The Soapbox: Ciara’s “Inelegant” New Hairstyle And The Politics Of Black Hair

Saturday evening on her Instagram profile, R&B singer Ciara debuted a new hairstyle: waist-skimming loc extensions. The style, a temporary version of the loc-ed hair many Black people of all genders sport, sparked discussion both among fans and style outlets.

One in particular, People magazine’s StyleWatch section, posted a story Tuesday about Ciara’s newest mane and stirred a dialogue about far more than trendy summer hair colors. Associate Style Editor Brittany Talarico noted that Ciara is set to wed fiancé Future in a “very elegant affair,” then said immediately afterward in parentheses that the wedding was “another reason [People thinks] she’ll ditch the dreads.”

While the phrase has since been removed, the undertones of Talarico’s words were not lost on some Black readers. YouTube comedienne, natural hair guru and Upworthy curator Franchesca Ramsey pointed out People’s words on her blog shortly after the article was posted. A Black woman with dreadlocks herself, Ramsey noted that the article suggests Ciara could not possibly want to keep her loc extensions for an “elegant” wedding—meaning the locs extensions themselves cannot be elegant.

Regardless of their intent, People drew upon a long legacy of white beauty standards deeming locs (and other forms of Black women’s natural hair) inelegant, unkempt, unprofessional, and otherwise concerning. As far back as the early 1800s, Black women in the United States were legally mandated to cover and obscure their natural hair so as not to threaten “social stability.”

Even as the natural hair movement gains steam, Black women are regularly denied employment, passed over for promotions, and met with hostility in the workplace when we choose to wear our hair as it grows out of our heads. While it may seem inconsequential what a beauty magazine thinks of Ciara’s potential wedding hairstyle, for everyday Black women this judgment matters. When this viewpoint is held by hiring managers, it can be the difference between a job and continued economic instability; that’s quite literally life-changing.

That we believe something is fundamentally wrong with Black hair manifests itself often in the most misogynistic ways, but men are not immune to the scrutiny. Hampton University recently banned dreadlocks and cornrows for male business students — a decision that came because the dean believes those styles “will prevent students from securing corporate jobs.” Again, when Black hair is stigmatized in its natural state, fear of acquiring employment pushes Black folks (especially women) to police one another — and make decisions like chemically relaxing our hair, which can often be dangerous.

And the policing starts young. Fury around two-year-old Blue Ivy’s hair being too “wild” motivated over 5,000 people to sign a petition demanding Beyoncé comb the child’s mane. Last September, a seven-year-old girl was abruptly sent home from school, interrupting her education, because her dreadlocks “didn’t look presentable.”

When pressed about why they included language that suggests Ciara’s loc extensions are not elegant, People backtracked and claimed the colors are what they projected as being too wild for a wedding. This both contradicts the original sentence structure and makes little sense because Ciara is often seen with various shades of brown and blonde hair — as are many white celebrities, about whom People rarely makes conjectures about ditching hairstyles in the name of elegance.

Furthermore, the article betrays a complete misunderstanding of Black hair more generally. Ciara does not have “crazy long dreadlocks” as the title would have readers believe. To grow “crazy long dreadlocks” would take years. Ciara has loc extensions, and the verbiage matters. Many with locs do not even call their hairstyle “dreads,” a term that evokes memories of Black hair being deemed “dreadful.”

Lack of understanding of — and reverence for — Black hair leads to far more egregious mistakes than People’s misstep regarding Ciara. And indeed, what Ciara chooses to do with her hair for her wedding is neither particularly important to the natural hair community nor Black women more broadly.

But the way white women talk about Black hair does have real consequences for Black women, and refusal to be accountable when making mistakes (such as People’s) leads to silencing of Black women’s legitimate concerns. For many years, Black women have been completely ignored by “mainstream” fashion publications. Headlines like “summer styles for any hair type” conveniently neglected kinky-haired women, relegating us to invisibilization in beauty sections.

Beauty magazines do not exist in a vacuum; People’s words both inform and are informed by the culture that produces and consumes the publication. Black women’s hair can never be “just hair” in a beauty culture shaped largely by white supremacy. Now that we are slowly being getting token features in magazines alongside white counterparts who have always been there, it’s important that we be written about with respect — if not also nuanced understanding.

[People StyleWatch]
[Black Girl Long Hair]
[Huffington Post]
[Telling My Hair Story]

Hannah Giorgis is a black feminist writer and organizer. You can follow her on Twitter @ethiopiennesays or on her blog.”