Unrealistic Hair Standards In The Black Community are Alive and Well – Why?

It's okay to let your hair just be.
Gerhard Pettersson / 500px via Getty Images

If you’re Black you’ll know that hair is a complex and nuanced topic within our community. We know that European beauty ideals have warped our idea of what consists as ‘good,’ hair.

You would have thought that the natural hair movement, which was popular in the early to late 2000s, would have helped us unlearn those ideals.

In a way, it did. It was transformative for me and a whole generation of Black women. Not only did it teach me that my hair is worthy, but it also provided the community with the tools and products to rock our hair in all its natural glory.

However, although social media has helped improve the way we see our natural hair, it has also helped reinforce the ideals we’ve been running away from.

It’s something I’ve been noticing quite a lot on TikTok. Want to wear your braids in the club? Forget it, they’re not good enough for going out-out, according to the girls on the clock app.

Lynda Flix was a Love Island contestant, entering as one of the Casa Amor bombshells. However she received negative comments for going on Island with ‘old’ braids.

Okay, so we’ve established braids aren’t good enough for certain scenarios, so how about opting for a wig? Where should we look for one? Why not try a synthetic wig? No that’s not good enough either, it has to be natural and you have to make sure the lace at the top is hidden. Don’t forget to make sure those baby hairs look like they came from your scalp or what’s the point?

How about having your natural hair out? Okay, great an easy solution!

Have you applied a ridiculous amount of gel to your hair to ensure its slicked down to the nines? You can’t leave your house with your natural hair intact, who would do that?

The hairstyles may have changed but the rules still apply: your hair in its natural self is still not good enough. And the fake hair you put on your head has to be the most expensive hair on the planet.

Aswan Magumbe who is a 22-year-old fashion journalism student from London went to an all-girls school and would observe who was popular or just generally deemed attractive and how they would do their hair.

“A lot of those girls had beautiful wigs, and leave-outs (straightened hair with extensions) and I would’ve loved to experiment with them but I just knew it wouldn’t suit me and I was still just trying to figure out who I was,” Magumbe shares.

When Mugumbe got her first silk press (a way to straighten your hair without using chemicals), she was annoyed that it wasn’t as straight as a white woman’s hair. “That’s a complex I’m still trying to get over and know I will. But I think the pressure really comes mainly from myself now,” she admits.

She feels the pressure from other Black women to have her hair styled in a certain way. “I’m sure most of the time they want to make me feel confident, it automatically makes me feel like whatever condition or state my hair is in at that moment isn’t good enough.

“And it’s more gruelling coming from other Black people (women especially) because I already feel like I’m not enough even for them. I’ve only ever had two hairstyles my whole life: braids or more recently, a silk press, and my hair was never good enough in either.”

She adds: “When I got my silk press, some Black women told me my hair was quite short and suddenly the focus was on length!”

Magumbe believes we set such unrealistic standards for our hair because we’re conditioned from early on that our best is never enough: “Our hair is one of the biggest ways this shows up (I think) because it’s how we physically present, and most of the time we’re immediately judged on appearance than we are our heart posture or personality.”

“Sometimes I wonder what the ‘bare minimum’ for a Black person looks like because I’ve only ever seen us putting our best foot forward, especially when it comes to hair,” she says.

Gbemi* who is an influencer feels that her hair must be straight in order to succeed in the influencer industry: “I do think my hair is appreciated more in the online space when it’s more tamed, straight, and has more length to it.”

She has a lot of hair and her hair texture is the preferred texture in the Black community, she explains: “I should, in theory, have a good relationship with my hair because of this but it was the main reason people called me beautiful as a child and it really messed with my head.

“If you look at the Black influencers who are quite popular, their hair tends to be straight and other small influencers follow or copy the hairstyles they do. It’s like an unspoken rule that our hair should look the same or you won’t succeed.”

These unrealistic standards don’t just apply to women, Black men notice the unrealistic standards too. William* who is a 23-year-old business owner from Kent has received various comments from both white and Black people about his hair as he’s always changing it.

“Older Black people tend to prefer to see young Black men with hairstyles with short hair, they want Black boys to have hairstyles that look respectable, so one without a lot of hair,” William explains.

“There’s added pressure to make sure it always looks good. This means getting a shape-up or a hair cut every two weeks. But with the cost of living crisis and rising costs to hair treatments, it’s unrealistic to expect men to get their hair cut every week.”

He adds that if you don’t live up to that standard of looking clean and respectful people can alienate you.

33-year-old Lina Barker from Staffordshire is the co-founder of Aaron Wallace, a Black male grooming brand. She tells HuffPost UK that she’s acutely aware of the pressures that Black men face when it comes to their hair:

“While the pressure is somewhat less on those who wear their hair short, it is certainly felt by those who have longer hair and feel the need to ‘tame’ it to fit in with societal beauty standards.

“In fact, it can be argued that some of our men choose to wear it short to avoid the issue altogether and in doing so are once again confirming to standards set to them by society.”

Barker thinks it’s important to acknowledge the historical context of beauty standards in media publications and their link to European beauty ideals: “For years, Eurocentric standards of beauty have been perpetuated in the media, leading to a lack of representation and exclusion for individuals with features that don’t fit this mould.

“Our hair is rarely allowed to be free because of this reason. Black people can’t wake up and leave their hair the way that it is. It requires time and effort. The “messy” look became a fashion trend in recent years, but unfortunately, black women and girls, and boys, with afro hair were often excluded from this trend.”

The reason for this exclusion is that the term “messy” has a different meaning for us than it does for individuals with Eurocentric hair textures. Afro hair requires more maintenance and attention to detail but this doesn’t have to mean that we too, can’t just “wash and go”. It just means that our version of it is often labeled as ‘unkempt.’

Black hair is special but our relationship with it is an ongoing journey. Our hair is good enough in its natural state and we shouldn’t feel the need to add products to make it look better than it already is. More importantly, we need to show each other grace. We are so hard on our each other as a community when we don’t need to be. Lay off the gel and just let your hair be.