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The Skin I’m In: Wearing and Workin’ My Weave

A Black woman’s hair suggests and symbolizes so much about her. Hair can be a bold and powerful representation of one’s personality, personal style, vocation, and lifestyle. Making decisions surrounding our hair and the styles we choose to adorn our heads often leaves many Black women feeling torn between which way to go. Whether team natural or team processed and proud, someone, somewhere, will have something to say. The paths we have taken to achieve the right look and feel most beautiful have caused us to go the distance and have cost us nothing short of a small fortune. According to the research, our hair serves as a contributing factor to years of psychological stress. While the overall US population becomes more diverse, beauty standards have failed to acquiesce (Ellis-Hervey et al., 2016). Due to the Eurocentric beauty standard’s failure to reconstruct and encompass women from all cultures, culturally diverse women—in this context, Black women—receive mixed messages about what is best for their hair before being asked what works best. 

Far too often, Black women feel the ongoing tension between going natural or wearing a wig, weave, or braids. Women should not have to factor in the opinions of others, especially worrying about if they will be ostracized or judged within the community or at the workplace. Hairstyles should not consume nor divide us. Black women deserve the agency to choose what makes them feel most comfortable, vibrant, and accessible, without having the dominant culture dictate how we should or should not wear our hair. Further, there is no need for an “us versus them” mentality regarding women who opt to go natural and the women who prefer to wear weaves. A dichotomy between hairstyles does not serve our community’s progression, as every woman has the right to wear whatever hairstyle makes her feel comfortable, confident, beautiful, and empowered. Hair is highly personal for every woman. Therefore, the style one chooses does not need to be up for public discussion. Instead, one’s hair preference ought to be accepted and celebrated. 

I can vividly recall graduating from relaxers and the occasional long ponytail to my first Beverly Johnson 18″ color 1-B full sewn in. When it came to me and weave—it was love at first sight. Hair extensions, namely hair weaves, offer Black women convenience, creativity, and versatility. The one ongoing challenge surrounding hair weave is that women who choose to wear weaves, whether partial, complete, braids, or wigs, are often met with judgment and criticism. Many people disapprove of hair weaves due to a preconceived notion that all women who wear weaves solely seek to assimilate to the majority group or white culture. Various critics equate hair weave with self-loathing, internalized racism, or blatant denial of African-Caribbean heritage. Like thousands of other professional working women, I can acknowledge the origins of this thought process but have a hard time fully co-signing the sentiment. 

Depending on the context of the professional circles one affiliates with, wearing a manageable mane of extensions may not always be white. It may boil down to personal preference, personal aesthetics, and, in some cases, obtaining and maintaining a job. Unfortunately, our Eurocentric society decides to take a man or woman seriously based on his/her appearance. As Ashleigh Shelby Rosette of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University asserts, “In many Western countries, standards of professional appearance have been based on white people, with straightened hair as the benchmark for women. In no way are we asking that the Black woman change who she is. We’re asking that people understand that this difference exists” (Mullen, 2020). Much of one’s professional appearance is their hair. It is not unheard of for Black men and women to be sent home from work or denied a position of upward mobility because they did not “look the part.” As grossly discriminatory as this is, people have bills to pay and families to feed, and good jobs are not easy to come by. 

Late comedian Paul Mooney once said in the Chris Rock classic Good Hair, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” In various instances, a woman will conform to sporting a hair weave as a way in, not because she is ashamed of her hair or her rich ancestry. Suppose a white woman changes her hairstyle or adds a few extensions. In that case, she is never ridiculed or accused of not loving her culture, so why must Black women who are already mistreated and devalued be met with much backlash from other Black women? 

In her survey of Black women’s hair choices impacting job opportunities, Mullen (2020) delves into the ongoing societal bias against natural hairstyles that continues to spill into the work arena. In business fields that uphold more conservative attire, Afros, twists, and braids are unfortunately still viewed as less professional. This biased outlook furthers racial discrimination in the workplace and speaks to the lack of Black representation in leadership among most employers (Mullen, 2020). While there has been much movement and diversification in styles, the issue is still not cut and dry in all professional spheres. A recent study in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science explains how several study participants were asked to rate the profiles of both Black and white female candidates according to professionalism and competence. Sadly, Black women with more natural hairstyles were ranked lower in the ranking and received fewer recommendations for job interviews (Mullen, 2020). 

Not being comfortable with our hairstyles can be emotionally detrimental in many ways, in many instances, even low-key traumatizing. When we are not satisfied with our hair, we may feel unattractive, shameful, and invisible. The aftermath of a relaxer gone wrong can be traumatizing and damages hair that takes years to recover and heal. For all of the beautiful sisters around the globe who have purposefully shed their tracks and opted for a natural look, I applaud and respect you. Consider yourselves fortunate to be in progressive and affirming professional circles. I also want to verify all of the beautiful Black women who, for whatever reason, continue to enjoy their hair weaves, extensions, braids, or wigs. There is nothing wrong with wanting convenience and glamour sometimes.  

The following points represent just a handful of reasons why many Black women continue to be hair consumers and wear weaves. 

  1. Weaves provide women with more options—One of the best things about the hair weave is that it allows women with versatile styling options. Weaves allow women to experiment with different colors, lengths, textures, and styles without having to take the risk of ruining their natural hair state.  
  2. Weaves are incredibly convenient—For the average professional woman or full-time student, a hair weave is the perfect “on the go” “on the run” option. Not having to spend an hour on your hair in the morning before tackling a stressful commute is a godsend. A weave flows with you during the day and helps you effortlessly transition into the evening without missing a beat. From work to school or the local happy hour with your girls, so much time and fret is prevented when you wear a weave. Ease of daily maintenance and freedom in personal choice is pleasurable gains.
  3. Weaves help you grow and strengthen your natural look—When applied and maintained appropriately (monthly breaks included), weaves can help women grow out and improve their hair, as the natural hair is braided up underneath for a full 6-8 weeks free of excessive heat, chemicals, pulling or tugging that are experienced on the regular in some natural styles. If too many relaxers or dye chemicals have damaged the hair, wearing a weave allows the hair a temporary break to slowly revive itself until your ready for the following natural or weave-free style. Additionally, Black hair is ultra-sensitive to manipulation. Manipulation encompasses color, excessive amounts of heat, and straightening.  
  4. Weaves are a beauty statement—Just like a shiny gel manicure or your favorite MAC lipstick, the hair weave often serves as a beauty enhancement. While hair tracks and wigs do not make anyone beautiful, they certainly can enhance and enliven the beauty that is already there. Some people wear weaves as a result of social and economic obligations. This is evident in many television and film personalities. If celebrities are allowed to wear weaves, so should the average sister next door.  
  5. Weaves are one less stressor a Black woman has to negotiate at work—Depending on the type of career field, it is a commonplace for Black women to be the only woman of color in her organization, the higher the position. The research affirms that straightened looks are still ranked as more “polished, refined, and respectable” (Mullen, 2020). There are a plethora of things Black women are forced to worry about while at work. To be socially acceptable and not draw greater, unwanted focus on you, sometimes a weave comes in handy. Weaves can keep the attention on a woman’s quality of work, often eliminating one less burden of having to keep up hairstyles or fear the burden of being ostracized or doubly discriminated against because of your skin color and hair. Weave can be a survival tactic in the workplace. (Abdullah, 1998). 
  6. Weaves serve as part of the larger Black Hair Care Community—For centuries, Black people established ways to create safe spaces that promoted community. Thanks to the Black hair industry, unique places like beauty supply stores, salons, barbershops, and braiding shops have all been places where Black people could “come together, learn from one another, and share laughs” (Reed, 2020). When women get their weaves installed or wigs custom made, they may be sitting across from someone with locs or twists, and it’s all good because it’s one community made of diverse preferences. 
  7. Weaves are sometimes the only choice available—Some women opt to wear a wig or weave due to a health crisis that significantly impacted their natural hair. Other women may have breakage problems or coats that will not grow very quickly. Research suggests that “while many African-American women have more knowledge on how to care for their hair, including products, styling ideas, styling tools, and the growth and texture of hair, many may lack confidence about their hair and how they wish to present it to others” (Alston & Ellis-Hervey, 2014). Caring for natural hair generally requires more effort and can be even more time-consuming than wearing a weave. Presentation symbolizes value and pride that extends to the meticulousness of the perfect ‘do. More often than not, Black women wake up with a head of hair that has endless possibilities (Reed, 2020). This is a beautiful thing.  

Wherever you fall on the hair spectrum, do whatever works for you and do it unashamed. Research shows that there are “no significant differences between self-esteem and the choice of hairstyle by African-American women” (Ellis-Hervey et al., 2016). From a mental health perspective, as long as you are enhancing your self-love, self-care, and personal appreciation in addition to the hairstyle you choose, then wear your weave. It is hard enough living as the minority in a Euro-dominated world and having to factor in or appease significant others, family members, employers, and popular opinions for what goes on top of your scalp. Hairstyles should ultimately be about choice. From the first time, many of us were introduced to that Just for Me® relaxer, each of us has entered on some hair journey voyage, “for many African-American women, hair is more than protein and fibers; it is a way of portraying their individuality to the world” (Davis-Sivasothy, 2011). 

May we all respect and uplift one another’s decisions, as every Black woman’s hair journey is their own. Regardless of what the sister next to you chooses, there is no right or wrong style, and that is the beauty of freedom. Perhaps none of us are indeed free from this discriminatory beauty standard until all of us can decide on hair without the underlying worries of judgment from either race. As Reed (2020) reminds us, “the endless variety of Black hairdos is a nonstop experiment for most. With the ability to manipulate hair into unfathomable formations, there’s still no telling how Black hair will impact the world.” (2020).   

Whether it is a short pixie-like Halle Berry or long, flowing tresses like Beyoncé, at the end of the day, do what makes you feel good. The truth is, hair or no hair, you are not your 100,000 hair follicles, and you are exquisitely beautiful inside and out. Hair alteration (in this case, wearing weaves) is not always a result of self-hatred. If you want to sport a weave, make sure you are doing it for your personal preference and needs and not in response to pressures or forced conformity to ancient societal standards—do you. To thine own head, heart, and mental health be true! 


References

Abdullah, A. S. (1998). Mammy-ism: A diagnosis of psychological misorientation for women of African descent. Journal of Black Psychology, 24, 196-210. 

Alston, G., & Ellis-Hervey, N. (2014). Exploring public pedagogy and the non-formal adult educator in 21st century contexts using qualitative video data analysis techniques. Learning Media and Technology, 40, 502-513. doi: 10.1080/17439884. 2014.968168

Davis-Sivasothy, A. (2011). The science of black hair. Stafford, TX. Saja Publishing. 

Donaldson, C. (2012). Hair alteration practices amongst Black women and the assumption of self-hatred. New York University

Ellis-Hervey, N., Doss, A., Davis, D., Nicks, R., & Araiza, P.(2016). African american personal presentation: Psychology of hair and self-perception. Journal of Black Studies, 47(8), 869-882.  

Fox, M. (1997). Mirror, mirror: A summary of research findings on body image. Retrieved from http://www.sirc.org/publik/mirror.html 

Hargro, B. (2011). Hair matters: African american women and the natural hair aesthetic. (Master’s thesis) Georgia State University. Retrieved from http://scholar works.gsu.edu/art_design_theses

Johnson, T. A., & Bankhead, T. (2014). Hair it is: Examining the experiences of Black women with natural hair. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 2, 86-100. doi: 10.4236/jss.2014.21010

Mullen, C. (August 24, 2020). Black women’s hair choices can affect their job chances, 

study says. Retrieved from https://www.bizjournals.com/bizwomen/news/latest-

news/2020/08/black-womens-hair-choices-can-affect-their-job.html?page=all  

Reed, D. (January 31, 2020). 12 Reasons Why Hair s Important in Black History. Retrieved from https://mom.com/momlife/reasons-why-hair-is-important-in-black-history 

Thompson, C. (2009). Black women, beauty, and hair as a matter of being. Women’s Studies, 38, 831-856.