Black Women Don’t Have to Look ‘Perfect’ All the Time

It’s okay if your edges aren’t laid.

Black woman covering face with a hand, standing in a field of tall grass.
Photo: Ricaldo Donaldson/Pexels

When I was a small child, I spent every morning on the floor watching cartoons while my momma secured my hair in tight braids wound with hard plastic bobos and fastened with butterfly-shaped barrettes. All of my outfits were perfectly color-coordinated and pressed free of any wrinkles. I was explicitly told not to let anyone touch my hair and was repeatedly implored to stop picking up rocks and stuffing them in my pockets.

Presentability was instilled in me from an early age. All the women in my family know how to dress, and I was taught to take a lot of pride in being put-together. There was little tolerance for anything perceived as sloppy, which could be a lot of things. To this day, my great-grandmother will look at a young Black girl with an unrestrained Afro and say, “Now they know better than to let that child out lookin’ like that!”

I recognize now so much of that mentality is tied to a desire to reaffirm that, as writer and businesswoman Judy Belk puts it, Black people and their children belong in this world that consistently tries to reject us. Belk describes the efforts of her mother and grandmother to combat Jim Crow-era discrimination with whatever tools at their disposal, including appearance:

She scrubbed us, dressed us up, greased us down, braided our hair, pushed up our chins and sent us out knowing that we would be judged more by how we looked than who we were.

It’s true that the rules of presentability in society have always been different for Black people. But it’s also true that the pressure to achieve a faultless look creates an undue amount of burden and shame for many Black people and women in particular.

As I got older, things started to change a little. The definitions for what was “acceptable” Black hair, for example, became less limiting—but not the expectation of perfection.

Going natural, I quickly learned how much I don’t like slicked-back hairstyles. Not for myself. The challenge of achieving perfect smoothness and delicately swept baby hairs that actually stay in place has never been worth caking my curls in the holding gels and edge control that left them hard, crunchy, and immovable.

But it felt necessary.

A few months spent on natural hair YouTube quickly taught me how important it was to avoid looking “ragged” or, god forbid, “unmoisturized” (which seems to be the community’s way of saying “not shiny”). “Perfect curls” is a phrase that shows up frequently on product labels that cost me a small fortune.

Back in 2019, an H&M ad campaign came under heat for its depiction of a young Black girl with natural hair. The girl’s photos showed a small puff of 4C hair that had been pulled back but not smoothed down. While many rightfully voiced concern that there is a dearth of stylists of color in these industries that are skilled in doing the textured hair of models and actresses, that’s not what this particular issue was about. The backlash from Black people who felt the company had done the young Black girl “dirty” stemmed from a more internal issue with kinky hair.

Screenshot of a Tweet demonstrating the H&M backlash. (It is worth noting that Twitter considers the photo of the Black girl to be “potentially sensitive content.”)

More photos from the campaign demonstrated that all the non-Black models they used also had messy, unbrushed hair that was reflective of the fact that they were photographed after having played at school all day — a natural look H&M intentionally sought to maintain. As a former educator at a predominantly Black school and a former camp counselor for children in this age range, I know exactly what after-school hair looks like. H&M captured it perfectly for everyone involved.

But the Black community’s feelings about messy hair on Black girls and women was made clear.

This demand for the perfection of Black women’s appearance is just another way of making our natural hair more palatable to mainstream society. When this is how the community responds to less than pristine styling, is it any wonder that earlier this year, the world witnessed a Black woman literally super-gluing her hair flat against her scalp?

Because we are always working against stereotypes, extra thought and effort are put forth in ways that can form a lot of unnecessary emotional labor.

Of course, this demand for perfection from Black women goes beyond hair. The underlying heart of the matter is that Black women and girls are not given the room or allowance to be messy, or even just casual, without ridicule. Fellow writer Allison Gaines captured this sentiment when discussing the public’s response to Megan Thee Stallion forgoing a full-face of makeup for a photoshoot: “Society still places unrealistic expectations on Black women — namely that they maintain a carefully curated image round the clock.”

These expectations are nothing short of exhausting.

If you Google the phrase “messy cute,” you’ll get a barrage of photos of White women with loosely piled hair that’s seen as attractive despite all the free tendrils. Phrases like “comfy casual” will show you pale, skinny girls in loose-fitting clothes and minimal accessories. Comfortable, low-effort aesthetics do not come at the expense of society’s perceptions of beauty and femininity for White women.

The same is not true for Black women, who have always had to fight to be seen as fully feminine. This is compounded for plus-size women who also have to fight against the “lazy” stereotyping that seeks to take away their femininity. Writer Justin Phillips described one of the functions of clothing for Black people as often an “attempt to preemptively dispel any preconceived notions.” Because we are always working against stereotypes, extra thought and effort are put forth in ways that can form a lot of unnecessary emotional labor.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m done with the unpaid labor of perfection.

Black women are worthy of so much admiration but not because we perform fashionability to the highest degree and keep every lock of hair under tight control. To be sure, every Black woman has the capacity to be a style icon if she chooses, but we don’t owe that to society. Rolling out of bed, not wearing any makeup, or just not being that interested in fashion and style is not a crime.

In the words of Jezebel writer Ashley Reese, “I hope that others will learn to lay the fuck off of black people who decide that going to great lengths to always look on point isn’t their life goal.” There’s more to Black beauty than flawlessness, and there’s more to Black women than beauty in general.

Bisexual Black Feminist | BLK INK Editor-in-Chief

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