Beauty Standards, Social Media and Being a 4C babe.


I remember the first time I had some sort of attachment in my hair that didn’t match my natural hair texture. I was 3 years old (about a month away from turning 4) and on holiday in Nigeria for my Uncle’s wedding. I had a curly ponytail attached to the end of my hair for the wedding day. I felt very pretty. (See first picture below) I hadn’t had my hair done like that before and was so happy. It was definitely a rarity. My hair had usually been cornrowed into some sort of style or packed into bunches.  (See second picture below)

I also remember the first time I got single-plait braids. I was in Year 1. These were significant because they were long and fell down my shoulders. Unlike cornrows that stayed on my head, they had the capacity to flick side to side. Though not the same, it was at least similar to the girls on TV I would see with long straight hair. I remember feeling like a big girl.

I say this to say that I was aware of what was deemed desirable in the mainstream very early one. Certain hairstyles that were longer or had a looser curl texture appealed to me more. I think that it’s significant that I leaned towards or preferred myself in these hairstyles from such a young age. When my mum would make me go to school in my natural hair cornrowed, I didn’t feel very pretty. I have a vivid memory of being in Year 1 with this style. I was complaining to my friends but not to my mum. Then as my mum was picking me up from school, one of my friends tapped my mum on the shoulder saying “Excuse me miss, she doesn’t like her hair.” I remember my Mum being upset but I can’t remember what happened following this. I just knew I was very aware of how I liked my hair to look and how I didn’t. I only liked my natural hair when it was blow-dried. Stretched as much as it could be, usually worn in two puffs (maybe with a cornrow across the front) or in one puff. My favourite comments were ones on the length and fullness of my hair at such a young age. I felt like I was on track to have hair that would be longer than most.

Then I remember getting to around the age of around 8/9 and my hair length seemed to plateau. I had friends around me whose hair was fuller and longer so I was confused at what I was “lacking.” Why wasn’t mine growing as long? At the age of 8/9 I was starting to wash and take care of my hair myself so I felt like I could do something about it. Via my older sister, I was introduced to the world of natural hair care on YouTube and decided that this was the way. For the next 6 years, I would commit to going on a hair care journey, finding a way to ensure that my hair would reach the lengths of my back.

This obsession with length dominates conversations around what is desirable when it comes to hair. I have to admit that subconsciously I still ascribe to these notions of beauty for myself. When I’m getting braids done, I’m not satisfied unless they’re at least the length of my waist. I just don’t feel attractive in them otherwise. I have, however, become less obsessed with my natural hair being long. I think over the years I’ve given up as it seemed impossible to get such a length I desired. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also shown it much less so that’s probably contributing to why I feel less affected by the length of it. It was in sixth form when I started wearing wigs that I tended to stop showing my natural hair.

I went to an all girls grammar school between the ages of 11-16 and Black girls were a minority. I feel like this environment meant I didn’t feel particularly pressured about the way that I looked and so don’t remember any significant feelings towards my natural hair. There was a period where I decided to wear it more and a period where I wore a scarf over my head because I couldn’t be bothered to do it. It wasn’t until I went to a mixed sixth form and was now surrounded with more Black people, specifically Black boys that significant comments sprung up about my natural hair. The first time I wore my natural hair to school, it  was styled in a slicked bun. (Something my 4C hair particularly struggled with as it didn’t always respond well to gel.) At the end of the bun I would attach a ponytail extension that resembled my natural hair texture. There was the guise that my hair was quite full and particularly long for a girl of my hair texture. I got a lot of compliments on this style, many people (yes, Black people who are aware of what extensions are) thinking that it was all of my natural hair. For a long time, my goal was to be able to recreate such a look without the extension, hoping my hair would grow to such length and thickness.(It’s been almost four years and I’m still quite far from such a goal.)

In the same year, I also wore my natural hair in two puffs sticking upwards. This however, didn’t receive the same sort of compliments. It would’ve been okay if no one said anything, but instead I was made fun of by some of the Black boys in my year. I would be airdropped pictures of anime characters that looked like me. The most common one was comparing me to a male drill rapper who usually wore his hair in a similar way to mine. From then on it was apparent that my hair was only acceptable in certain hairstyles. It wasn’t accepted without any sort of extension. This definitely decreased my confidence around wearing my natural hair out. The slicked bun that many preferred was too much effort and was also not great for my hair. The puffs were very easy, especially for school, but the ridicule I faced from it discouraged me from wearing it as I got older. As I was also getting to an age where my mum gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my hair, I stuck to wearing wigs, an easy and more widely accepted alternative.

Another thing that hasn’t helped is slight comments that people have made about different curl patterns within Afro hair. There have been times when I have been indirectly offended and directly offended. For instance, I’ve been around people who have spoken about being grateful that while they identify as Black, there was a distant ancestor of either white or Asian decent who’s meant that their curl pattern isn’t as “tough” as it would have been. I’m never really sure how to respond to such comments because while it’s great that people love their hair, as someone who has 4C hair, the tightest curl pattern, it’s almost as if my hair is indirectly being labelled a disadvantage. If a white person were to outwardly be grateful for being white and not Black, it would be problematic right?

Other direct offences have taken place during certain hairdressing appointments. I’ve had hairdressers who clearly don’t understand how to care of natural hair. My hair has been combed in a violent way, as if my thickness was the issue and not their technique. While frustrated with combing my hair, one asked if I’d ever considered relaxing my hair? This was in 2022, at a time when the negative health benefits of relaxer had been widely exposed, but she still felt the need to insinuate that it was something that might benefit me.

When it comes to wigs, I think as well as length, hair texture is also a key thing. When wigs are advertised on social media, they are usually straight or of a type 3 hair texture. Though the majority of them are relatively long, if they are short, the texture is always straight or a loose curl texture. With the rise of Instagram and TikTok hairstylists, the prevalence of wig content on social media is huge. A lot of influencers online wear wigs and partner with many of these wig vendors and hairstylists to further promote them. I think this has had a direct impact on my standards for myself. While I may not wear wigs all the time, I aspire to buy an expensive wig and pay for an expensive appointment to get it “installed” on special occasions. This includes things such as my birthday, graduation and holidays.

I came across this tweet that attests to such a feeling. It got over 88,000 likes showing how relatable this is to Black women worldwide. I believe a big part of the reason why this is thought of in advance is due to the financial burden of these hairstyles. There is a preparation that comes into achieving these hairstyles whether it be saving up or finding the right place to purchase these from. I’m not sure how I feel about this phenomenon because while at times I think it is unfair, I also do enjoy the process of getting my hair done. Sometimes I want a Black straight long wig or blonde wig with a 3C texture.

As I wasn’t secure in my natural hair before I started wearing wigs though, sometimes I do question if this is okay. Yes it is a form of protective styling and from the initial blog post I’ve accepted it’s fine to put such time and effort into our hair. But at the same time I cannot deny that these wigs I lean towards resemble the hair textures of the racially ambiguous  “b*tches with real hair” that Chris Brown (a known colourist and texturist) glorifies in his music. Though I also wear braids, locs and other styles more linked to Afro-Caribbean cultures, I think back to the question I got asked a few days after my 18th birthday. The styles I decide to wear on the most important days of my life when I want to look my best tend to be wigs or extensions that don’t match my natural hair texture. If I’m aware of the societal forces that lead to this, is it something I should be actively working against?

This is the key thing I look forward to discussing in my dissertation because I struggle to find an answer for it. It does boil back down to the question of “Can we, as Black women, do whatever we want with our hair?” and also possibly “Are we doing whatever we want with our hair or what we feel pressured to do?”. Dabiri states that “Thornton describes Black hairstyling as a lively, dynamic popular art form responding to contemporary life.” (Dabiri, 2019:32). This makes me lean towards saying yes, we should have the freedom to choose how we want to wear our hair. But then the question of how our choices may affect future generations to come makes me think otherwise. I wonder how future Black girls can be taught to love and accept their natural hair (even if they do experiment with other styles) if they see a proliferation of hairstyles that do not reflect their own natural hair. As mentioned before, from a young age I only liked my natural hair in certain ways, and these tended to reflect texturist ideologies. Sometimes I believe that if there is a balance of different types of styles it will be okay, but I think it will depend on how society treats women who adhere to different styles. Currently, women with tighter curl patterns  and shorter hair tend to be deemed less attractive than women with looser curl patterns and longer hair. There would have to be an equal footing between women who wear their hair naturally and women who experiment with wigs and different hair textures in mainstream media in my opinion.

Though not comprehensive, I have found this autoethnographic process both useful and enlightening. I have always shied away from conversations around hair and so I’m happy to have honestly confronted some of my key feelings and experiences. I feel like my feelings towards my hair are improving especially in viewing it as less of a burden (though I do know it will stress me out from time to time like anything else). I feel more equipped to start certain conversations around hair but would like to emphasise the care that these conversations require. I’ve also really appreciated the new knowledge about our hair practices from Emma Dabiri’s book and look forward to reading more literature around Black hair, especially those on indigenous views towards hair care. In concluding this process, I’ve found that I didn’t stray as far away from my initial research idea as I believed. Though I didn’t focus on languages, Black hair is a key part of Black culture and my personal lens that I have documented is a Black British one. The effects of colonialism and focus on links back to indigenous practices still found a way into my research.

Bibliography:

Bochner, A. P., & Ellis, C. S. (2006). Communica-tion as autoethnography. In G. J. Shepherd, J. St.John, & T. Striphas (Eds.), Communication as

Perspectives on theory (pp. 110–122).

Dabiri, Emma (2020) Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture, Harper Collins


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