Disrupting Hair Habitus

bourdieu, 1977Could “hair habitus” be a thing? Or as one reviewer suggested, “acceptable presentation habitus”? In any case, I’m curious how hair intersects with the concept of habitus and health intervention research. Habitus originates from Bourdieu (1977), in which he argues that certain mundane acts are an elaborate performance. What do we perform, you ask? Well, there’s no short answer because there are a myriad of ways we perform gender, social class and identity every day. In essence, habitus refers to implicit practices and routines that structure the logic of everyday life.

In this way, I think about how Black women’s relationships to hair are formed differently across class lines. Perhaps the primary question is, are they? Are attachments to hair and specifically hairstyle, more salient for certain class groups? Of course, these theoretical musings are not simply rhetorical questions. They matter in the sense of understanding and breaking cycles involving health, class and the racialized gendered body. From my standpoint, hairstyling and daily grooming is a significant daily performance. For Black women in particular, our hair conveys messages to the world about who we are and how we want to be seen. Yet I struggle in articulating a theory that expresses the way in which hair is in conversation with our bodies and our health. How do we meaningfully incorporate ideals of beauty, femininity, hair and health?

let's talk about hair_oprahA second tenet is that habitus is shaped by social and economic conditions. Perhaps one primary strategy for transforming the dissonance between *some* Black women who struggle with maintaining hair and a daily exercise practice, for example, includes disrupting habitus. According to Bourdieu, mundane acts of everyday life can be restructured to accommodate new interests and practices. So for example, if we encourage women to exercise at work, then we must design interventions that focus on the challenges associated with integrating workplace-exercise with daily grooming practices. We must purposefully restructure our routine in a way that successfully incorporates physical activity. Exercise interventions cannot be disconnected from the sociocultural contexts in which we live. By providing models that integrate structure and “real world” application, we are able to design culturally appropriate ways to meet the needs of women’s health.

theory into practiceAs public health professionals, it is imperative to acknowledge, not discount, the reality that hair management for some women is a barrier to exercise. In moving forward, our aims should include disrupting the notion that one cannot both preserve hairstyles while exercising. To do so requires identifying strategies that incorporate flexible planning and social support into intervention research.

Policing bodies: The larger discussion behind Black women’s hair in the military

Black hair is multidimensional, layered and complex.

We get a sense of this complexity with the recent media attention given to the military’s hairstyling guidelines that unfairly target Black women. The truth is, the military is not different from larger society’s expectations and constructions of idealized or “acceptable” presentations of hair. There’s a long history here, and it’s been covered before so I won’t rehash it.

There are multiple issues with the military’s styling guidelines; I will focus on two. First, the framing of the guidelines suggest that all women should be able to achieve the same hairstyling, regardless of ethnic/racial background or even more practical considerations, such as hair length and texture.

Army Black HairAccording to Troy Rolan, an Army spokesman, “The updates in appearance standards were crafted, in part, with the help of African-American female soldiers and are intended to clarify the professional look of soldiers.” Question: Is it logical for a few African American women to “clarify” how all African American women should wear their hair? I’m sure this goes without saying, but Black women are not all the same and neither is their hair. African American hair textures are quite diverse. And while I appreciate the military’s emphasis on neatness, their standards are contradictory. (Dread)Locs, for example, are neat and can be worn down. Yet they are banned according to military guidelines. What gives? As Imani Perry puts it, “While it is reasonable for the military to expect some degree of conformity and neatness in hairstyles, those expectations ought to take into account the variety of natural hair textures people have.”


Perhaps the larger issue in this debate feeds into the messaging we communicate to society and more importantly, to our young Black girls about hair and work-identity performance. Are we telling our young girls that in order to serve your country, you must manipulate or even chemically alter the state of your hair? Moreover, that the way you wear your hair may jeopardize your job or job security? Yet Black women are unfairly subject to this policing of their bodies, both in and outside the military confines. How are Black women in the workplace compelled to either conform to or perform Eurocentric standards of beauty in ways that suppress their identities and natural sense of self? When an employer mandates that hair be worn in a specific, “acceptable” manner, what does that mean? Does that mean that one cannot be their authentic selves?

Essentially, military officials may do well to first understand the complexities of how African American hair grows naturally, and then design guidelines that accommodate that diversity. Hairstyles should not be demeaned or subject to criticism simply because they are perceived to be different. Instead the approach to grooming standards – whether in corporate America or the military – might focus less on gendered-racial policing disguised as regulation and more on job performance.

Just a thought –

Why we should be talking about hair

barbie-with-natural-hairThere is a pervasive sentiment that hair is a superficial aspect of beauty. Yet for many women of color, hair is quite the contrary. Hair is an expression of self – who I am and where I’ve been. Before I get too deep, let’s take a moment to recognize the obvious – all women, regardless of race, view hair differently. For Black women, however, this view may be shaped by historical significance (e.g., Black is Beautiful movement), family influences and social upbringing (preferences for straight and non-straight styles) or matters of convenience. Google ‘Black women and hair’ and I’m sure you’ll get more information than you could ever imagine about the complexity of Black women’s hair. Therefore, to downplay its relevance in our social conversation is insensitive and dismissive of the real way that hair matters to the lives of African American women.

Recently I came across this article, and while it saddened me, it certainly did not surprise me. Shaming anyone, much less a 7-year old child, about the way she chooses to wear her hair is unacceptable. I could deconstruct the baseless rationale given by the Deborah Brown Community School administrators regarding their harassment of Tiana Parker about her decision to wear locs. But that’s too easy. Instead, I wonder how different Millard Jones is from the rest of us. I wonder how, consciously or unconsciously, we as a society are imparting negative messaging about hair and beauty into the minds of our little girls and disempowering them in the process. Even more, I wonder what type of behavior we are modeling as Black women. When we run through the rain or avoid exercise/swimming because we don’t want to get our hair wet and ‘revert’ – are we sending a positive message? And while I overstand that economic considerations, such as salon costs and time for hair maintenance can be prohibitive, I would like to propose an alternative. Let’s shift the conversation. Let’s pen a new narrative for the mental and physical health of our children. Let’s model active behavior that can be achieved regardless of hairstyle. Let’s reaffirm that beauty comes from within. Let’s allow our girls to see reflections of themselves – in us.

I don’t claim to be wise, but if there is one thing I am certain of – children pay attention to what you do, not necessarily to what you say. So if we are telling our daughters, nieces and granddaughters that they are beautiful, but still we complain about doing their kinky hair, give them chemical relaxers at age 5, tell them to be careful not to ‘sweat their hair out’ and encourage them to wear their hair in ‘acceptable’ styles, then we are no better than the Deborah Brown Community School administrators. We are all reproducing a damaging cycle to the psyche that devalues the natural beauty of Black hair.

Perhaps if I were so inclined, I would design a public health intervention to visit cities and rural towns across the nation on a U R Enough Crusade. I don’t need tons of funding or a complicated research plan; just one bullhorn and a single message: You are enough. Your hair is enough. The way your hair grows out of your head is enough. Whatever way you choose to rock your ‘do, know that your hairstyle does not dictate your self-worth or value. That is all. Even without the bullhorn, I hope this message spreads (as it seems to be doing):

May your hair be enough to make you feel pretty, valued and empowered!

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