The Impact of Hair ShamingJun 01, 2022 06:00AM ● By Trish Ahjel Roberts
How is a person affected when clear messages from the media, employers, courts, schools, and social circles indicate there is something wrong with their hair?
Some African Americans feel pressure to alter or hide the natural texture of their hair to be acceptable in American society. This perception may cause Black people to wear very short haircuts, use straighteners, or wear weaves and wigs with European-textured hair to avoid discrimination or social isolation.
In 2016, a federal appeals court ruled that banning employees from wearing their hair in dreadlocks is legal based on a discrimination lawsuit brought by Chastity Jones in Alabama.
In 2018, 16-year-old Andrew Johnson was given an ultimatum by a white referee before a wrestling match at his New Jersey high school: cut your locs or forfeit the match. The video of a white female trainer cutting off Johnson’s hair went viral.
In 2020, Texas teenager DeAndre Arnold was told he couldn’t walk in his high school graduation unless he cut his locs to meet the school’s new dress code.
In 2021, high school athlete Nicole Pyles was forced to cut her hair during a softball game to remove her beaded braids.
In April 2022, Diamond Campbell, a powerlifter and high school student in Bruce, Mississippi, was moments away from being disqualified in the middle of her school’s state championship competition because of a newly imposed policy banning hair beads. An Instagram video of several young female powerlifters scrambling to remove Campbell’s beads quickly went viral.
African Americans are being given the message that their hair must be altered to be acceptable in American society.
The Roots of Hair Shaming
Merriam-Webster defines shame as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety,” and the verb “to shame” means “to cause to feel shame.” So, “hair shaming” can simply be defined as “making someone feel shame because of their hair.”
According to a 2018 New York Times op-ed by Ria Tabacco Mar, “When it comes to hair, only Black people and multiracial people of African descent are punished when they choose to wear styles consistent with their natural hair texture. It’s unthinkable that a court would uphold a policy that effectively required white workers to alter their hair texture through costly, time-consuming procedures involving harsh chemicals.”
Policies regarding hair beads, dreadlocks, and hair length impact African Americans disproportionately. Enforcement of these policies in the middle of active sporting events—as was the case for Nicole Pyles after she hit a double and for Diamond Campbell after her first powerlift—has an even more disruptive effect. Both students were required to respond to new policies introduced mid-competition, even though coaches and judges had seen them prior to start time.
Is Hair Shaming Racist?
Most hair-shaming incidents don’t see the light of day among other newsworthy headlines, such as those pertaining to policies of academics, sports and employment. It is part of a larger pattern of racism and oppression. According to the Junior League of Atlanta’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, racism is the practice of discriminating against people based on their race or ethnic background and operates on levels commonly referred to as the “Four I’s of Racism:” ideological, institutional, interpersonal and internalized.
Ideological racism deals with the core belief that the majority group is somehow superior and it has the right to control another group. Institutional racism comes into play when this ideology of “better than” becomes embedded in institutions such as schools, businesses and courts. Interpersonal racism empowers individuals to disrespect, humiliate and harass oppressed people. Internalized racism presents itself as feelings of inferiority and suspicion among members of the oppressed group and superiority in the dominant group.
Internalized racism is the reason some people in oppressed groups actively fight and speak out against their own interests. For example, some African Americans label more tightly coiled hair “bad,” while looser curls are deemed “good.” Atlanta music artist India Arie’s song, “I Am Not My Hair,” released in 2006, became an unofficial anthem to Black women’s hair liberation. And in 2009, comedian Chris Rock released Good Hair, a documentary addressing the topic of internalized racism.
What is the Impact on Health?
In her book, Transforming Ethnic and Race-Based Traumatic Stress with Yoga, Gail Parker, Ph.D., asserts, “Researchers have made a clear connection between actual and perceived ethnic and racial discrimination and negative health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, hypervigilance, headaches, self-blame, self-doubt, shame, body aches, inability to focus, poor memory, and guilt.”
According to Mental Health America, “Racism is a mental health issue because racism causes trauma. And trauma paints a direct line to mental illnesses, which need to be taken seriously.” Hair shaming is a manifestation of racism, which impacts mental health.
Countering the Impact
Develop a Self-Validating Mindset and Practice Self-Care
“In order to properly care for ourselves in an anti-Black cultural environment, it is important that we expose ourselves to our own Black culture, aesthetic and heritage,” advises Atlanta therapist Oronde Yero. “As we immerse ourselves in the beauty of Black hair, we can learn to move away from Eurocentric beauty standards. When we can become self-validating, we will develop the strength to overcome the negative messages of our society.”
“Understanding that it’s okay to care for ourselves is one of the biggest things Black people struggle with,” says Atlanta therapist Latisha Woods. “We put our value in what we can produce and what we can do. We feel that if we are not producing something, we are not valuable. Changing our mindset changes how we view ourselves and how we show up in the world. Caring for ourselves is a necessity, not an option, so we must release the guilt about taking care of ourselves. Spend time with friends and family; take time off work if you need it. Get your hair and nails done, work out, drink water. Learn to win the internal battle and put yourself first.”
According to Dr. Gail Parker, “Restorative yoga and meditation, in combination with affirmations and therapeutic journal writing, offer opportunities to step away from repeated experiences of ethnic and race-based wounding while building the necessary resilience to develop effective coping strategies, and to support post-traumatic growth.” Many Atlanta businesses offer these healing practices.
Boost Your Understanding
Hair shaming shows up in big, bold ways—like those described in national news stories—but it also occurs in countless smaller incidences, or microaggressions. Stepping up your knowledge of the topic can help you avoid awkward situations. In a 2021 article in The Insider news publication, Darian Dozier notes, “When it comes to someone else’s body and hair, you never should feel entitled to touch it.” According to Janice Gassam Asare, a Sr. Contributor for Forbes, “By asking to touch a Black person’s hair, you are feeding into the narrative that white hair is the norm and anything outside of it is abnormal.” Dozier says, “Be mindful of how hair policies can affect different populations … and why they are necessary in the first place. Buzzwords like ‘distraction’ and ‘professionalism’ are rooted in European norms and anti-Blackness.”
Singer/songwriter and sister to international superstar Beyoncé, Solange Knowles, immortalized the topic of hair boundaries in her 2016 song, “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Touching—or asking to touch—another person’s hair can be interpreted as an invasion of personal space.
So, what can one do? African American dermatologist Dr. Crystal Aguh says, “Stop telling women how to wear their hair. How a woman wears her hair is a reflection of one of many variables—the time needed for upkeep, the ability to maintain a certain hairstyle and just flat-out preference.” Hair maintenance has a price tag, which impacts decision-making.
Be an Advocate
There is a movement underway to facilitate greater acceptance of African hair textures. The CROWN Act—its acronym expressing its intention to “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” and to end hair discrimination—has become law in 14 states and is pending in 16 others. July 3 is now observed as National Crown Day to celebrate hair independence. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the federal CROWN Act in March 2022, but it has been held up in the U.S. Senate.
Changing your mindset, practicing self-care, growing your understanding and engaging in advocacy can help women and men of all backgrounds embrace and enjoy the beauty of all hair types, whether their hair blows in the wind or defies gravity and reaches for the stars. ❧
Trish Ahjel Roberts is a self-actualization and diversity coach, happiness expert, founder of Mind-Blowing Happiness, a coaching business, and creator of the brand Black Vegan Life. For more information, visit TrishAhjelRoberts.com.