Hair and hair-etage

Posted on October 18, 2011
Harriet Deacon introduces a series of blogs about hair, racism and the politics of beauty.

The 10th anniversary of the Durban Conference this year 'offers an opportunity to renew the commitment of the United Nations and the general public in the fight against racism and racial discrimination'. In Europe, racism is still very much alive: historian David Starkey told the BBC that 'the whites have become black' in a discussion on the England riots, suggesting that black culture was linked to crime and social disarray. In South Africa we've had Archbishop Tutu calling for a wealth tax on whites who benefited from Apartheid, and the banning of the 'kill the boer' song, which has raised lots of questions about racism, atonement and hate speech. South Africans are talking about the place of race and nostalgia, entitlement, persistent social separation and structural inequality. 'Badblacks' are starting to speak out about the elephant in the room, and there seems to be a new openness to the debate. In the US 'post-blacks' want to define an identity beyond race; in South Africa people are trying to re-start the discussion about a non-racial future.

Hair is one of the most personal and public aspects of our bodies, reflecting our genetic heritage and our social identities, and as women in particular we spend a lot of time and money making our hair say something about us, about our social status, our politics and our cultural backgrounds. It seems that attitudes towards the ways women wear their hair, and the reasons they choose specific hairstyles, are also part of a broader geopolitics. At a recent Africa Gathering in London, a few of us started talking about the politics of black hair in SA and the UK and feel it merits some sustained attention. This blog - about the establishment of European beauty norms about hair in the last 200 years - kicks off the series. It is skewed slightly by my interest in trying out some new tools for measuring word frequencies (as you will see) and driven by a fascination rather than deep knowledge (as yet) about the topic of hair and beauty. A number of other people including Belinda Otas, Xolelwa Kashe-Katiya, June Bam and Rachel Sampson will then take the discussion forward in other blogs.

Discrimination based on perceived attractiveness is currently a hot topic of research, and it is shown to affect employment, earnings and success in a number of different fields (as recent books such as The Beauty Bias and Beauty Pays attest). Very few women of any background look like Barbie (and not everyone wants to), but black women are subject to more scrutiny and discrimination around hair than black men or white women. Neal and Wilson (1989) say that this is because of the greater value placed on ideals of physical attractiveness for women, and because of the racialization of these ideals (see also Hill 2002). For many black women, wearing one's hair 'natural' is a political statement; in the USA some companies have banned African-American women from dyeing their hair blonde (Greene 2011, see my next blog in this series).

The European ideal of beauty

About 90% of the world's population has dark brown hair, according to Des Tobin, a professor of cell biology at Bradford University. Hair textures differ from kinky to smooth. From an early stage, hair texture and colour was associated with racial identities in the European mind. Linnaeus's classification of people into different races depended heavily on descriptions of their hair. Linnaeus differentiated between the Europaeus with long, blond hair, the Americanus with straight, thick black hair, the Asiaticus with abundant black hair, and the Afer with "frizzled" black hair (Linnaeus 1758-9 in Rosenthal 2004).

Hairstyle fashions have changed over time, but in some ways they have not changed very much at all. Since the late 18th century the European beauty ideal for hair has focused ever more strongly on smooth, shiny long hair, and by the mid to late 20th century, on blonde hair. In the 18th century, women in European high society had elaborate hairdos that used huge amounts of false hair. These styles were echoed in the 1960s 'beehives', which again fuelled the trade in human hair from India and China.

Many of the 18th century styles were frizzed around the edges in contrast to the smooth looks of the 1960s. But by the end of the period some commentators saw frizzed hair as 'elaborately ugly' and associated it with black women:

'A friseur [to curl the hair] is employ'd three hours in a morning to make a young Lady look like a virgin Hottentot or Squaw, all art ends in giving them the ferocious air of uncomb'd savages.' (Elizabeth Montagu, 1764 in Rosenthal 2004)

By the 19th century long hair with smooth curls began to emerge as the western ideal of natural beauty.

The Time magazine corpus (1923-2006) of 10 million words shows that among the most popular words associated with hair in the last three quarters of a century have been grey (for elder statesmen, one supposes), dark ('tall, dark and handsome'?) and blond / blonde (for women, one supposes). Other frequent associations with hair type (presumably positive ones) are curly, wavy and thick.

Although initially blonde hair does not seem to have attracted much attention, by the mid 20th century it had become the most highly valued hair colour in western society for women, firmly associated with femininity (although misogynistically this came along with the idea of the 'dumb blonde'). Studies of hair colour preference have shown a steady increase since the 1960s in Europe and the US in male preference for women with blonde hair, following the trend shown above. This preference is slightly higher in countries where blonde hair naturally occurs less frequently.

Natalia Ilyin (2000) suggests that European preference for blonde hair has deep cultural roots.

The Time magazine corpus (1923-2006) shows that many of the terms associated with the word 'blonde' are positive ones in relation to women's attractiveness, except for the word 'dumb'. (These words really matter: studies of discrimination relating to attractiveness show that very attractive women are disadvantaged in access to management positions.)

In the English corpus on Google books, especially since the 1920s, references to blondes are much more frequent than would be expected given the relative rarity of blondes in human society. Since the 1960s, references to blondes have outstripped references to other hair colours in the graph below (of course this is just a rough indication).

In the last decade or so, it seems (using Google insights) that there has been a predominance of searches on Google on the word 'blonde' compared to other hair colours (probably linked to the porn industry). The word 'afro' has a very low frequency in these searches, but it is difficult to distinguish between the use of the term in words like 'Afro-Caribbean' and use of the term in relation to hair. Search engine data like this may be illustrative of a trend towards validating blonde hair - a hair colour which occurs naturally relatively infrequently in human society.

Hair texture: the last beauty frontier

In so far as competitions like Miss World and Miss Universe represent conventional western ideals of beauty, it is interesting that winners of these competitions have until recently seldom been black African women – indeed, they come from relatively few countries, with the USA, Venezuela and a few other countries predominating. In her book, The Beauty Bias, Deborah Rhode writes that in 75 years, only one Jew and four African Americans have won the Miss America title; black Americans were initially excluded from the competition and those who have won have generally had light skin and straight hair.

The first black African to win Miss Universe was crowned in 1999; the first to win Miss World was in 2001. Although skin colour is no longer a barrier to winning, it seems that those African women who have won, have had silky, long hairstyles at the time of winning. Alek Wek is one of the few African supermodels to adopt a short natural hairstyle today.

A growing commentary

So, although fashions have changed many times over the past 200 years, the current western ideal of smooth, long, shiny hair was firmly established by the nineteenth century. Blonde hair has received disproportionate attention within this framework relatively recently - since the mid 20th century. In the beauty game, hair texture may have become a more potent discriminatory marker than skin colour.

This beauty ideal is challenged in many ways and is changing at the cutting edge of fashion, but the conservatism of the beauty ideals expressed in Miss Universe or Miss World competitions still has a hold on ordinary people, parents, employers and customers around the world.

This month, in Power to the Kink!, Belinda Otas discusses Hair Power Skin Revolution, a collection of personal essays and stories, and poems by black and mixed-race women, in which Nicole Moore chronicles why black women need to develop an eternal love affair with their natural hair and skin.

In my hair piece next month I will explore the US literature on how natural black hair came to be regarded in a negative light in the USA under slavery, and how this played out in the politics of protest and accommodation of the 20th century in the US.


Google N-grams:

Greene, D. W., 2011. 'Black Women Can't Have Blonde Hair . . . in the Workplace', Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, Vol. 14, No. 2.

Hill, M.E. 2002. 'Skin Color and the Perception of Attractiveness among African Americans: Does Gender Make a Difference?' Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 77-91.

Ilyin, N. 2000. Blonde like me: the roots of the blonde myth in our culture. Simon & Schuster.

Neal, A.M. and Wilson, M. L. 1989. 'The Role of Skin Color and Features in the Black Community: Implications for Black Women and Therapy.' Clinical Psychology Review 9:323-33.

Rosenthal, A., 2004. 'Raising hair'. Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1, Hair (Fall), pp. 1-16.