Essence Magazine did an amazing thing for their May 2014 cover! Solange Knowles, Erykah Badu, and Ledisi all make the cover rocking their natural tresses! This is groundbreaking for the natural hair movement since no other magazine has featured three different women with natural hair on their cover (Honorable Mention: Oprah featured herself in a huge Afro extension on the cover of her September 2013 issue). I was so inspired I had to not only buy this edition, but renew my subscription as well!
Each of the amazing cover models took turns writing their own articles and shared their hair story and personal journeys to become the amazing women they are today. The story that resonated with me the most though was Solange’s. I appreciated how she encouraged women to be confident and celebrate themselves. She touches on how many women “apologize for being confident,” because we think it is a form of ego when in reality it is a positive aspect of ourselves. I think it is especially important for women who are natural to be confident since we can get negative responses for simply being who we are naturally. Solange writes that, “We shouldn’t be pigeonholed into any one category,” and “We cannot be articulated into one Black woman. It’s impossible.” She is absolutely right! We are diverse and unique and that is a beautiful thing. We all should be proud of our individuality; it is what makes us who we are.
Now let’s Honor Our HAIRitage and talk about history…As I looked through the magazine, preparing to write this post, I couldn’t help but notice the many natural haired models and print ads for natural hair care products. I was very surprised and impressed. This inspired me to write more about the new trend for natural hair care products and the marketing language used to sell them.
In the May 2013 issue of Essence, I counted six ads for natural hair care products, which is more than most publications. They included Carol’s Daughter, Cantu Shea Butter, Kinky Curly, Pantene Pro-V Truly Natural, Dark and Lovely Au Naturale, and Design Essentials. These are just a few of the many products that are now available for today’s naturalista. This makes sense as manufactures are always looking for the next fashion trend to latch onto and make a profit. What interests me though is the language and phrases that are used in today’s marketing for Black hair care products and how it relates to what was used in the past.
Noliwe M. Rooks writes in her book “Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women,” about the various ways in which hair care products were marketed to African Americans throughout history and how those messages have influenced ideas about Black hair and its value. She cites many examples of how white-owned companies at the turn of the century, created ads for products by using degrading images, and insulting language to market their products to African American women. Once such example came from a 1905 ad for Curl-I-Cure: A Cure for Curls, advertised in the Richmond Planet. The text reads:
“You owe it to yourself, as well as to others who are interested in you, to make yourself as attractive as possible. Attractiveness will contribute much to your success-both socially and commercially. Positively nothing detracts so much from your appearance as short, matted, un-attractive, curly hair.”
This language clearly frames African textured hair (curly) as ugly and something to be changed in order for African American’s to advance “both socially and commercially.” It also implies that we must not only look a certain way for ourselves, but for others as well, who must not see us with our natural hair texture. This ad speaks to a white ideal that requires ridding oneself of any features that are reminiscent of an African ancestry because it is “un-attractive.”
These types of ads were very common during this time, but there were also advertisements that had positive messages about African textured hair. Not surprisingly, many of those ads were created by African American businesswomen who created their own hair care products for their communities. Madam C.J. Walker is an excellent example of how African American women sought not to ridicule other African Americans, but to present a different message that was focused more on health, hair growth, and hygiene.
What you see in today’s natural hair advertisements, is this same attempt to reframe the context of African textured hair from a negative to a positive. Looking back at the May issue of Essence, I noticed that none of the ads gave references to African textured hair as ugly or unattractive. Instead, they encouraged the enhancement of your curls instead of straightening them. By focusing on healthy hair, preventing hair breakage, and hair growth, each ad evokes the same tactics that were used by Madame C.J. Walker and the many other African American businesswomen of her time. Check out a commercial for Au Naturale and see if you notice the same messages.
Essence magazine has a long history of supporting natural hair. When they first began in the early 70’s they only featured models with cornrows or Afro’s which was fitting for that time. Today, they feature photo galleries of women with natural hair at events and even have a section devoted to the Natural Hair Revolution on their website. They have also covered natural hair celebrities and was one of the first magazines to announce Solange’s dramatic big chop. They also featured Viola Davis on the cover of the October 2013 issue where she talks about how she started to accept her natural beauty.
I am so happy that Essence is at the forefront of this movement. For African American women, Essence magazine is one of a few major magazines that celebrate our beauty, culture, heritage, and values. We look to Essence as our guide for how to live our lives and be our best selves. That is why I’m glad they are becoming a true leader in the natural hair movement.
Go pick up your own issue of Essence magazine while they are still on newsstands!
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