By Debra Shigley
Earlier this week Gabrielle Union released her much-buzzed-about (and excellent) book, We’re Going to Need More Wine. Among many poignant reflections, she includes a section on her one-time obsession with a relaxer— wanting to have hair that was as “soft and silky as possible”—to the point that the chemical caused lesions on her scalp. Later, she switched to weaves and found herself being “chosen and validated” by men, epitomizing the double-edged sword that Black women face. Try to look more white, be accepted, which means that your inherent blackness is unacceptable. Writes Ms. Union, “Still, I struggle with the questions: “Does this wig mean I’m not comfortable in my blackness? If I wear my hair natural, do I somehow become more enlightened?”
My response is, maybe yes. But maybe the real question is this: Do black celebrities have an obligation to be role models for real Bblack hair? A quick glimpse of Ms. Union’s Instagram account reveals of the last 100 photos of her posted, only one photo features what is obviously her real hair. The rest feature some form of clip-ins, weave, or wigs. Union sells a shampoo and conditioner line, Flawless, and is wearing weave in most of the line’s promo shots. Around the launch of Flawless— perhaps to prove her credibility or real haircare routine, given her well-known weave usage— she posted a photo of her natural hair. This photo quickly went viral, and now has nearly 300,000 likes and 2,705 comments. Imagine the power if Union actually wore her real hair? All. The. Time.
As a longtime journalist and now beauty entrepreneur, I’ve often thought part of the problem with mainstream acceptance of African-American textured hair by both society and the beauty industry is that few Black women allow their real texture to be seen on a regular basis. According to Mintel, at any given time 44 percent of Black women are covering their real hair with weaves or wigs. Sure, fake hair is fun as an accessory, but nearly half the population? Don’t even get me started on how weaves are directly correlated to permanent baldness.
But I get it; it’s a catch 22. If we’re judged for not having a certain acceptable type of hair, we do whatever it takes to hide and transform that texture to whatever might give us greater status in society. It’s a natural human impulse. Union herself captures it spot-on, writing that, as Black people, “We have so internalized the self-hatred and the demands of assimilation that we ourselves don’t know how to feel about what naturally grows out of our head.”
But at what point do Black women in power start being the change we want to see in the world? The important percent is perhaps the 1% — i.e. Black celebrities — without whom the so-called natural movement is incomplete. Everyone went natural and abandoned chemical relaxers which, in my professional opinion, aren’t all bad. Relaxed or chemically-straightened hair can be extremely healthy, thriving hair. But right now, the majority of Black women are natural, but still hiding our real hair in so-called “protective styles.” Black celebrities and models constantly voice that there are no good Black hair stylists on set so they just get a weave. Doesn’t this practice perpetuate the cycle?
Imagine the impact if Black celebrities in a position of power made a decision to show how real hair looks and needs to be cared for. Consider Issa Rae, of HBO’s Insecure. She’s consciously driving the hair choices on her show and the national conversation around hair, with a paragon of beautiful real hair looks. What if all Black celebrities threw up their wigs and weaves in a “Black Out” on the Red Carpet? A #RealHair Black celebrity challenge. We see glimpses of this shift already but it’s not about everyone wearing a curly afro. Quite the contrary. Real Black hair can be styled in a myriad of ways which is why textured hair is amazing. Even more easily than European hair, it can morph into a million different forms, from curly to straight (with amazing body), wavy, kinky, braided, puffed, pinned into sculptural updo and pompadours with no hairpieces required. It looks flattering in countless different styles.
Weaves and wigs allow the industry to cop out and avoid the heart of the problem: a mainstream inability to understand or do black hair. If we reveal our true selves en mass, maybe the industry would realize both the beauty of real Black hair in all its varieties, and learn how to style it. Black celebrities like Union (and Kerry Washington) can help lead the way. Maybe then we could normalize our real textures in the public eye forever.
Debra Shigley is a journalist, lawyer, and author who co-founded Colour— the award-winning mobile app and hairstyling service, by and for women of color. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and four children.