“Black is beautiful!”
You can hear these three simple words chanted in the background of a 1968 video clip, in which Black Panther activist Kathleen Cleaver, wearing her soft brown hair in a halo-like Afro, explains the beauty of natural hair. At the time, wearing your hair natural, refusing to chemically alter Afro-textured hair, was a powerful rejection of racist beauty ideals and a radical form of self-love.
“Dig it? Isn’t it beautiful?” Cleaver asks the interviewer with a radiant smile. “Alright.”
Half a century later, black women’s hair has remained a political battleground. Back then, Cleaver says in the clip, black women “were told that only white people were beautiful—that only straight hair, light eyes, light skin was beautiful. And so black women would try everything they could, straighten their hair, lighten their skin, to look as much like white women.”
That’s unfortunately still true. In South Africa and around the world, young schoolgirls have been threatened with exclusion for daring to wear their hair natural, and employers push guidelines that suggest natural hair is not neat or appropriate for the workplace. Meanwhile the market for “weaves, extensions, wigs, independent beauty supply stores, distributors, e-commerce, styling tools and appliances”—the industry built around black women’s manipulation of their hair—is expected to reach half a trillion dollars, according to the market research firm Mintel.
It’s no wonder then that Cleaver’s words and the messages from the black cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s still resonate today. And once again, across the globe, the natural hair movement is rising. In the US, this movement coincided with a 37% drop in relaxer sales from 2012 to 2017.
But even as black women stopped buying relaxer, we instead started buying into another beauty aspiration: an idealized image of natural hair. Sales of styling products marketed for black hair increased by a quarter in the US, a rise attributed in part to the natural hair movement. There are thousands of articles, Facebook pages, and YouTube channels dedicated to Afro-textured hair.
This is a cult that worships the idea of “lovely curls”: usually loose ringlets that are bouncy, thick, and shiny. A quick search on YouTube for the most watched natural hair tutorial lands me on a video, which has been watched over 17 million times, on how to achieve these mythical curls.
Discovering this world of natural hair was incredibly empowering for me at first. As someone with different hair texture to my mom and many of the women in my family, I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to “do” my hair. So these videos and tutorials were lifeline. But I didn’t feel empowered for long.
I straightened my hair with blow dryers and straighteners for most of my life, but abruptly stopped three years ago. By then, it had become impossible to ignore the damage the heat was causing; leaving my hair brittle, thin, and dry. But quitting the straightening didn’t instantly crown me with a glorious Afro. Instead, my natural hair felt limp and lifeless—not in the least bit powerful or self-affirming. The temptation to straighten it again grew every day.
I dived into YouTube, and its aspirational gallery of beautiful, curly hair being shaken, scrunched, and fondled by glamorous vloggers. I was told I could easily replicate if only I bought the right products—which I did, spending hundreds of dollars.
This left me feeling even worse. No matter what shampoos I lathered with, what conditioners, style milks, and gels I worked through to the tips, what oils I slathered on, and sprays I doused myself in, my curls fell flat, stayed frizzy, and stubbornly refused to be lovely.
I wasn’t emulating the beauty standards of white women, but I felt beholden to another standard—long, shiny, bouncy ringlets that frame perfectly around my face. (My looser curls at least were regularly represented in videos, ads and tutorials—others have criticized the natural hair movement for prioritizing mixed-race girls with loose curls over those with hair that holds tighter curls.) These women are putting black beauty front and center and that’s important. But this cultural revolution didn’t fundamentally change how I saw myself. It just moved the goal post from one ideal to another.
I worked hard toward this goal. Whenever someone complimented how great and healthy my hair was looking, I’d always interject that I was just at the beginning of my journey and that my hair would look much better once I got it to where it needed to be. Finally, my cousin asked what the end result was meant to look like exactly? I sent her links to my favorite YouTubers. Her response was blunt: “The end game is for you to look like someone else?”
It wasn’t until I stopped comparing myself to beauty gurus—giving up the hope that the next product I bought would be the golden ticket to the curls of my dreams—that I finally came close to understanding what Cleaver meant back in 1968.
The natural hair movement is about many things. It’s about knowing how to style your hair and keep it healthy. But the movement is also rooted in revolutionary political ideas. It’s about rejecting unattainable beauty ideals, not allowing them to demoralize us.
Black is beautiful—period. Not some types of black hair or some black people, but all. The radical power that Kathleen Cleaver was digging lies in accepting yourself. It has been a slow journey, but that’s now my goal. I have learned to accept good hair days and bad hair days. And gradually, I’m growing to like the person reflected back at me in the mirror.