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.

2 thoughts on “Michelle Obama’s hair and the Problem of Perception

  1. Your blog is pretty amazing!! From someone who moved from manchester to a predominately white area and being told my hair is “fashionable” having it out in an afro for less than a week, the whole thing was really foreign to me. They’re so many perceptions of black hair and what is “presentable”. Love the blog!! Here from ibzmo’s video 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Muna, thank you for stopping by and the encouragement and love! Glad Ibzmo brought you here 🙂 I think you are absolutely right about there being so many connotations and perceptions around Black hair; out of curiosity: do you consider your Afro to be a political statement? Lots of love from Yale, Johanna

      Like

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