Throughout the decades of my life as a Black woman, I have worn nearly every hairstyle known to humankind. I spent my childhood quivering at the sizzle of a hot comb that transformed my hair into neat plaits or ponytails. From there, it just got more creative with the Jheri curl, Leisure curl, Halle Berry cut, kinky puff, bone-straight shoulder length weave, curly weave, cornrows, Marley-assisted ponytails, and the occasional wig.
I have worn everything except a bonnet out of the house, but I guarantee you that my personal choice of leaving it in the dresser hasn’t saved me from being followed through stores, stalked in boutique dressing rooms, unfairly pulled over by police, or denied apartments despite high credit scores and impeccable references.
The issue in these cases and for far too many members of Team #BlackGirlMagic is not style, not hair coverings, but skin color.
That is why it is particularly annoying and disappointing to see comedian Mo’Nique, a seasoned member of our squad, whip out her imaginary badge and act as the respectability police about a growing trend among “young sistas.”
I cannot recall a similar culturewide wake-up call for White girls in the ’90s who wore plaid pajama bottoms not only in public but to actual school.
The hilarious actress and comic-turned-Instagram fitness aficionado seemingly tried to do just that on her preferred platform, taking to Instagram Live over Memorial Day weekend to launch into a five-minute tirade softened with “sweet babies” and wrapped in “auntie” affection but very clear in the directive that young women in the airport were not measuring up to her standards by wearing “head bonnets, scarves, slippers, pajamas, and blankets wrapped around them” in the airport. According to one of the Queens of Comedy, it isn’t a trend confined to the friendly skies.
“I’ve been seeing it at the store, at the mall,” she continued on camera, all the while wearing a not particularly plush gray bathrobe her damn self in front of her million followers. (Maybe she prefers bathroom to bedroom fashion?) “I’ve been seeing sistas showing up in these bonnets and headscarves and slippers. And the question I have to you my sweet babies: When did we lose pride in representing ourselves?”
The better question is: During what era did Black women’s hair or clothing style translate into respect? I’ll wait.
As civil rights-era photos will show you, Rosa Parks was booted from a bus in her Sunday best. Black women wearing beautiful print frocks and with hair pressed into silk were hosed, set upon by dogs, and arrested for eating at lunch counters.
Afros, braids, Hawaiian silky, lace-front, shaved, bald—it doesn’t matter because the de-pedestaling of Black women is how supremacy, like the Gorilla Glue girl’s ponytail, stays laid. It don’t move. This is why Black women need actual legislation, such as the Crown Act, to receive protection from bigots who believe the hair growing naturally from our scalps, and the creativity we leverage to beautify ourselves, is inherently unprofessional. Meanwhile, a White woman can dye her hair a new shade every month and be hailed as Miss Clairol.
Anything Black women are is the opposite of high fashion, beauty, or elegance, and only begrudgingly and belatedly are we given any kind of credit for the absolute gorgeousness, inventiveness, and diversity of our look. We are Blackfished and looted for our inherent style, with cornrows rendered “boxer braids” originally “invented” by Bo Derek and “thickness” popularized by Ashley Graham. We’re constantly subjected to friendly fire from the likes of rappers who, much like Mo’Nique, want to voice their disdain for bonnets and even dark-skinned women in red lipstick while their gold fronts look like melted-down earring backs.
Even while doing something as mundane as flying or shopping in somebody’s mall, Black women are not permitted to let our guard down, most appallingly by our own people who remain convinced that racial justice is tied to our ability to conform to a standard designed to “other” us into infinity. Face it: We will never “fit in” nor should we continue to try.
Are White women held to the same stringent standards? As hard as I looked, I couldn’t find the article about when Bette Midler went off on her Gen Z skinfolk about wearing their dripping wet hair outside to work and school. Has Arianna Grande ever laid into folks for sloppily gathering their blonde and brunette strands into non-matching scrunchies for Target runs? Is there a Flyaway Act in Congress that I haven’t heard about yet?
Nowhere have I seen even those with Anna Wintour-level standards berating the rise of Crocs and riding barefoot on planes, which we all know is an actual trend for our fairer-complected cousins.
And try as I might, traveling through time, I cannot recall a similar culture-wide wake-up call for White girls in the ’90s who wore plaid pajama bottoms not only in public but to actual school. This bed-tastic fashion, and the often tousled hair that accompanied it, was a thing and was accepted as Aussie sprayed updos and self-tanner that makes what Kim Kardashian and klan are doing now look like amateur hour.
Though there have always been fashion police on red carpets and through the paparazzi lens for White celebrities, there has not been a similar “call to respectability” for the average young White girl at large other than the slut-shaming all women face. The reason is that, despite their style of dress or the state of their hair, a White woman commands equal amounts of respect and trust whether in leggings, stretched-out jeggings, or a jumpsuit ripped from the runway. Even at their most pumpkin-spice-latte basic, you’ll be hard-pressed to see them encounter a total deficit of societal acceptance.
And THAT is the actual problem.
So, instead of focusing on whether a Black woman wants to wear a head covering to protect her kinks, lacefront, or weave while laying back on a presumably dirty airplane headrest or experience comfort in her PJs to help offset the limited legroom on a flight, I’d recommend that we reserve the five-minute tirades for what matters.
Black women should not have to “represent” anything when they come out of their homes other than themselves as individuals. And respect should not hinge on whether their hair is in Bantu knots or in the most ballooning of bonnets. Being accepted in whatever style (or lack of style) they adopt on any given day is a luxury that many White women take for granted, and we’ll never get the same treatment until we demand unequivocal acceptance as human beings. That also includes among the self-appointed “aunties” who, in all their worldly wisdom, surely can see we have more to worry about than wardrobe and wraps in an airport.
Kyra Kyles is the CEO of YR Media, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to educate, employ, and amplify the voices of a diverse group of young content creators in the Bay Area and beyond. A longtime media executive who has served as editor-in-chief at Ebony, Kyles has written for and made on-air contributions to outlets such as CNN, Bustle, ZORA by Medium, the BBC, and NPR.