non-inclusive style of beauty: straight hair. 

Well, times up, straight hair: Women are pushing back, embracing their curls and coils. “Ever since I started The Real I'm just so happy," Tamera Mowry-Housley told Newsweek. "Just imagine being told that this isn't beautiful, and then to go out there and be like, you know what, screw what anybody else thinks. This is beautiful."

Mowry-Housley, one of the daytime talk show's four co-hosts, is usually rocking her natural curls on camera. Back in the '90s, when she appeared on the WB hit Sister Sister—alongside her identical twin Tia Mowry—her tight curls were part of her signature look. When she landed a seat at The Real’s rountable years later, she made the decision to wear her natural curls, despite being told repeatedly by casting directors that her hair was an unruly distraction.

“I went out to auditions and the casting director said I did very well, I am doing well. But she couldn't get past my hair,” Mowry-Housley said. “When you're growing up in the business and this is what people are saying, it makes you feel self-conscious."

Outlets like Essence and Ebony magazine have long broken that mold, featuring women and men of all shades and hair-types. And in recent years, the more mainstream Vogue, Glamour and People have begun to dot their pages with celebrities—like Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross—who celebrate the diversity of black hair. That's a good first step, says Lindsey Day, the President and Editor in Chief of CRWN, ​a quarterly publication that celebrates black artists, culture and lifestyle. But if media brands ever hope to make an impactuful difference, they need to understand the cultural significance and heritage of natural hair.  

“It seems as though people latch onto the trends—the #blackgirlmagic hashtag or the #teamnatural hashtag or whatever it may be—and sometimes there's confusion around what it means,” she said. “Sometimes people are so intent on getting the woman with the natural hair on the cover that they don't understand that you can't cut off her antenna—you know [like] with Solange—or cut off her hair.”

Day is referring to the unfortunate decision of the British newspaper The Evenaing Standard to remove a crown braids from an image of Solange Knowles in October 2017. Backlash ensued, as it did a month later, when another British publication, Grazia UK, photoshopped Black Panther star Lupita Nyogno’o’s naturally kinky hair to appear sleeker and smoother for its cover. Nyong'o tweeted, "dtmy"—"don't touch my hair."

Model and actress Jourdana Philips was one of six black models to walk the 2017 Victoria Secret Fashion Show runway last November. It was only the second time in the show’s history that natural-haired black women were featured. (Maria Borges, an Angolan model, was the first in 2015.) Exposure is key to making natural hair desirable on and off the runway, and it begins with fashion and beauty brands. Following her VSFS debut, Phillips used her supermodel platform to implore designers to employ more models with different hair textures, and to provide a staff of people who understand how to style and treat natural hair, not just smooth it to a silky finish.

“We have to make sure that's coming all the way down the line, from the the hairstylist to the makeup artist to the photographers to the creative director to the producers," said Phillips. "They all make a difference because images are powerful.

“We have to take responsibility in creating these images," she added, "and we can only do that by making sure that we have diverse people that are also creating them as well.”