I remember the first time I got twists. It was for graduation. I’d always loved twists and braids. I used to look in awe at old pictures of my mum and aunty wearing them when I was younger. Fast forward to 2014. I wanted a neat, pretty style which wouldn’t take much looking after. When I got Senegalese twists, it cut my getting-ready time in half (much to my boyfriend’s relief). I ate beauty vlogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, learning all I could. After the takedown, I kept looking on blogs and YouTube, and began to love my natural hair. I’ve only just started properly caring for my hair to be honest. I had lots of failures during my teens. There was a lot of crying and wishing for long straight hair. Then, I started seeing more people with hair like mine doing great things with their locks. It was a revelation after years of being subjected to magazines full of European hairstyles I could never attain.
Having twists made me do more research about their origins, and how black women are currently pushing them further stylistically. It also made me aware of how protective styles are now being featured more in the mainstream. As black beauty bloggers buzz about new ways of wearing braids and twists, empowered by new hair movements which are shared via social media, these trends get picked up by other media outlets, such as ASOS magazine. I started to see braids (and twists, to a lesser extent, as well as cane rows) more on non-black women. And I started wondering why it made me feel so uncomfortable.
Perhaps the problem is not what’s there (a fair-skinned, straight-haired woman wearing a traditionally African-Caribbean style), but what isn’t. It’s about absence. What’s missing is cultural context, and black women themselves. There have been several recent scandals concerning cultural appropriation, particularly of hair styles. Kylie Jenner recently posted a picture of herself, complete with lip injections and cane rows. The fact that the beauty of the black aesthetic is often pretty much invisible to the mainstream until people like Igloo Australia start getting surgery speaks volumes about the visibility of black women in the media, and the lack of respect other people have for their bodies. Anti-cultural appropriation foot-soldier and all round cutie Amandla Stenberg offered a concise, smart critique about why Kylie Jenner’s posturing was a problem, and was brushed off as just another oversensitive, angry black girl. This is, unfortunately, a common theme – the person who points out the obvious issues is swiftly silenced by being branded angry, bitter, divisive, foolish, biased; even reverse racist. But why this desperation to discount her concerns and shut down discussion? And why shouldn’t she be angry, anyway? The beauty practices and styles of black women are often ignored, so that when a facet of black beauty is cherry-picked as ‘cool’ for a few weeks by elite fashionistas, it’s as if white women invented it right then and there.
But what’s so wrong with sharing styles? Why can’t white women wear their hair how they want? Isn’t a black woman with blonde, straightened hair cultural appropriation too? I’m so tired of all this race stuff maaan (people moan). This is a false comparison which completely glosses over history and actual lived reality. They say people can have their hair however they want in 2015. But more than ever, people are making money out of aesthetics and styles marked ‘black’, and choosing not to use black people to sell them and ignoring black knowledge and creativity in the process. Mainstream media often ignores black contributions and reclaims old things as new and cool once they are associated with ‘whiteness’. Recently in Stylist magazine, a white model in a feature about holiday hair was wearing cane rows, which were renamed ‘island braids’. Decontextualising cane rows in this way shows a disregard and disrespect for the people that commonly wear them – an entitled laziness which means that Stylist magazine didn’t even feel the need to fact check. Behaving in this way shows that you don’t know or see black people; they are invisible to you physically and conceptually. It symbolises an innate power imbalance.
There was also the Teen Vogue controversy. A model used in a shoot featuring twists appeared to be white. Vogue maintained that the model was mixed race, listing all the different countries she was from to, let’s be honest, justify their long-documented ignorance and anti-blackness. The issue wasn’t really the model, per se. The fact is, so many women who wear this style, and are pioneers when it comes to these types of extensions, are dark skinned. Yet the model they chose to use in this rare piece about a black hairstyle was white-presenting, thus denying any connection between this hairstyle and black beauty. During my summer in Spain, when I was at Sónar festival, I saw many white European girls with braids, wearing them alongside a self-consciously ‘ghetto’ or ‘hippyish’ costume. And that’s the problem – many people see it as a costume. It’s a laugh, a bit of fun, a way of standing out and feeling dangerous. They can take it off and go back to fitting in with Western ideals of beauty if they choose.
Perhaps this appropriation lark is a way of having a culture in the secular, cultureless West; a kind of beauty tourism, or a way of finding yourself and feeling like an ‘individual’. White women are encouraged to play around and have fun with their style, and this often includes taking little bits of black culture (or Asian – let’s not forget the girls who love to wear bindis to raves for no apparent reason), picking it apart, and using it when it suits. Stop being so serious; racism is dead now ok?? This attitude is epitomized by the work of artists like Katy Perry and Brooke Candy (famous as much for her long blonde braids as for her super dirty lyrics). This cultural play is seen as edgy; and yet, if the woman wearing this stuff was dark-skinned, you’d better believe people wouldn’t pay as much attention, or would be more likely to see her as trashy or ‘ghetto’ because the media portrays black women in a one dimensional way (see Zendaya and her beautiful faux locs which, when worn to an awards ceremony, were mocked for being inappropriate and had people wondering if she smoked weed). To black women, this seems like further confirmation that people want to pick you apart, take bits from you, but don’t want YOU.
White women (or white passing women) have benefitted from their positioning within dominant ideals of beauty. Through white supremacist lenses of beauty, a dark-skinned body can never be beautiful. Until more people can love black aesthetics, in a way which is not based on monolithic fetishism, and until we see equality in the images of what’s beautiful, people shouldn’t be stealing black women’s styles while stepping down on them and putting themselves in the spotlight in their place. Cultural appropriators may argue that being told ‘no’ interferes with their freedom to be who they are, but don’t seem to realise that participating in trends which trivialise or ignore black beauty interferes with women of black heritage’s freedom to be multifaceted, to be more than a costume, to use their own voices to tell their own stories in mainstream media. People should be able to take note of and respect the social meaning of black hair styles. Let black women and celebs lead the way when it comes to their bodies, their beauty regimes, and their style!
Naomi Anderson Whittaker is a proofreader doing an MA in Racism and Ethnicity Studies at Leeds Uni. She blogs and tweets about life/creative writing/activisty stuff at livebythepen.wordpress.com and https://twitter.com/NaomiAndersonW