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Why Black women tie their identity to their hair

Aug 27, 2021 1:20 PM

Photo Essays

One of the best ways to express ourselves is through our hair and how we style it. For many Black women, including me, our hair is also tied to our identity. Why exactly is that?

Our hair is a sign of heritage and resilience. The ability to style our hair and wear it proudly is a right that Black women had to fight to gain for hundreds of years. Until last year, many workplaces and schools could dictate how Black women could style their hair and what was deemed an  “appropriate” hairstyle. This form of discrimination can be seen back to when to the enslavement of Black people.

The Tignon law, which was created in 1786, did not permit enslaved Black women to show their hair in public in Louisiana. They had to cover it with a tignon scarf. In some places, Black women were even forced to shave their heads. These laws were put in place to make sure that Black women could not be viewed as feminine or “attractive.” Even so, Black women persevered and, instead of being controlled by these laws, embedded it within their style. 

Today many Black women, through their hair, express themselves. Through their hair, they can share their rich history, care for each other, and be empowered.  

With materials like the scarves shown here, Black women can protect their hair and create various hairstyles. Over the years, headwrap styles have changed and evolved to more stylish versions compared to the plain ones enslaved women wore in the past filled. Now, some scarves are filled with gold thread and patterns. When wearing these scarf styles, it often helps us pay tribute to the strong enslaved Black women who were able to use something meant to oppress them to empower themselves.

Scarves are not the only materials that Black women use to style their hair. Depending on the style, hair extensions, beads, and even yarn can be used. Although there are many different types, many of these hairstyles hold importance similar to the scarf. These styles help many Black women connect back to the cultures that were taken from them.

This appreciation of hair and styles for many Black women, including myself, starts at a very young age. For many of us, we grew up seeing the older women in our family wear various amounts of styles. Like most kids, we couldn’t wait to get older to wear the hairstyles that we saw on our mothers and grandmothers, and aunts.

It was a way that we were able to bond with each other. The hours spent discussing various topics, which ranged from jokes to issues that affected us globally, provided us with time to express ourselves freely. Whether you were the stylist or the person getting your hair styled, you could feel cared for during the process.

This created a space for many young Black girls to start to appreciate their hair more. Compared to most other times, time spent getting your hair done was a reminder that it was okay to have hair of a different texture and that all hair deserved to be respected no matter the style or texture.

These connections to our hair helped shape how we view the world, which in turn create our identities. We can be part of a caring community through our hair and show the world our culture and rich history. Styling hair is something that we as Black women found strength in together.

No matter how we wore it — braided, wrapped, or even no hair at all — it was all accepted. In this day and age, we as Black women can now do what many of our ancestors in the past were not able to do: express ourselves through our hair without any limits.

Now, at an age where I understand the importance of history and the different styles that I grew up wearing, I feel more pride than ever for my community. Being part of such a complex and caring community has not only shaped how I view the world but also how I present myself. It makes me want to present a version of myself that contains the story of my culture and its rich history. 

Just like the many women before me, I hope to continue sharing our story through my hair and one day, hopefully, be able to inspire a young Black girl to see the beauty within her hair, just like I have.