Last weekend, preppy brand J. Crew was the subject of Twitter scorn after several images of a Black woman modeling for Madewell surfaced on their website. It appeared that the model’s natural hair had been thoughtlessly styled by someone who knew not of bristle brushes and the laying down of edges. Given the recent wave of hair snafus involving prominent Black women, J. Crew’s subsequent disservice to this model’s hair made it feel like brands are choosing to remain ignorant.
J. Crew has since apologized, but the discussion has been split. There are those who don’t think that J. Crew’s styling of beautiful model Marihenny Pasible is that big a deal, citing Black people’s internalization of presentability politics — and those who feel that these photographs only further demonstrate the need for more Black industry professionals, especially since models are often at the mercy of the creative direction of brands employing them.
Pasible’s comment raises the question of whether or not her hairdo was the product of poor styling or the celebration of a more “carefree” aesthetic. Perhaps we cannot be mad on her behalf if she sees no controversy in it. But the reality for many Black women remains: Most of media and most beauty and fashion brands simply do not understand — or try to understand — Black hair.
When influential Black women appear on magazine covers, their photographs are altered by editors who are uninformed about Black hair and problematic Eurocentric beauty standards.
We stand with the great Solange when we say, “Don’t touch my hair.” And yet brands and publications keep trying to alter and erase the cultural significance of our textured roots. Take Lupita Nyong’o’s recent critique of Grazia UK for photoshopping her hair texture to appear smoother and editing out a glorious Afro puff that many brown girls would lust after.
The magazine responded with a lackluster claim of a “commitment to diversity” and an insinuation that Nyong’o’s hair had, in fact, edited itself out: “At no point did they make any editorial request to the photographer for Lupita Nyong‘o’s hair to be altered…nor did we alter it ourselves.” Later, the photographer An Le apologized for editing Nyongo’s hair, calling the edit “a monumental mistake.”
Black models are often thrown into the hands of hairstylists who are uneducated about the history and styling of their hair.
Victoria’s Secret made strides when their models walked the runway in 2016 all rocking their natural textures, but when model Zuri Tibby appeared styled with flyaways and a haphazard braid on their website this past June, many social media users were left to question whodunnit?
Remember the Today show’s 2016 segment on “Great Summer Hairstyles” when beauty expert, Deepica Mutyala (a woman of color), turned model Maylia’s gorgeous twist-out into a failed topknot…of knots? In a positive turn of events, Mutyala did more than offer a lukewarm apology and reached out to YouTubers from the natural hair community to educate herself on how to properly style natural hair.
When Black models aren’t fearing that an ill-trained hairstylist will damage a delicate curl or use products that don’t belong near their scalps, they are dealing with full-on neglect. Model Londone Myers recently called out Paris Fashion Week after she was ignored by hairstylists backstage. She took to Instagram to write, “What I need is for hairstylists to learn how to do black hair. I’m so tired of people avoiding doing my hair at shows.”
The use of Black models in campaigns and on runways can often be read as tokenism, and yet black culture continues to be a source of inspiration and, sometimes, appropriation.
In a 2015 Marc Jacobs fashion show, white models walked the runway wearing Bantu knots, a traditionally Black hairstyle. A beauty blog then posted a tutorial for readers interested in copying the models’ hairstyles, referring to them as “twisted mini buns.” Social media users quickly criticized both Marc Jacobs and the beauty blog, Mane Addicts.
In 2016, Emily Bador, a white woman, ended up on a cover of Blackhair, a U.K. beauty magazine. BLACK HAIR. As in the the texturally diverse kinks and curls of those who are Black. Bador herself had actually discovered that a years-old photo of her had been used for the cover, and she called out the mistake on her Instagram to apologize.
Blackhair’s editor Keysha Davis then issued a Facebook letter where where she stated that, “We often ask PR companies/salons to submit images for the magazine, specifically stating that models must be Black or mixed race. We can only take their word for it, and of course, try to use our own judgment.” Davis explained that she didn’t know Bador was not Black or mixed-race, referencing the magazine’s policy to only feature models of color who are, in fact, Black.
It is one thing when brands and entities controlled by majority white executives mess up — but when a publication or brand geared towards Black people makes such a huge oversight, it feels like a personal attack.
Haircare brand Shea Moisture may have had the biggest fall from grace in that regard after they inserted non-Black women and looser hair textures into the sometimes painful narrative that surrounds Black hair. The brand later apologized.
The list of these kinds of mistakes has been steadily growing longer and longer. The prevalence of appropriation, erasure, and quizzical styling choices continues to leave many Black women saying, “Oh no baby, what is you doin’?”
Natural hair has taken centuries to land on runways, magazines, and websites. But outside of fashion campaigns, these hairstyles subject many of us to ridicule and repercussions.
The visceral reaction that many Black women had to those J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret photos is one that stems from years spent unlearning self-hate and anti-Blackness. Brands with unlimited resources that profit from Black women’s dollars need to do a better job. That means including Black creatives in both the boardrooms where campaigns are brainstormed and backstage where hair and makeup professionals should be trained to enhance the beauty of all women — not just those who fit the Eurocentric ideal.