The purpose of this paper is to discuss the impact of natural hair communities on Instagram on black women’s hair representation and their identity construction. The main argument is that black women’s hair is more represented with the popularity of online hair communities on Instagram. Moreover, it has contributed to the empowerment of black women and the promotion of their hair types. The paper addresses three distinct supporting ideas with the use of scholarly articles and examples that will provide evidence to the main argument. The first idea is about online identity formation within the communities. Those online communities give women of color, a sense of belonging and help them identify to a group, sharing the same history and values about black beauty. Then, the promotion of black women’s hair, will be analysed through those communities on Instagram supporting the ‘transitioning’ process and women wearing their natural hair. This is to demonstrate, that these have contributed in making black women’ hair mainstream. Lastly, there is the aspect of hair product brands using digital media and constructing their own communities on Instagram. They also collaborate with influencers to reach black women who want to go back to natural by providing them with specific products to take care of their hair and also to help them accept their natural hair.
Black women have for a long time suffered the racial prejudices and discrimination when it comes to their hair. In the time of slavery in 1500s, hair already had a significant meaning in the black women’ culture where “…hairstyles were used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community.” (Thompson, 2009, p. 79) This shows that hair has always been their signature and part of their identity. As stated in an article by Brenda Randle; “The first thing that was done to slaves once they were caught was to cut their hair off.” (2015, p. 116) In order to gain control over the slaves and make them more vulnerable, their identity and culture were removed from them.
However, there has been an evolution in the black culture and women are more and more accepting and embracing their hair. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that curly or afro textured hair communities on Instagram have highly contributed to the empowerment and have increased the representation of black women in the media. Firstly, those online communities have given them a sense of belonging and allowed them to construct their online identity. Then, the promotion of this particular hair type on this platform through the online communities, have made it mainstream and contributed to fight stereotypes associated to them. Finally, this paper will analyse the hair product industry as they also contributed in the empowerment of black women as they succeeded in providing them with the products that will suit their type of hair. They have also constructed several online communities acting as educators and advisors on how to take care of black women’s hair.
Online Identity formation within the Communities
Racial discrimination has highly contributed in forcing black women to hide their natural hair. Moreover, being exposed to white standard of beauty has also influenced them to change and deny their origins. Most of the women having afro or curly hair, remembered the difficulties they faced in their childhood when it comes to their hair. Brenda Randle (2015, p. 115) recalls a memory of her childhood; “I was teased at school constantly because of my tightly coiled, kinky hair; I became obsessed with the thought of one day having the straight appearance “relaxing” my hair would offer.” However, there are now more and more women transitioning to their natural hair state with the help of social media platforms. The online hair communities bring together women having the same hair type or texture and also sharing the same goal that is; keeping their hair in its natural state.
“Instagram use also directly and indirectly influences the perception of psychological empowerment…” (Riquelme et al., 2018, p. 1117) This have encouraged black women to embrace their natural hair, become more confident and stop straightening their hair and using aggressive hair products containing chemicals that could in the long run damage their hair and scalp. Moreover, as stated in the article by Riquelme et al. (2018, p. 1117) “Social media allows people to satisfy their need for interpersonal relationships, their need to belong, and their need to be heard over time.” Therefore, those Instagram pages encourage them to share their personal experiences with their hair thus, building relationships among the members of the communities. Those pages are all about sharing hair tips, care, styling or the products they use among them through tutorials videos or Instagram stories.
An example would be the Instagram page ‘Healthy Hair Journey’ (2020) that gathers women around the world having the same goal; going back to natural. It acts as a guide by providing them with advices on how to care for their natural hair or the steps to the transitioning process. Moreover, it also acts as an online community where women can connect and identify to each other and feel a sense of belonging to the community.
Promoting black women’s hair
Instagram has contributed in making black women’s hair mainstream and the online hair communities contributed in fighting stereotypes associated to them.
Several women shared their experiences with their hair on an article by Taylor Dior Rumble (2018), one of them stated; “I was so excited to have my hair just like all the women I saw on TV and in magazines.” This shows that a lack of representation can unconsciously impact on the way people perceive themselves and make them want to change their appearances. There is also the aspect of natural hair viewed as ‘unprofessional’. “Black women who choose to wear Eurocentric hair styles may be conforming to this standard of professionalism in an effort to be accepted in the workplace, thereby fulfilling the need to belong.” (Opie and Phillips, 2015, p. 3) Women usually have to adapt to the white beauty standard just to conform to the rules of some companies or educational institutions. In contrast, wearing their natural hair, is viewed as going against the norms. Thus, it was encouraging for black women to come across pages who were actually promoting their hair and fighting those stereotypes.
Social media platforms have highly contributed to normalise kinky, curly or afro hairstyles and communicate that women needs to start embracing their natural hair. “…the technological developments of the twenty-first century have precipitated the creation of new venues to style as well as debate and educate about black hair.” (Gill, 2015, p. 71) Web 2.0 is well- known for its participatory culture and in this case, women are also given the chance to voice out on those online communities, on the difficulties they are facing in society, when it comes to their hair. An example would be; Jay and Trina who are a duo of black Instagram influencer called ‘Curlture’, having over 48,000 followers on Instagram (Charles and Lopez, 2020). They are using their online visibility to reach women who need support to accept their natural hair. They were given the opportunity to express themselves by sharing their pictures or personal experiences with their hair with other women. This has normalised the black women’s hair and educated people on how it is important to love and care for their hair. An example is when Zozibini Tunzi won the title of Miss Universe 2019, her picture was shared all across Instagram and a lot of fan pages were created. This has also contributed in normalising and promoting black women wearing their natural hair and being recognised as beautiful. Another example is Alicia Keys embracing her natural curls and frequently wearing protective hairstyles on her Instagram page. The fact that such influent personalities are also showing their true beauty have increased exposure of black hair types and helped several black women accept their natural hair.
Natural hair movement existing since the 60s and 70s, (Henderson, 2015, p. 23) had also moved on Instagram, gained a huge visibility and has also contributed in making black women’s hair mainstream. Hashtags also contributed in increasing their online visibility with an increasing use of the hashtag Natural hair movement on Instagram. This aspect is important to explore as several hashtags such as #naturalhairjourney or #naturalhaircommunity serves in promoting the black hair culture. “The “TeamNatural” hashtag (#TeamNatural) is ubiquitous on social-media sites like Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram.” (Gill, 2015, p. 75)
Moreover, the process of transitioning to your natural hair that is; cutting all damaged hair and starting a new and healthier hair routine, have become popular on Instagram. As stated by Myrtie Rena Williams (2016, p. 5), members who participate in those online communities are generally, “…experiencing their natural hair after “transitioning” from straightened styles and developing alternative ways of perceiving Black textured hair within dominant discourses.” The Instagram pages are providing black women with the solutions and advices on products they need to finally reconcile with their natural hair and effectively get them back.
The article by Tiffany M. Gill (2015, p. 73), claims that “The natural journey is not salon focused. . . . The focal point of the natural hair community seems to be online message boards and YouTube, rather than beauty shops.” It is well known that natural hair salon are hard to find in some regions. Nowadays, black women have found the solutions online, following tutorial videos on hair care routine or how to realise particular hairstyles at home for them or their kids. On Instagram, hair videos can be shared through IGTVs and Instagram stories to the public. It is also important to notice the growing online presence of black hair salons for example; braiding salons like ‘Tasha World of Style’ on Instagram. (Miles, 2020) People are then able to locate them easily and watch videos of different hairstyles on their clients before making an appointment. Due to black women’s hair becoming mainstream, hair product industry has seized the opportunity to reach a larger audience through Instagram and the hair communities.
Hair Product Brands, Communities and Black Women Empowerment
The beginning of hair products for black women’s hair had started with Madam C.J. Walker who became the first female self-made millionaire after creating her black hair care products. (Gayles and Yu, 2019) Hair Product brands have now moved online for the delight of all women who want their natural hair back. Most hair product brands known within the black community such as; Shea Moisture, Auntie Jackie’s or Carol’s Daughter have realised the importance for them to have an online presence nowadays as drugstores and supermarkets usually don’t provide black women with a large variety of products for their hair types. Those brands have contributed to the empowerment of women not only by providing them with products which suit their hair types but also with tips on how to style and care for their hair. Thus, helping them to be more self-confident and teaching them to accept their natural hair. This has also created a sense of community where the brands and the customers build a strong relationship and where black women can feel that they now have enough support and encouragement to wear their natural hair. Therefore, a shift in demand for chemical relaxers to hair care products has been observed as more and more women are now transitioning to natural. “A shift away from chemical relaxers in favor of natural hair has sparked a wave of innovation in the industry and created renewed opportunity for black entrepreneurs.” (2019)
The effectiveness of influencer marketing is one of the reason of their online presence. Brands will invite influencers having curly or afro hair to try their hair products in order to propose them to their community or review them on their Instagram pages. “Online, they can access a national, if not global, community.” (Gill, 2015) The products will also use the most popular online communities such; ‘Team natural’ to gain more popularity. Those Instagram pages also share influencers’ videos or even their followers’ videos or pictures where they are using natural hair products thus, giving visibility to both the brand and the influencers. An example would be; the Instagram Influencer ‘heycurlie’ well-known for testing curly hair products such as Creme of Nature and reviewing them within her online community. (Romance, 2020) However, some influencers also decide to launch their own hair products for example, Ada Royas, an Afro-Latina and a beauty influencer, has launched her hair care brand ‘Botanika Beauty’ for women who want to embrace their curly hair. (Royas, 2020) All these, have also contributed in normalizing black women’s hair. The aspect of community can be identified through the brands’ Instagram page as if people are attached to the brands, they will usually follow and engage with them through likes, comments and when tagging them on their posts. Due to that; the natural hair product industry will surely continue to grow and help a lot of women around the world.
To conclude, Instagram online hair communities have highly impacted on the black beauty culture. They have provided women of color with the power and confidence to finally embrace their natural hair after all those years of being judged and imposed with a particular beauty standard. The online communities have also contributed in making their hair types mainstream and have educated people with a new perception that black women’s hair types are actually beautiful and must be accepted by society. Hair products brands have in fact taken advantage of this change in mentality but have also acted as a guide for those women. This industry is expected to continue growing and be successful mostly due to people discovering their products through the digital media.
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