Black hairstyles are fascinating to mainstream American culture, as is evident in the success of the documentary Good Hair. Although comedian Chris Rock offers an inside look at the science and psychology of black women’s hair care in his 2009 film, how many non-black women have worn African-American hairstyles personally? After enjoying the black beauty salon experience? These women have.
Through photographer Endia Beal, a handful of middle-aged white women now know what it’s like to rock flat twists, goddess braids, and other black hair looks. Sure, many white women have worn black hairstyles — most famously Bo Derek in the classic ’70s movie 10 — but, not many have been snapped by a fine art photographer in the process
Online news outlet Slate magazine chronicles Beal’s project, a portrait series called Can I Touch It? In these works Beal not only posed Caucasian women in their 40s (or older) with black hairdos — she also composed these images as traditional corporate head shots.
Getting the black hair experience
Spawned by her work as a young woman with an Afro interning in technology, Beal wanted these women to understand the alienation of wearing non-traditional hair in a corporate setting.
And they could not pick their styles themselves.
“I said, ‘I am going to give you a black hairstyle,’ and they were like, ‘You’re going to give me cornrows?’” Beal told Slate. “And I said, ‘No, we’re going to do finger waves.’ ‘Finger waves? What’s that? You mean from the ’20s?’ And I said, ‘These are a little bit different type of finger waves!’”
Despite any initial concerns, they came to see the project as an opportunity to learn about black women’s hair care without worry of offense.
Mutually creating black hair acceptance
The photographer plans on extending the project by decamping the crew to a real workplace with their urban coiffure. Whatever Beal has planned, they seem game, which fits perfectly with the artist’s intent: to lift the total burden of generating black hair acceptance from black women in corporate America.
Can I Touch It? echoes the theme of a recent New York City public exhibition in which black women gathered outdoors and invited strangers to touch their hair. Aptly called You Can Touch My Hair, the creator staged the event to generate positive black hair dialogue.
Curiosity — and confusion — over black women’s hairstyles might seem like a superficial matter, but it has even cost some African-American women their jobs. Just last year, TV meteorologist Rhonda A. Lee was allegedly fired for discussing her natural hairstyle on Facebook, which caused a national controversy.
Change from within… and without
Artists such as Rhadamés Julián are seeking to change black women’s minds so that they do not need outside approval for their hair choices. His coming film Follicle: People of color, identity and the barriers that lie in between, unlike the comedy Good Hair, intends to spark deep thoughts on black hairstyles.
The feeling of being judged negatively for wearing styles that do not mimic the mainstream ideal is something many African-American women carry within. It is hard to tell which approach is better in the long run for dismantling the complex place black women’s hair holds in our nation’s tacit rule book of grooming.
Strengthen yourself from within, or broaden others’ minds?
It is likely that in the long run getting those in the majority to question their feelings about black hair — through open, even humorous, invitations to communicate — will be a necessary complement to any effort at helping black women totally love their locks.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.