I Witnessed Hair Shaming and It Was Really Lame

Black woman with hands on her relaxed hairstyle.

In breaking apart the self-esteem of Black women across America, the way we wear our hair and the pigmentation of our skin seems to be a nationwide discussion.

The latter is almost always at ad nauseum levels, but recently, “hair shaming” has been climbing its coattails. You may be familiar with the silent tussle of natural vs. well, “non-natural” hair.  After years of Black popular culture promoting waist-length weaves as the key to real beauty, choosing to wear your own follicles in their more natural state (or at least minus chemicals or synthetics) came back with a vengeance of self-love in the last few years.

Afro-puffs, braids, and the like returned and suddenly women of color were blogging and offering tips on YouTube and how to start over and love your hair again. While this was great news, the unfortunate underside is that on both sides, whether Team Natural or Team Relaxed/Weave, there’s been an equal increase in shaming from Black women toward each other regarding how we style our locks.

I was pushed to look further into this based upon an incident I witnessed personally.

While riding the train back home one night in New York, I called a friend and immediately started gabbing away.  In the background, I could hear a woman speaking loud patois and in minutes I caught on that she was actually arguing with someone. By the time it got to my fourth to last stop, it was clear she had some kind of dispute with another woman. As the woman speaking patois and her friend were getting off the train, the verbal bashing got real personal as she blatantly told her enemy, who had a short  Afro hairstyle, “to get a wash and set.”  She herself had on what was clearly a wig or a weave.

It was a random moment, to be honest. No one came to the Afro-haired woman’s defense vocally, as those paying attention almost seemed as if they didn’t want to entertain the ignorant woman any more than they already had. We all just listened and gazed at her, trying to translate to her (via side eye) that clearly she had no idea how foolish she sounded. While a tame incident in retrospect, I still remember it two weeks later as the hair of Black women continues to be the target of public fascination.

Recently, I came across an interview the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had participated in in April of 2013 (before Beyonce introduced her to a larger audience on her track “Flawless”), and with an overseas news station, Adichie briefly spoke, as the reporter stated, on “the power of hair.”

“Black women’s hair is political. I don’t intend on making [a statement with my hair], but I do,” Adichie asserted.  “By walking in somewhere with my hair like this, people make assumptions. Immediate assumptions. If my hair isn’t straight, people might think you are an angry Black woman, or very soulful, or they’ll think you’re an artist, or vegetarian, there are all kinds of things. I’m interested in hair as a means to talk about other things. What is it that society tells us is beautiful?”

And it’s not just limited to day-to-day interactions nor to “straight hair” versus “kinky.”  I found out the day after the Super Bowl aired, FOX Sports NFL Reporter Pam Oliver received tons of childish flack for her hairstyle, which lead to Internet memes mocking everything from its hue to its bangs. Much of the criticism clearly came from Black people themselves, and all of these occasions are happening as Black publications are proceeding with research on the new rise of naturals vs. weaves, and how and what the new embrace of accepting our hair as it is and learning how to care for it really means for the future of self-love for a new generation.

Looking back at the NYC train incident, I can remember shaking my head and feeling disappointed in the woman who went as low as to insult and criticize another’s hair. Do White girls do this to each other? For every White girl born with standard straight hair, when a massively curly Keri Russell doppelganger walks by, is she met with chants of, “You need a flat iron, or a blow-out STAT”?  I can even recall when Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist and a friend of friend told me that they thought she needed, “a strong ass perm.”

Ouch, much? And I know some of us can recall the barbs given to Gabby Douglas’ pinned-down bun just as she was garnering historic Olympic gold medals as a teenage gymnast.

Yet as always, I try to be honest. In the larger scope of the Black community, we’ve all uttered a jab or 10 about another woman’s hair, and often in extreme cases whether it’s K. Michelle’s many wig changes during one episode of Love & Hip Hop, or sometimes from just observing each other on the streets.  We can’t act like we haven’t clucked our tongues at hairstyles resembling rainbow cotton candy.

But let’s ask ourselves? What are we gaining from Team Natural vs. Team Weave blogs and broadcast conversations? We’ve fought so hard to let the world accept us for having just as much fun with self-expression through our outward appearance, let’s not lose it in friendly fire over something as frivolous as hair in shaming each other.