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, exactly five are of African descent."

Out of the top fifty female models compiled by, 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.

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11 Responses to Straight Talk On “Unruly” Black Hair

  1. […] their hair when they are not afforded the same privileges in society based on hair alone, as Marcia Mitchell brings up. So the question then becomes how might we encourage dialogue and learning across […]

  2. […] using painful, dangerous, and expensive techniques to style their hair. Many women, such as model Marcia Mitchell, find that changing her hair can be a double-edged sword: her weave can be styled more easily and […]

  3. […] risks garnering unwanted, racialized attention and pernicious discrimination. I’m sure that Marcia Mitchell would have been relieved to skip all that chemical processing on her hair once in a while and sport […]

  4. Anne says:

    Hi I was just wondering I want to be a model but I wear my hair in braids although its easy and low-maintance I understand that its diffcukt to work with for hair stylist because “the look” is set. I can wear it in a ponytail or loose but thats about it. So I was thinking what is the most flexible type of black hair with wich the hairstylist can create as many looks as possible? Is it just straight hair? Because my straight hair is short. Should I straight just the edges and leave the rest natural for a sow in weave ? Or should I just go short and natural (And can I pull that look off???) Bottom line I want to look beautifull inside and out but I also want to keep my hair healthy and intact. What is a girl to do. What do Jourdan, Naomi, Chanel, Iman, Tyra do ???

  5. Ana Yasmin says:

    Marcia Mitchell,

    Hi, my name is Ana Yasmin and I am also a model and a woman of color. I completely agree with you and relate to your experience with the “woes” of natural hair. It was refreshing to read your article. Recently, I went to Paris and attacked 10 modeling agencies looking to be signed. One agency said I was “too different”, “too unique”, and another said my hair would be a problem because it would have to constantly be straightened and my face was not “angular” enough! They meant not “European” enough! I am a mixed woman with light skin, full lips, brown eyes, and natural hair like Noemie le Noir. I have learned that the shade of the model or hair texture of the model does not matter. Black is black and if those attributes are apparent it is not necessarily in “fashion” and what we are told, the “client” may not like our “look”. I think that’s total bull. Also, I find many people have no idea the range of black hair or the different textures that exist. Some people think we have straight hair and others have asked how I curl my hair?!? It is time natural hair not to be a trend or seen as something different, but the norm. That will take some time. Thanx again,

    Ana Yasmin

  6. Mel says:

    Great article i enjoyed reading it ! It is a shame that people that are said “professionals” are so neglecting with models’hair especially black models it is so unprofessional and also dangerous for the models.

    If you go in google images and search for “alopécie traction” you’ll see what I mean .

  7. Yvonne says:

    Love this article that is so accurate of various experiences when it comes to black hair care. Continuing education is key.

  8. This article couldn’t have been more accurate to my experiences modeling in London. I try to make life easier for hairstylists by having a weave, but at the same time it’s a scary thing for some of them to deal with. And don’t get me started on the “is this real?” opening sentence. What professional model on earth would show up with a synthetic weave when hot irons will be used on their hair?! Then there is awkard moment when you have to wait and be last to get your hair done because no one wants to work with my hair or at least the senior stylist has to deal with it once he is she is finished with the other girls. I could go on and on but at this point all I can say it thank goodness for people like Charlie Taylor who have been trained in working with Afro -Caribbean hair.

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  10. Mr. Younger says:

    Enjoyed the description of your experience with microaggressions. At first you don’t how to react when people break into the “Oooh chiiild,” “Girrrlll” and “Mmmhmmm.” You think people are trying to insult your intelligence and then you realize that their only experience with African-American culture may have been through repeat episodes of Good Times.

    As for the hair, I remember many evenings in my own home watching my grandmother get the hot straightening comb for my aunts, (who were only a few years older than me). I thought she was punishing them for bad grades, as they would cringe in that kitchen chair. My grandmother would yell, “Be still, child!!.”

    Being a man, and an African-American man, I like the look of natural hair on African-American models. But I also, like them to be able to have the flexibility to throw on that wig or weave and be as creative and beautiful they want…just as any European/white model would. Makes sense?

  11. When I was a child my mother would rake through my long, blonde hair and brush out all the matted pieces that had accumulated, before I would rush back outside to climb more trees and play in the stream. My only experiences of hairdressing were one blow dry that my mother gave me that garnered so much attention at school I remember cringing with embarrassment, and other then that it was the standard ballet bun, tons of Elnet and a premature face lift at age 7. The only kid in my south London primary school class that was not white was called James Ramrattan; I never gave it much thought at the time but by his last name I would guess that he was Indian.
    As a young adult I went to beauty school in Los Angeles as an avid practitioner of bed head and letting my hair dry naturally. I remember the extent of our “ethnic hair education”. We heated up some marcel ovens, we heated up some irons, and we practiced getting them in and out of the ovens. I forgot that they would be scalding hot, of course, and attempted to really give the iron a good cleaning with a thin towel. Suffice to say that was the first and only time I attempted that.
    In my professional life as a hairstylist I have only learnt how to work with black hair because I have had the privilege of working alongside very talented, and I might add very generous, African American hairdressers. Some professionals are very secretive about their products, and their techniques, and don’t like to share! Any hairdresser, regardless of race, that possesses a mastery of ethnic hairdressing knows that they stand head and shoulders above their peer group. It’s not a secret that most hairdressers are not rushing to take a girl backstage that they don’t think they can successfully work on. It’s too competitive back there, you want to win, not fail.
    Looking back I think this is a failing on the part of the education system in America. Why was it not important to learn how to work with black hair? The unspoken message seems to be that it’s just not important or relevant to the beauty school student in the States. I didn’t imagine that I would ever work with black hair in the salon. When we were given a tour of the salons in Beverly Hills that we could potentially work in after graduation we were shown a black hair salon in Beverly Hills and we were told as students not to bother anyway, because we’d never get hired. The message? Black people do black hair.

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