Any black person who has embarked on a natural hair journey can inform you that afro-textured hair is work. After going natural over five years ago, I’ve spent countless hours experimenting with everything from DIY avocado and banana hair smoothies to handheld hair steamers. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time considering the merits of finger-combing versus using a comb to detangle, and it has taken years to simplify my wash day routine from what initially looked like a meth lab to a handful of products that effectively work for my hair.
But even in an era where so many have opted out of using chemical relaxers and natural hair is (conditionally) celebrated and increasingly normalized, there’s also the labor of having to withstand judgment. What we do with our hair is still scrutinized to a ridiculous degree. A woman who is meticulous about her curl definition and painstakingly coifs her twist-outs can be judged as being ashamed of her natural hair texture. Someone with kinkier and coarser textured hair who forgoes pursuing definition, manipulation, and protective styling can be accused of being lazy and having neglected, unhealthy hair. “Natural hair doesn’t mean unkempt hair” is a common critique aimed at the latter.
The anxiety of having to consider the reception to your un-relaxed hair in professional and personal spaces is real—as is the damned-if-you -do-damned-if-you-don’t, Catch-22 reality of navigating a society still very much permeated by Eurocentric beauty standards. Even as I rebuffed any notion that my going natural was the “transformative” self-affirming journey many often describe it as, I had no choice but to concede that my hair—our hair—in its unprocessed state will always be a thing.
A few weeks ago, this exhausting reality was foisted onto the tiny shoulders of a little black girl as she and her hair became the center of the worst kind of online discourse. An H&M ad prominently featuring the child—with her glowing dark skin, cherubic face and infectious smile—had her short kinky hair pulled back into a disheveled ponytail and no apparent product applied to her edges. Twitter users posted the image of the ad and it soon became viral, generating thousands of conversations, comments, and in some cases, calls for a mass boycott of H&M.
Hairstylist Vernon François posted the image on his Instagram, commenting:
It’s breathtaking to me that not one person looked at this shot and had the same reaction that the internet seems to be feeling since the campaign broke. THAT IS AN ISSUE. We must do better. Our girls, our young women deserve better. Let this be a moment of learning.
Responding to the mounting criticism, H&M released the following statement:
We are aware of the comments regarding one of our models for H&M Kids. We truly believe that all kids should be allowed to be kids. The school aged kids who model for us come to the photo studio in the afternoon after school and we aim for a natural look which reflects that.
Sure enough, there are images of other non-black children with wildly disheveled, messy and unstyled hair in keeping with the theme, which is akin to the recent viral sensation of featuring images of children “before and after” the first day of school. There are even other pictures of the young model at the center of this firestorm wearing what is noticeably more “styled” hair.
Even if well-meaning, the accelerated viral spread of this image and the increase of the child’s visibility also prompted vitriolic comments about her physical appearance. Users on IG and Twitter can be found describing the child as having “chewed” edges, being “masculine” and concluding her parents allowing her to be featured in such a state was indicative of them being unfit and neglectful. For anyone who spends time online regularly, this should come as no surprise; images of black children—girls, especially—are used in such a way to prompt engagement. Pictures of smiling, expressive little black girls with colorful hairstyles, stylish outfits, or “un-done” hair are frequently used as a catalyst to invite a symposium of scrutiny. “Is her hairstyle too grown?” “Is her hair unkempt?” “Would you let your daughter wear this?”
The more disturbing aspect of this is that while we are aware of the harsh scrutiny inflicted on black women for our appearance, many of us had no qualms heaping that very same critique onto a little black girl. Of course, this is an ad for a massive global retailer, so it comes with some understandable visibility; but many elevated the controversy by bringing attention to an image that otherwise wouldn’t have garnered this much traction. Knowing how cruel the commentary can become, so many adults wantonly tossed a child to the merciless whims of internet engagement in the name of reactionary response.
If the images of these children are considered “unacceptable” or “inappropriate,” what exactly is the objective of the adults who work to center and ultimately spread them further in pursuit of viral discourse? Should we not engage in these discussions more thoughtfully when they involve children? What effect do these debates have on these children? Or, in this instance, this little girl: How does she feel when the people in her own community note that she is not allowed the frivolity of childhood messiness afforded to her non-black peers or other black children with looser hair textures? What are we doing to our children when we invite such mass media commentary and critique of their appearance?
Conversations about the improper treatment of black people in entertainment at the hands of inept stylists are valid—and we’re understandably skeptical of brands who have demonstrated a history of racist ad campaigns and merchandise. This does not seem to be the case here, and ultimately we inflicted more wounds on a child than any inept non-black hairstylist ever could. If this child had loose tendrils—if her hair was denser, or longer, or bore some kind of wave pattern, or was the type of texture that reflected more sheen—this would not have been a conversation.
As far as we’d like to believe we’ve come in embracing our natural selves, the presence of the white gaze and our own need to present our best selves to combat its dehumanizing stereotypes may still inform our reactions in seeing “unpolished” images of ourselves. What could have been a positive, affirming moment for a little black girl who rarely sees herself reflected in national ad campaigns devolved into irresponsible and often callous commentary on her appearance. And right now, the only unacceptable image is the one of ourselves, reflected in our hideous reactions to a little black girl being a kid.