As a woman of color, I am very familiar with the stigma attached to my hair type and its supposed limitations. It is “unruly” and “difficult to manage.” As a small child, my mother would struggle to straighten it on Saturday mornings. I would scream and cry, disrupting the entire household and upsetting my father, who would angrily predict that the damage being done to my hair was not only physical but emotional as well. It wasn’t the pretty picture on the box of chemical relaxer my mother would purchase from the beauty-supply store; it was an ordeal. The pressure to fit into a European ideal of beauty by straightening my hair is inescapable, and in fashion it’s become the norm.
“The pressure to fit into a European ideal of beauty by straightening my hair is inescapable, and in fashion it’s become the norm.”
If you’re a black model, your hair had better be relaxed bone-straight, naturally medium, cork-screw curly — or so short it’s virtually non-existent. Most hair stylists working in the fashion industry today are simply not experienced with black hair. Given that black models are a minority within the industry, this isn’t exactly a surprise. My hair texture doesn’t fall into any of the desired categories and during my ten-year career, I never heard the end of it.
Like many of my colleagues, I found the most success and least hassle while wearing weaves or hair extensions. Take the most recent catalog shoot I did. I arrived to my favorite sight — an extensive buffet table of breakfast delights, complete with bagels, yogurt and blueberry muffins. After about an hour in makeup, it was time to switch to the hair chair.
“Oooh chiiild! Who did these?! How long have you had these in?!” bellowed the small, white, male hairstylist, referring to the wefted tracks sewn into my hair. I’m never quite sure how I come across as an extra from The Help, but upon discovering that I’m wearing a weave, every single hairstylist I’ve ever worked with slips into a jocular southern drawl peppered with healthy doses of “Girrrlll” and “Mmmhmmm.” And no matter how many times I prepare or rehearse my reaction to this unintentional racism, I never seem to handle it the way I want to and end up rattled. “About two weeks?” I reply, half laughing and half embarrassed.
Fashion week is the hardest time for any model and our hair and skin are the first to suffer. Styling and over-styling takes a toll on any hair type. It is true that it requires care and patience to style black hair — “patience” and “care” being often non-existent in the frantic atmosphere. Backstage at shows, I’m usually among the last models chosen to be groomed. The white or Asian straight-haired models are first into the chairs; they’re the easiest to attend to. Finally and with not much time until first looks are called, I can usually see the fear in the stylist’s eyes as I sit down. After plugging in a ceramic straightener or two and quickly running a hand through the hair on the crown of my head, the stylist will usually gently place the comb back down and call for back-up. “She’s got tracks so I’m not sure,” they will say with a frown. “Maybe we can do a low bun? I don’t know.” At this point I am awash in the negative energy now focused at the top of my head. While I’m not ashamed to admit I wear hair extensions for work, it gets old having to explain your hair to people who are supposed to be hair care professionals.
“I’ve been known to show up to shoots with a bag full of hairpieces, extra styling tools and products specific to my hair care regimen. That’s not me being nice, it’s insurance.”
I have certainly come across a few hair wunderkinds whom I trust to execute a style beautifully and leave my hair and confidence intact. But for every “black hair expert,” there are many inexperienced and rushed hair stylists who either don’t know or don’t care enough to properly care for my hair. I am always prepared to play an active role in the process either by styling my hair myself or by offering detailed instructions on how to achieve the best results. I’ve been known to show up to shoots with a bag full of hairpieces, extra styling tools and products specific to my hair care regimen. That’s not me being nice, it’s insurance. Nonetheless, I am almost always rebuffed, and am dangerously close to being labeled a bit of a diva. Some may argue that these experiences are part and parcel of being a professional model but the shame and discrimination associated with having a different hair type should not be.
“Out of the top fifty female models compiled by Models.com, exactly five are of African descent.”
Out of the top fifty female models compiled by Models.com, exactly five are of African descent. Each of these young women has shot a wide range of campaigns, covers and editorials that place them in the public eye on a daily basis. While this is great for the visibility of black models in the fashion industry, I often wonder why there isn’t a wider range of hair styles represented for black women. It cannot be completely attributed to a lack of education on the part of hairstylists.
I was not encouraged to wear a weave or hair extensions until later in my career, when the majority of my bookings started falling into the “commercial” category. Commercial jobs are a model’s bread and butter. Catalogs, television commercials and loyal e-commerce clients can take a completely unknown model from abject poverty to financial freedom. Commercial clients value safe and relatable images and book models based on these factors. “Make sure you update your weave and straighten your edges,” my agent would say. “You’re seeing Department Store X on Monday.” It’s common sense that a model should be well groomed for castings but the subtle message is that your natural hair need not apply.
“I hope to see more black women in fashion embraced for their natural hair, and not for the ‘statement’ they’re making with it.”
I am encouraged by the inclusion of women like Julia Sarr-Jamois, fashion editor of Wonderland magazine and star of the Spring 2012 Tibi campaign. She is always photographed with her natural hair coiffed into a beautiful, large Afro. Because she wears mostly high-end designer clothing and has impeccable style, she is often featured on style blogs and was recently profiled by Vogue on her “statement hair.” With the explosion of the natural hair movement and the number of black models slowly but surely ticking upwards, I hope to see more black women in fashion embraced for their natural hair, and not for the “statement” they’re making with it.