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When It Comes To Black Women's Hair, Does Length Matter?
Beauty & Fashion

When It Comes To Black Women's Hair, Does Length Matter?

It’s been nearly twenty years since India.Arie’s crown anthem, “I am not my hair,” gave Black women an affirmation to live by. What followed was a natural hair revolution that birthed a new level of self-love and acceptance. Concerns around how to better care for our hair birthed an entire new generation of entrepreneurs who benefitted from the power of the Black dollar. Retailers made room for product lines made for us, by us, on their shelves, and we further affirmed that though our hair doesn’t define us, it is part of our unique self-expression.


Today, that movement has turned into a wig uprising where Black women are able to experiment with colors, styles, and more without causing irreparable damage to our hair. It could even be said that we’ve arrived at a new level of acceptance: one that does not equate love of oneself to one’s willingness or lack thereof to wear her hair the way others deem acceptable. Not even other people who look like us.

However, as with Blackness itself, the issue of Black women’s hair is layered.

On the surface, it’s nothing more than a matter of personal preference. However, in a deeper dive, issues of texture, curl pattern, and of course, proximity to social acceptance, as well as other runoff streams from the waters of racism and patriarchy, rear their heads. The natural hair movement, though a wide-reaching and liberating community builder, also gave way to colorism and often upheld mainstream beauty standards.

Sometimes, favoring lighter-skinned influencers/creators with very specific hair textures, the white gaze leaked into our safe space and forced us to reckon with it. Accurate representations of natural hair in various states of being—undefined curls, kinks, and unlaid edges—are still absent from brand marketing. Protective styles, though intended to provide breaks from styling for our sensitive hair, have become a mask to help our hair be more palatable. A figurative straddle of the fence in order to appease the comfort of others in the face of our hair’s power.

And then there’s the issue of length.

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As a woman who has spent much of the last decade voluntarily wearing her hair in many variations of short hairstyles, from a pixie cut to a curly fro and a sleek bob, what I’ve gleaned throughout the years is that there is a glaring difference between how I am treated when wearing my hair short than when I opt for weaves, extensions or even grow it out slightly longer than my chin.

The differential treatment comes from women and men alike and spans professional and personal settings, including friends, coworkers, and industry peers.

What has become abundantly clear is that long hair is often conflated with beauty, softness, and any number of other words we relate to femininity in a way that short hair is not. That perceived marker of the essence of womanhood shows up in how I am received, communicated with, and complimented.

Even more so than texture, length has a way of deciding who among us is deserving of our attention, affection, and adoration. Whether naturally grown or proudly bought, the commentary around someone’s look or image greatly shifts when “inches” are present.

When it comes to long hair, we really, really do care.

In an effort to understand whether I had simply been misinterpreting the energy around my hair, I decided to take my findings to social media. I began with two side-by-side photos of myself. In both pictures, my hair is straightened; however, in one, I am wearing my signature pixie cut, and in the other, I am wearing extensions.

I posited that treatment based on hair length is a real thing, and what followed was confirmation that I was not alone in my feelings. “Long hair, like light skin, button noses, and being thin are all forms of social capital,” one user commented. “Some Black women enforce the status quo too, why wouldn’t we?”

Courtesy

This also brought to mind the many times celebrity women (like most recently Beyoncé's Cécred hair tutorial) have done big reveals of their own natural tresses in an attempt to silence any doubt that Black women are able to grow their hair beyond a certain length. Of course, we all know that to be true, so why do we still feel the need to prove it so?

The responses continued to pour in from women of all skin tones, who felt that hair length played a role in people’s treatment of them. “When I have short hair I always feel like people don’t treat me like a woman, they treat me like a kid,” another user commented. “When my hair is long I get a lot more respect for some reason.”

From revelations about feeling invisible to admitted shifts in their own perceived beauty, Black woman after Black woman poured out her experience as it relates to hair length. Though affirmed by their shared realities, knowing that reactions to something so trivial have become yet another hair battle for Black women to fight was disheartening. Though we continue to defy gravity and push the bounds of imagination and creativity by way of our strands, will it always be in response to the idea that we are, somehow, falling short?

Unlike more obvious instances of hair discrimination, the glorification of longer length is sneakier in its connection to Eurocentric beauty standards. Hair commercials, beauty ads, and even hip-hop music have long celebrated the idea of gloriously long tresses while holding onto the ignorant notion that it is inaccessible for Black women.

Even as we continue to fight to prove our hair professional, elegant, and worthy in its natural state to the world at large, we’ve also adopted harmful value markers of our own as a community. It’s evident in how we talk about who has the right to start a haircare line and which influencers we easily platform. It’s evident in the language we use to identify those with long hair versus short hair. And it’s painfully obvious in how we treat one another.

It makes me wonder if India.Arie’s brave rallying cry, almost two decades old in its existence, will ever actually hold true for us. Or will we just continue to invent new ways to uphold the harmful status quo?

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Feature image by Willie B. Thomas/ Getty Images

 

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