Simmons Ellis leads a class of young women at
Manley High School in a discussion about natural
hair and hair weaves on March 20, 2014.
— On a recent afternoon at Chicago’s Dewey
Elementary Academy of Fine Arts, Ladon Brumfield asked a
group of 9- and 10-year-old African-American girls to
nearly 20 girls unanimously agreed that if a woman had
short, kinky hair, she was not beautiful. But when
Brumfield, the director of a project empowering young
girls, passed around a photograph of Lupita Nyong’o,
the dark-brown-skinned actress who sports an extra-short
natural, the girls were silent for a moment.
once again, their answer was unanimous: They agreed
Nyong’o was beautiful.
like they had to make a mental readjustment," said
Brumfield, founder of the non-profit Girls Rule!
"This was in conflict with the overwhelming imagery
they receive from the media about having to have long
more than a decade, increasing numbers of black women
have been wearing their natural hair in afros, braids,
locks and twists. But now, thanks in part to Nyong’o,
it’s the TWA, or teenie weenie afro, that’s getting
a second look and expanding notions of beauty into
territory where it really hasn’t taken root before —
the larger culture.
isn’t the first black woman or celebrity to sport a
super-short natural. Actresses Viola Davis and Danai
Gurira have done so, along with model Alek Wek and
singer Grace Jones. But what’s different about Nyong’o
is that she’s been embraced outside the black
community as both media darling and graceful beauty. On
Friday. Nyong’o was named the new face of Lancome
say that extra-short hair will have to go to great
lengths to overcome many of today’s issues surrounding
beauty and hair that reach back to slavery. But it may
give more women who have been contemplating the
"big chop" the confidence to do so.
when we were wearing afros during the ‘I’m black and
I’m proud’ (period of the 1960s and 70s), people
said, ‘Who has the bigger afro?’ and length was an
issue," said journalist and black hair historian A’Lelia
Bundles, 61. She’s the great-great-granddaughter of
black hair care magnate Madam C.J. Walker.
is considered our crown and glory, and women view it as
an expression of selfhood. But as we get older and
become more secure in ourselves, hair often is just
a lot of black women, hair is an accessory, but they’re
also looking for validation," said Tonya Roberts,
who studies multicultural trends at the Chicago office
of market researcher Mintel. "When things become
acceptable to society, it’s a wink to (the black
community) that it’s OK — especially if the question
is: Will I be able to get a job with this hairstyle?
Will my co-workers or family members accept me?"
part of a national survey Mintel released last year on
black hair care, the company asked black women to rate
six different hair styles shown in photographs. The
styles included hair that was braided, long and
straight, short and straight, natural, long and curly,
said that although women considered hair that was long
and straight and long and curly to be "high
maintenance," they deemed the styles
"healthy," "sexy" and
"professional." Short hair, which Mintel
defined as about jaw-length, was considered the most
"professional" and "classy" of all
the styles. And natural hair was viewed as being low
maintenance while conveying confidence. All of the
styles were considered attractive.
didn’t ask about the teenie-weenie afros because a
couple of years ago people weren’t talking about them
the way they are today," Roberts said, adding that
the firm plans to ask about the style in this year’s
history, long hair has been viewed as a marker of beauty
and femininity among various cultures. But length has
been elusive for some black women, whose hair texture
can range from straight to wavy to curly to kinky,
because the natural coil of the hair makes it appear
who have desired longer hair have depended on hair
straightening products, hot combs, flat irons, weaves,
extensions and wigs.
Simmons, a natural hair care professional who visits
Chicago public schools to talk to students about proper
hair care, said she’s not against women getting weaves
or extensions that are woven in properly. But too many
girls are getting them at a very young age and at the
expense of healthy hair and a healthy self-image.
met a lot of girls who prefer some type of hair
contraption, rather than their own because they feel
hair has to be long to be beautiful," said Simmons.
"It doesn’t matter if the fake hair is matted and
cheap and braids (are) falling off. What does that say
about our self-esteem and self-worth?"
Jacobs, a University of Southern California associate
professor of Anthropology and American Studies and
Ethnicity, has written about the politics of black hair,
and why length and texture matter so much to women of
color in this country and around the world.
grew up stretching our curls out and saying, ‘See this
is how long my hair really is,’" said Jacobs, who’s
black and wears her hair in a short afro. "Length
is always somewhere in the room unless you take it out
the equation and go in the opposite direction, and that’s
what Lupita and others are doing."
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people to embrace short hair has long been a challenge
in a media environment overflowing with images of women
whose hair is "bouncing and behaving," said
Aeleise Jana, 30, a Chicago hair stylist who wears her
hair short and specializes in cutting natural hair.
said that by the time her clients reach her, many have
decided they’ve had enough of chemicals and weaves and
their only prospect for a healthy head of hair is to cut
most of it off.
was one woman who was wearing this plastic-looking wig
and when she took it off, she had beautiful short, kinky
hair that went with her cheekbones, but she was very
uncomfortable wearing her own hair," said Jana.
"We’re told that our hair is too nappy and too
dry and too short and we’ve internalized those
2008, it was Leila Noelliste’s "big chop"
that inspired her to found the popular Chicago-based
"Black Girl With Long Hair" natural hair blog.
She had decided to stop flat-ironing her hair and
wearing it in braided styles with extensions.
its title, the blog celebrates natural hair of varying
think for black women, length should be a choice and
that’s what we’re trying to promote as a website and
as a community," said Noelliste, 28, who loves her
teenie weenie afro.
Chicago resident Candace Peterson, 28, the co-founder of
the Kiss My Curls blog, went natural and cut most of her
hair off in 2011, she said she took in a barrage of
negative feedback before she became confident about her
would say things like, ‘You look like Celie from ‘The
Color Purple.’ Or, ‘Your hair is too nappy. How
often do you comb it?’ Or, ‘You can’t go out with
me looking like that,’" Peterson said.
hopes Nyong’o will inspire girls to love their hair
length and texture, and carry themselves with poise.
look is something I’d never seen before (as a standard
of beauty) in Hollywood," said Peterson.
"Maybe I’m an optimist, but I hope she represents
a shift. You never know what will make a difference in a
child’s life. Maybe by seeing someone who looks like
her, she can feel more self-assured and brave."