- Shayna Watson
Hair and beauty product company SheaMoisture ignited a backlash after releasing an ad that many loyal customers — primarily black women — considered to be “whitewashing.” In the ad, women — including white women — talk about “hair hate.” Noticeably absent from the ad were any women with kinky-textured hair. Eventually the company apologized, saying they would pull the piece and that the company has “always stood for inclusion in beauty.”
While SheaMoisture’s ad didn’t get the point across, the truth is, hair hate is a real thing. How can parents help encourage their kids to have positive hair-esteem? They can start by looking at the language they themselves use about their kids’ hair.
The dreaded hair-wash day
I started begging my mother for a chemical relaxer at the age of 9. Having my hair done was a less-than-positive process for all parties involved. My mom had to bribe and beg for me to let her comb through it, and I (the ever-dramatic youngest child) spent just as much energy crying and screaming from the tugs. On top of that, my older sister had a looser texture hair (and six years on me), and I was sure that I would never make it through elementary school without hair like hers. My earliest memories of getting it done involved tight cornrows pulling at my scalp, forced combs pulling through the ends or straight-off-the stove hot combs burning my ear. I remember asking my mom if getting my hair done had to hurt. She said that it didn’t, but at that age I had yet to experience a torture-free wash day.
The concept of having an entire day blocked off in order to wash, detangle, dry and style one child’s hair formed my early opinion of black hair. I went to a predominately white school and had never heard any of my white friends mention their weekend plans including a wash day. I had also never heard them mention a warning from their mom not to play too hard at recess on picture day, for fear of ruining the greased back style she had worked on that morning. Black textured hair was work. Having black hair meant missed fun, missed variety of hairstyles, and definitely missed ease of styling. I wanted to play with my hair during reading time, or swap hair scrunchies with my friends while taking it from ponytail to flowing strands. From my nine whole years of having black hair, it wasn’t fun — or easy, or enjoyable.
The language around my hair growing up was never explicitly negative. My parents complimented me continuously, and always encouraged my sister and me to love ourselves inside and out. The negative opinion that I formed about my hair came from an internalization of all of the daily effort put into changing my hair. The amount of time, product and tools used before we could even leave the house must mean that my hair was something that needed to be managed — something wild and unruly that we had to wrestle into submission before starting our day. I remember cringing every time I stranger would said “Whoa, look at that thick head of hair!” or my mom would remind me that washing takes most of the day because I have so much hair. Those were not good things, in my mind. My clamor for a chemical relaxer was in hopes to get the easy and convenient hair seen on my non-black counterparts.
Even with the popularity and acceptance of natural hair, there is a conspicuous absence of characters with natural hair across most media channels. Many of us grew up with little to no representation of ourselves in the shows that we watched, magazines that we read or toys that we played with. Without saying a word, this is sending a message that celebrities, models and even baby dolls that we want to play with must look a certain way — and this certain way does not have textured natural hair. As I think about my two nieces and the world that they are growing up in, I am encouraged by the increase of visible black characters with natural hair.
I recently watched Home with my niece (a Dreamworks animated movie with an adorable curly haired main character, voiced by Rihanna). There are great close-up shots of the character’s curls blowing in the wind, and my niece made a few comments about how the main character’s hair was like her own hair. I realized how crucial (and amazing) it is for her to have these natural hair role models to validate the beauty in her features.
But as encouraged as this increase in representation makes me, I am equal parts worried by the power of social comparison and how accessible strangers’ opinions of you and your identity are to get a hold of. We saw this with the public discussion of Blue Ivy’s hair, before she was even able to walk or talk. Even at 2 years old, Beyonce’s daughter was compared and ranked against the hair textures of other celebrity babies. Environmental, peer and self affirmations are the self-esteem cocktail we may all need to learn to really appreciate ourselves and our uniqueness without dangerous social comparison.
I hope my niece never has to doubt the beauty of her hair. I hope that seeing her mom, grandma and aunt not only embrace but enjoy their natural hair will show her the magic of textured hair, and the joy of loving yourself. Learning to have confidence in loving and accepting all parts of your identity is a lifelong lesson. Since language is one of the first ways that we communicate with the world around us, it is important that we pay close attention to the words we assign to ourselves and our children. There are many sources pointing out that natural hair is not the norm, that it is not the accepted standard of beauty. We want to be the louder voice reminding the young minds in our lives (and ourselves) that there is nothing more beautiful than being yourself.
7 tips for language to boost your child’s hair-esteem
We may recognize the dangers of telling kids that their hair is bad or undesirable. However, our language could still be giving this impression even if it doesn’t seem negative. Here are a few hair-related phrases that you may want to think twice about using to talk about your child’s natural hair.
- Say this: “Healthy, tight curl pattern”
- Not that: “Thick, coarse hair”
- Words like thick and coarse may not seem negative but when discussing hair these descriptors are synonymous with “bad hair.” Thick hair is a positive attribute of healthy hair, and a tight texture only affects what products your hair needs to stay healthy, not its softness. Try pointing out these positive points about your child’s hair with less harsh language.
- Say this: Style, smooth or brush
- Not that: Tame, tackle or battle
- This may seem like a nitpicky suggestion, but it sets the tone that textured hair is a challenge or hurdle to get over. We want to care for our natural hair, and using language that is connected to this goal of healthy hair starts this process, both externally and internally.
- Say this: “Coiled hair (or use hair type scale, i.e, 3B hair, 4C hair, etc.)
- Not that: “Nappy hair”
- “Nappy” is typically used to explain type 4 textured hair; said to be derived from the appearance of cotton in the fields during slavery, and its similar look to unkempt black hair. With the historically oppressive legacy and negative connotations attached to this word, it seems best to leave this word out of our hair vocabulary.
- Say this: “Your hair can do so many cool things! Why don’t we try…”
- Not that: “You can’t wear that style. You don’t have that kind of hair”
- Rather than pointing out some of the possible limitations of textured hair, start a running list of hairstyles that are perfect for your little one’s texture. YouTube and Pinterest offer endless suggestions with a search for “natural hair styles for kids.”
- Say this: “Your hair is so beautiful and unique with its coils and curls”
- Not that: Your hair is wild/crazy”
- Wild and crazy aren’t inherently negative words, but they are used to describe something that is unruly and chaotic — not exactly words you want to include in your child’s morning affirmations. Instead, use explicitly complimentary words that tell your child exactly what you think about their natural tresses.
- Say this: “We are learning how to take care of your natural hair so it is healthy”
- Not that: “We need to straighten your hair so it is manageable”
- Like with any other hair type, the goal of learning about textured hair is to maintain healthy strands, not simply manage it. It is totally fine to blow out your child’s hair for styling, but avoid making the connection between straight hair texture and ease or acceptability.
- Say this: “You have tighter coils in the back, we can brush them or leave them”
- Not that: “We have to get rid of your kinky napes/kitchen/beadie beads”
- These terms may sound a bit outdated, but many of us have heard them used to explain the hair around your neck that may be a tighter coil than the rest. The kinky edges are just a part the variance of black natural hair, and nothing really needs to be done about it. It is not a separate section of hair that must be tackled, it’s coils and is beautiful left alone or brushed to blend in.
Shayna Watson is Brooklyn-based content creator focused on diversity, inclusion and positive self-identity.