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When you mention Michelle Obama, does an image like this come to mind? Intelligent, poised, elegant, and graceful... However, in these instances, Michelle's elegant and graceful hair is not her natural hair, but rather a wig or hairpiece.
This is how Michelle's real hair looks like. Like Michelle, many black female celebrities also wear wigs or hairpieces. For example, the iconic Academy Award-winning actress Halle Berry, the Grammy-winning artist Rihanna, and Beyoncé, who has African heritage. It's harder than finding a needle in a haystack to find a photo of them without wearing wigs.
Why are black women so keen on wearing wigs? This can be traced back to the history of slave trade and colonialism.
1.Wigs for black women: A legacy of colonialism.
Black hair has a fine and curly texture that requires special care. In traditional African cultures, women had two main hairstyles: afro (kinky hair) and braids. Both of these hairstyles catered to the characteristics of black hair.
Hair holds significant cultural and societal meaning in any culture. In the primordial African continent, women's hairstyles were often used to distinguish social status and class. Meticulously styled hair symbolized a woman's higher social standing.
However, everything changed with the advent of the Age of Discovery. Western colonizers set foot on the African continent, bringing with them mechanization, modern production methods, and Western aesthetic standards. Foucault once pointed out that power colludes with discourse, leading individuals to automatically adhere to the rules of dominant discourse when constructing their body image.
Within the Western aesthetic framework, all traditional Black hairstyles have been suppressed. Straight or slightly wavy hair, characteristic of white individuals, is regarded as the standard of beauty, while naturally fine and curly Black hair is oppressed as "wild" or "promiscuous".
As colonizers sold countless Black people as slaves to the other side of the ocean, this aesthetic standard persisted in the plantations of the American South. Plantation owners were pleased to have Black slaves with hair more in line with Western aesthetics inside their homes, serving as domestic workers.
On the other hand, Black female slaves with relatively unkempt hairstyles were engaged in physically demanding outdoor tasks such as picking cotton and tobacco.
Over time, the Western aesthetic standards have gradually been internalized by Black women. As objects of the gaze, they start adopting the judgment criteria of the viewers. They begin to perceive their natural hair as unattractive and seek to conceal or alter its natural characteristics.
In order to gain acceptance and recognition in society, an increasing number of African women start wearing wigs from a young age. Some scholars argue that the role of hair in distinguishing class differences within traditional Black culture has diminished. Today, regardless of class, all Black women adopt highly homogenized Western hairstyles.
Even a girl growing up in impoverished African slums will allocate a certain portion of her monthly expenses towards wigs. However, the role of hair in signifying class differences has not disappeared; it has merely transformed into another form. Wealthier Black women spend as much as $500 per month on wigs. Multiple sophisticated wigs serve as a display of their economic power.
2.Embrace Natural Curls and Say No to Wigs!
The expenses incurred by Black women on wigs are not only for aesthetic purposes but also to avoid potential trouble. Due to the perception that natural Black hairstyles are considered "untidy" or "unprofessional," many companies and schools have imposed regulations that restrict Black hairstyles.
Even in the United States, where Black rights are relatively valued, news about unfair treatment based on hair is still all too common. In 2010, Chasity Jones was fired from a new job because she refused to cut her natural curls.
In 2018, a high school student was expelled for wearing traditional African braids. Mel B from the Spice Girls revealed in an interview that her styling team insisted on straightening her hair. It is important to challenge these discriminatory practices and celebrate the beauty and diversity of natural Black hair.
Embracing natural curls is a powerful statement of self-acceptance and empowerment. With the advancement of the Black civil rights movement, especially the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, more and more voices are beginning to reflect on the imposed beauty standards placed upon Black individuals.
"Why should we consider our natural hair as ugly?" says Mislisuthando Bongela from South Africa." The underlying logic behind perceiving Black hair as a problem is that they consider Blackness itself as a problem.
In the realm of mass communication, Black hair has taken on new discourse and become one of the symbols of Black civil rights. The "Natural Hair Movement" has emerged, with Black individuals worldwide proudly showcasing their natural hair on social media. In this movement to redefine beauty, natural Black hairstyles are increasingly gaining recognition in mainstream society.
Data from global market research company Mintel shows that between 2011 and 2016, spending on hair relaxers among Black women decreased by 30%. Throughout Obama's entire tenure, Michelle Obama consistently maintained an elegant and dignified wig in public settings.
However, after leaving the White House, Michelle Obama started embracing her natural curls. This long-overdue celebration of natural curls has excited many Black women, proclaiming, "Say no to wigs!" As the first Black "First Lady" with dark skin in history, she has finally asserted her own identity through her natural hair.
Before Trump's inauguration into the White House, some internet users expressed their hope to see Michelle Obama wearing her natural hair before she left the White House. They believed that this could encourage other young black girls to bravely be themselves.
Unfortunately, the wish of these internet users was not fulfilled. Although Michelle Obama was a fashion trendsetter throughout her time as the First Lady of the United States, and her actions inspired many women, her previous hairstyles were either straightened or curled. We have never seen her wearing her natural afro hair.
Many internet users expressed regret because Michelle Obama only appeared with her natural afro hair after she left the White House. Some people said, "If only I could have seen her wearing her natural hair while she was still the First Lady, it would have been amazing... I would have been happy for a lifetime." Well, what we have to say now is that eliminating discrimination and injustice is a long journey ahead of us. We hope that more and more people can understand and respect every single people around us.