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What does your hair type matter to society?

As insignificant as our hair may seem, many social and power dynamics are locked within the little follicles placed on our heads.

Since the dawn of time, popular societal ideas about beauty standards have served to inform, consciously or unconsciously, the way we physically portray ourselves.

From the time of Pluto, who defined beauty as timeless, changing and universal where women's bodies have played a role in the making of art or provoking philosophical interests, to more current definitions of beauty that express beauty as something intrinsic to the object or simply as the pleasure an objects evokes in the beholder, beauty ideals are formed in one way or another by social relations and cultural categories and practices.

When it comes to the hairstyles we express, there is a very fine line between have the agency to do what we want with it, and knowing that none of our decisions exists in a vacuum.

Image credit: Stylist

The topic of racial equity and issues surrounding race has been, and always will be at the centre of beauty ideals.

For example, Native American boarding schools, in both the U.S. and Canada, created a particular type of ideal that Native American children must adhere to, and that meant cutting off their long hair.

For those of an Afro-Caribbean background with black hair, struggles over what having black hair has meant in different in communities and in different parts of the world or even within national borders, as well as the struggles of meaning over what beauty is, has always been a challenge.

Looking back at the early 20th century, black women would "enhance" their beauty with hair straightening products and skin lighteners amidst a race-conscious era in America. Permanent styling, although making it possible for a woman to achieve the hairstyles they desire, also has negative impacts both physically and mentally on black women.

For instance, permanent styling, especially straightening, is not only harmful to both a woman's hair and her scalp, but creates an impossible goal of emulating whiteness for black women, and has done since the early 1990s through advertising and social attitudes.

The Black Pride movement in 1960s America encouraged women of African descent to take pride in their heritage and non-Western standards of beauty by embracing their dreadlocks and afros. Hair products for black hair have since become more and more available in the mainstream Western market.

In the current era, events such as World Afro Day exist to educate one another on and celebrate Afro hair, culture and identity.

We must not bypass the fact that being able to change one's look, especially for women in the black community, is exciting and a positive in that respect. But, what does that really mean in the larger context?

If a woman of colour was to dye her hair blonde, that perhaps gets read in a very particular way - different than a white woman who is a brunette wanting to be a blonde.

To sum what is a heavily politicised topic of discussion, it is important that we constantly debate and discuss what beauty is and who defines it, as well as how it gets regulated and enforced.


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