Black women rewriting the rules on hairstyles

Rihanna had her long locks cut into an edgy bob.
Rihanna had her long locks cut into an edgy bob.
(Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

A year ago, Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” hit theaters, examining the historically complicated relationship many African Americans have had with their hair.

Now two new videos are rocking YouTube with the idea that times have changed: African American hair — any hair, for that matter — can be stylish, fun, beautiful or funky, and an expression of individual flair, no matter its texture, color or length.

Willow Smith, the 9-year-old daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, is pure joy as she tosses her head around in her upbeat music video “Whip My Hair,” which debuted Oct. 18. In the video, Willow wears a cavalcade of hairstyles, whipping around long braids, flaunting a faux ‘hawk, dancing in Afro-puffs and twists, and commanding the room in a cotton-candy-colored extravagant ‘do. “Don’t matter if it’s long or short, do it — do it with your hair,” she sings.

At the same time, the Sesame Street video “I Love My Hair” has become an Internet sensation this fall featuring an exuberant brown Muppet who joyously sings about her natural hair and all of the ways that she can wear it: in an Afro, cornrows, barrettes — “up, down and all around” — embracing individual expression and showing that hair can be fun.


In the ‘60s, allowing hair to go naturally into an Afro was seen as a political act of defiance. But now, as seen in the videos, the zeitgeist seems to be shifting. Outdated stereotypes seem to be losing their hold, thanks to factors as disparate as reality TV, the Internet, multiethnic families and a biracial president. Defiance as expressed in Willow Smith’s video is about daring to express one’s individuality, refusing to be stereotyped and changing the conversation.

Within the beauty industry there has been an explosion of individual expression. The diversity can be seen in the range of hairstyles worn by African Americans — styles that are copied by people of other ethnicities. Whether it’s Beyoncé's glamour waves, Rihanna’s faux-hawk and vibrant hair color, Corinne Bailey Rae’s fluffy soft curls, Cassie’s punk rock half-shaved head, Whoopi Goldberg’s dreadlocks, Michelle Obama’s conservative coif, Solange’s buzz cut, Janelle Monáe’s pompadour, Erykah Badu’s afro, Alicia Keys’ braids, Chanel Iman’s super-straight locks and ballerina bun, or Halle Berry’s pixie-ish crop — women are showing that hair can be beautiful in many ways.

Beverly Johnson, the super-model and businesswoman who in 1974 became the first African American model on the cover of Vogue, recalls that in the 20th century, women of color were already adopting a variety of styles. “When I was modeling, we had Pat Evans, a model who had her hair totally shaved; Joyce Wilford, who was on the cover of Seventeen [in 1971] in a tiny little afro; and you had me with my hair slicked back.

“But now I think there’s even more [options] with the popularity of hair extensions and how the wig business has just taken off,” says Johnson, who has the Beverly Johnson Hair Collection, a popular wig and hair extension line, as well as a line of paraben-free hair-care products.


Today’s hairpieces include extensions, synthetics, myriad textures and colors. They are lightweight, inexpensive and look natural. They make it easy to change styles, and women of all ethnicities are wearing them: Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson and Raquel Welch have wig collections, too.

“You can go from a short cropped look with bangs to long, blond hair in the same day,” Johnson says. “People are really in love with the whole idea of having versatility without having to cut, dye or bleach your hair. I think that it is about freedom, imagination, having fun and really entertaining yourself.”

Johnson adds that more diverse hairstyles are increasingly being accepted in conservative settings. “The world is a smaller place, and we human beings are taking time to appreciate and acknowledge each other’s culture,” Johnson says.

Ursula Stephen, the hairstylist who shot into the spotlight when she cut Rihanna’s long locks into a sleek bob, is not so sure that “acceptance” is the key word pertaining to this flurry of individuality. “I’m 50/50 on it,” says Stephen, who feels that there’s still more negative judgment of African American hair.


But the popularity of reality TV shows featuring people such as bikers, tattoo artists and punk rockers has helped bring once extreme styles into the mainstream. Stephen says that if you’re great at what you do, there’s no need to conform. “We have created our own name so that acceptance from the outside doesn’t really matter anymore,” she says.

When a celebrity adopts a style, it can have repercussions. The famous haircut “was a really big change for Rihanna,” Stephen says. “I came from the fashion world, where it was not all about long, beautiful hair. It was about a great look — creating an illusion.” But male record label heads had to be convinced that an artist could be successful, sexy and beautiful with short hair. “And when Rihanna did it, it was like, wow — you can look great without having hair down to your [rear end], and you really get to see another side of beauty.”

Hairstylist and salon owner Ted Gibson, whose clients have included Zoe Saldana, Renée Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway and Monáe — relates the new hair reality to fashion.

“You don’t have to go to the store and buy everything off of the rack from one designer; you can change it up,” he says. “I think that this is extremely timely in the moment that we are in society, in our country and in the world in that you can be different and don’t necessarily have to be cookie cutter.”


So hair today can be many things: perhaps an Afro, or a bright color clipped into a ponytail; a mid-length cut with a deep side-part and waves; an updo; a razor cut. It can be deep copper or warm red-browns or two-toned hair: dark at the roots and light at the ends. It can be shaved.

Stephen says that it’s ultimately about wearing any style that makes you happy. “People used to wear their hair a certain way because they had to. Now they wear their hair a certain way because they want to. I’m really all about what’s fun…. My hair could be short this week and long the next.

“Once you’re happy on the inside, it shows on the outside as well,” she says.