Michelle Obama’s hair and the Problem of Perception

This morning I was writing on the introduction to my PhD thesis inspired by Michelle Obama being celebrated online for wearing her natural hair out. Intrigued by the appraisal Michelle Obama had received online – on Twitter and other social media platforms – since being spotted with her natural hair out on Monday, I decided to do a quick Google search to see how many news outlets had picked up on it – was Michelle Obama’s hair worth a story?

Michelle Obama Natural Hair

Considering the politics of Black hair I would have thought so. Just think about Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bold suggestion in an interview with Channel 4 in August 2016:

I’ve often said that if Michelle Obama had natural hair when Barack Obama was running for president, he would not have won. Because her natural hair would have signified certain things to people. It would signify that she’s some sort of militant, neo- Black Panther, frightening […].

Black hair is never neutral but a tangled story of oppression, self-hate, and subjugation. Black hair is always symbolic. Black hair is gendered, and it is political.

Having exhausted my Google search in English I decided on a hunch to type in ‘Twitter Michelle Obama Haare’, searching Google for reports in my home country, Germany. First up was a report by glossy magazine GALA. Despite being interested in whether newspapers such as Süddeutsche or Frankfurter Allgemeine reported on it, I decided to look at the GALA article.

The magazine article tries to make sense of the internet frenzy following the post by @meagnacarta. However, it does so by suggesting that Michelle Obama, who is usually well known for what the magazine describes as her impeccable style, tidy appearance and professional front, felt unobserved and thus safe to let her natural hair out. This is hugely problematic. But see for yourself….

Wir alle kennen Michelle Obama als stets perfekt gestylte First Lady ihres Mannes Barack Obama. Hübsche Kostümchen, akurat frisiertes Haar und ein makelloser Teint. Nun, nach der Amtszeit ihres Mannes, zeigt sich Michelle so natürlich wie nie zuvor und das ganze Internet rastet aus.

In ihrer Position als First Lady stand Michelle Obama ständig und permanent in der Öffentlichkeit, hatte großen Druck stets perfekt auszusehen. Natürlich legt sie auch jetzt noch viel Wert auf ihr Äußeres, doch ganz offensichtlich fühlte sie sich nun einmal ganz unbeobachtet.

[spelling mistake in original]

This translates to:

All of us know Michelle Obama as the First Lady of Barack Obama. Pretty dresses, meticulously styled hair, and an unblemished complexion. Now, after the end of her husband’s presidency, Michelle appears as natural as never before and the internet goes crazy.

In her role as First Lady, Michelle Obama was constantly and permanently in the eye of the public, feeling pressured to look perfect at all times. Of course she took great pride in her appearance, but now she obviously thought that nobody was looking.

Gender Troubles aside.

There is, with regards to the portrayal of Michelle Obama’s hair styling choices, a problem of perception.

Can natural afro hair be beautiful? Can it be tidy? Can it be professional? Can it be perfect?

All of me wants to scream – yes, yes, yes, and f****** (please apologize my language) yes!

It is articles like these that tell women and young girls all around the world that their hair, unless it is neatly straight(ened), sleek and wavy, is unacceptable. Natural afro hair is a style to be worn in a private moment when being well-hidden away on an island – but never a style to be worn in public. Or maybe not?

The policing of Black hair is problematic because it suggests that for some women, the hair that grows out of their head is unacceptable, ugly, and unprofessional. The policing of Black hair is problematic because it has its roots in imperialist ideas of White supremacy, and the oppression and enslavement of people of African ancestry. The policing of Black hair is problematic because women feel pressured to conform to hegemonic representations of white beauty to the point where permanent hair loss, burnt scalps, and painful treatments to straighten their natural hair seem more attainable than wearing the very hair that grows out of their heads in public.

In an article for The Pool, British journalist and Black Ballad co-founder Tobi Oredein evinces her own troubled relationship with her “tight midnight black afro curls” –  a story of frustration and shame, as well as a story of acceptance and embracing yourself for who you are:

As a black woman, I would be lying if I said that my self-esteem never took a hit in my teens and early twenties, when I would watch romcoms and see that the leading lady was often blonde and blue-eyed. […]

[…] I eventually came to the conclusion that I would have to unlearn what it meant to be beautiful and break away from the idea that there is only one notion of attractiveness.

The first step in this new education was learning that I didn’t need to spend an extortionate amount of money on my hair to have a weave that was a carbon copy of Jennifer Lopez’s wavy curls. That my curls, my tight midnight black afro curls, were not only good enough, but they would be an integral statement in telling the world that I was ready to unapologetically celebrate my black body in all its glory.

Tobi Oredein’s story is a story that I have heard over and over again when interviewing women in Germany and the UK for my PhD.  What GALA and many others are missing is the fact that there are now thousands if not millions of young girls and women, who are seeing the former First Lady of the United States unapologetically embracing her own, natural hair. In this very moment, she is defying beauty standards, the very standards by which GALA judged her, and she is telling all of us that her hair is beautiful the way it is.

Natural afro hair should neither be something to be ashamed of nor something that needs to be hidden away. Whether women of colour decide to chemically or mechanically straighten their hair, or wear weaves and wigs, should be a personal choice. It should not be a question of conforming to beauty ideals and the views of other people.

#BlackGirlMagic or Why yet another blog

The post in which I tell you why I am starting an academic blog about Black hair, identity and women of colour, why this is a conversation long overdue, and why you should be part of it. 

blackgirlmagic

When I started my PhD project in 2014, I always knew that this should not just be a project about women of colour, but one for women of colour.

I think I have done a pretty decent job doing research about women of colour. I have spoken to dozens of women in Britain and Germany about their hair. I have listened to their life stories and thoughts. I have observed the processes and culture of Black hair shops, interviewed hair dressers and attended hair shows. As I am starting to write up my thesis, publish articles in academic journals and attend conferences, I can see how my research contributes to an academic discourse about questions of identity and representation as they pertain to women of colour in Britain, Germany and beyond. But I am yet to keep my promise that this is research for women of colour.

When I first started university, I hoped my degree would teach me something about myself and my experiences growing up in Germany. I wanted to learn about the ways we identify people based on their outer appearance, about the individual and how individuals become members of groups.I was curious about the formation of societies and the meaning of culture. But  I was also interested in  the ways we come to hold stereotypes and how we become prejudiced towards others. . Some of my questions were answered, others remain(ed).

I remember my excitement upon coming across Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask, Homi K. Bahaba’s The Location of Culture and Anthoy Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic during my first undergraduate in Germany. Later their voices would be complemented by bell hook’s Yearning, Audrey Lorde’s Sister Outsider and Patricia Hill Collin’s Black Feminist Thought. But the body of literature remains small and limited compared to the thousands of books that fill the libraries of the universities that I attended, and it often maintains the binary language of Black and White. It also remains focused on questions of skin colour; yet there was also the question of hair.

When I first started writing for KrauseLocke.de in 2011, I was pretty unaware of the significance and politics of Black hair. But the more women I met, the more conversations I had, the more I read and wrote, the more I could see that sometimes hair was more important to women of colour’s identity than the colour of their skin.

What is the meaning of hair? Why do some women straighten their hair and others wear it natural? What does it mean if certain hair styles are seen as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unprofessional’? What is beauty and who defines it?

This was the birth of my PhD research project. It is a social psychological investigation into the identity politics of Black hair. It is a project interested in the decisions women make with regards to their hair. In other words, what do women of colour in the United Kingdom and Germany do with their hair and why do they do it?

As much academic writing remains within academic journals and at conferences, I am using this blog to take my research out of the academic ivory tower and back to you, my dear readers.

I am writing this blog for the women, who had the courtesy and courage to share their stories and experiences with me. I am writing this blog for everyone and anyone interested in the politics of Black hair and how it influences processes of identity. And finally, I am writing this blog for the girls and women out there in search of a little #blackgirlmagic.

To be continued…