Yesterday, I saw a picture circulating around the internet that caused a small stir across various social media platforms. People were posting articles and turning to Twitter to share opinions of Michelle Obama flaunting her natural hair (see below).
Had a white celebrity, like Jennifer Lawrence or Mila Kunis, went out with her natural hair, there would be hardly a ripple across the internet except for a post in “Celebrities are like us!” or some other gossip column. But why was Michelle Obama not “like us?”
Black female hair has always been a contentious topic in modern society. I thought back to a discussion I attended last year about cultural appropriation; the most debated topic was cornrows. We reviewed images, ranging from little girls on vacation in the Caribbean to the runway to pop culture icons like the Kardashians, all sporting these braids. The consensus was that white women who style their hair in this way fail to appreciate its historical context and meaning. Cornrows originated in Africa and the Caribbean and was worn by slave laborers working in the sugar cane fields. Rather than recognize this significance, white culture is appropriating it as a “fresh” and “edgy” hairstyle. To me, this puts out the message that we are “erasing” or “ignoring” the parts of our history that are tough to address.
Back to Michelle Obama, I realized that very rarely had people seen pictures of her with natural hair. Instead, it’s always relaxed and perfectly coiffed. As an iconic African-American female figure, many people were overjoyed to see the photo. Still, others questioned why it took so long for her to step out in public with natural hair.
There has been a recent movement for black women to embrace their natural hair because it is symbolic of embracing one’s culture and heritage. Much like Pedro’s post earlier this semester about his naturally wavy Brazilian hair compared to a Korean friend’s straight hair, our hair is very indicative of our unique ethnic background. Black women have started to turn their backs on chemicals that make their hair look more “neat” or “normal” or “white” in favor of embracing their natural curls.
Michelle Obama’s natural hair debut is a step in the right direction for encouraging this natural hair movement. I myself straighten my hair often, and when I sit down and think about it, maybe I do so because of the cultural norms imposed upon me. Straight, silky hair is a sign of beauty in recent American culture, but what if I leave my natural waves? Am I suddenly not “pretty enough?” I know the pressures I face are a lot smaller compared to the pressures black women face in terms of hair. I’m sure as the First Lady, Michelle Obama experienced pressures to appear perfect and put-together, and oftentimes natural black hair can be construed as “unruly.” However, constant pressure like this is unrealistic. If a cultural shift happens towards acceptance of natural hair in all its forms, we would be one step closer to denying culture appropriation and embracing the story our natural hair can tell.