Why the H&M hair controversy matters
Societal double standards around young people and their personal presentation are rampant when race is a factor. A simple clothing item like a hoodie is interpreted as casual sportiness on a white teen, but on a black teen is often, and unfairly, associated with criminality. It is in this context that the H&M photo shoot featuring children with bedraggled, after-school hair has taken place.
The privilege of being disheveled
In the larger society, less-than-perfectly groomed hair on a black child is often seen as unkempt and dirty, while on a white child it’s seen as tousled and playful. Even when black children’s hair is impeccably groomed, they risk being penalized at school simply for wearing natural hairstyles.
The opportunity to take part in a high fashion shoot is an is a chance for African-American children to be presented at one’s best on a worldwide platform, whereas white and other non-black children are afforded the chance to be themselves, with a sloppy after school look, because they’ll have plenty of other opportunities to be seen at their best, their hair presented as an ideal, in future shoots and acting gigs. And when they have those opportunities, they can relax knowing that an on-set glam team will provide them with experts knowledgeable about their hair and makeup needs – a privilege that even today, many black actresses and models do not get.
Grooming as a form of social currency
All that being said, the notion of grooming as social currency isn’t limited to race. Had H&M done a photo shoot that was set in predominately white, poor areas of our country–rural areas, coal country or the Rust Belt–and shown children looking disheveled in those environments, the parents in those communities may have been equally outraged–and rightfully so, at the association of their communities with poverty. Their dishevelment would have had a cultural stigma. It would have been hurtful. Likewise, black parents deserve to feel protective and to be outraged.
For a black child, having a parent or guardian with the time and resources to slather their chubby face or ashy elbows with cocoa butter or Vaseline, or brush their edges neatly into a hairstyle that honors whatever length they happen to have, signifies that they are special to someone with resources and wherewithal–and thus belong to a social strata of those who have something.
What complicates this controversy is the role of texturism. Texturism is defined in Divine Dark Skin magazine as “the acceptance or glorification of an individual’s straight or loosely coiled, natural hair texture over an individual’s course, kinkier, or tightly coiled natural hair texture.” It is akin to colorism, reinforcing the damaging notion that non-black or mixed race features are more attractive or high-status than African ones. Texturism is subtle and persistent, and it permeates all facets of black life and grooming practices.
For African-American women, texturism often translates to perfectionism, the tightly pulled edges using styling practices that can cause loss of edge hair long term.
For black men, what’s deemed as a suitable length for even relatively short hair, or what’s considered a “nice” beard or chest hair, is largely dictated by texturism.
For black children, who are acutely aware of their social pecking order, enforcing norms around texturism can manifest as teasing and bullying among their peers and painful hair practices at home.
Pride and prejudice
While grooming is a source of pride for African-Americans, the desire for perfection can mask some negative feelings about the hair itself. It is these feelings, the texturism behind them, that the H&M controversy has brought to light. And it is these feelings we need to examine and heal from.
And back to the subject of hoodies, it was not that long ago, in early 2018, that H&M received backlash for its ad campaign featuring a black boy in a hoodie that read “coolest monkey in the jungle”. It’s ironic that a company with a recent history of being racially insensitive—or very possibly, deliberately derisive—could force us to confront our own texturism. But there it is.
What’s important is that a conversation has been started around black children’s hair, the need for loving and gentle grooming techniques for them to look their best for school and formal events, yet the freedom to appear disheveled after playing, without harsh judgment. Most importantly, black children need greater protection from the unfair social repercussions of being less-than-perfect all the time—and they need access to the kinds of opportunities and resources that make looking disheveled a luxury they can easily afford.
For more on black children and natural hair, check out the Let’s Talk Hair TV Premiere on Amazon Prime Video; there’s a wonderful segment on the Afrolicious Hair Expo featuring their Little Miss Afrolicious Pageant!