This paper explores the way that hair-care product packaging reflects society’s beauty expectations for Black women’s hair and implicates societal perceptions of Black women’s hair. It interrogates the question, How does the language used on hair care products define what is considered beautiful and, thus, imply how Black women should define their beauty? Scholars have studied this by looking at the way that skin- and hair-care advertisements marketed to Black women during the 1960s connected the attainability of upward mobility to physical changes to appearance. An analysis of the relaxers and styling creams from three hair care brand shows that Eurocentric standards of beauty are maintained on chemical relaxer products, by way of featuring straight hair, as well as on natural hair care products, via a texture hierarchy. These beauty standards apply to the models featured on the product packaging as well because they reinforce a colorist link between hair texture and skin tone. Departing from scholars’ arguments that only sporting natural hair resists dominant beauty standards, this study suggests that a Black woman exercising her choice of how and with what to style her hair is a stronger act of resistance itself.
In this study, I investigate what hair-care product packaging implies about the appropriate appearance of Black women’s hair and hypothesize how that expectation reinforces strict beauty standards and hierarchies. Products such as edge control and chemical relaxers, promise to slick down and straighten natural hair, while other gels and curl creams sell defined curls with minimal frizz. I am curious to know how language commonly found on Black hair care products, words like “control,” “relax,” and “define,” aligns with and departs from the discourse around Black beauty and beauty standards. Analyzing the packaging of relaxers and styling creams marketed toward Black women with curly to kinky hair, I answer the question: How does the language used on hair care products define what is considered beautiful and, thus, imply how Black people should perceive their beauty?
The hair styling products I analyze come from the natural hair care and relaxed hair care lines of Olive Oil, Creme of Nature, and Dark and Lovely. I evaluate the packaging of each brand’s relaxer and styling cream to find common words and analyze what those words suggest about Black hair and skin. Through this analysis placed in the context of scholarly works, I will determine what negative beauty standards these products reinforce and what new standards of beauty—whether positive or negative—they create. In addition, I consider the ownership of these brands and race of the owners to better contextualize the packaging on their products. I will use this data to hypothesize the effect these words and concepts have on Black women’s perceptions of their hair.
Scholars have long established the effect that beautifying products, from hair care to makeup and skincare, have on Black women with regard to what they promise to achieve and what standards of beauty they intend to fit. In Hair Raising Beauty, Culture, and African American Women, Noliwe Rooks analyzes popular African American hair straightening and skin bleaching products’ advertisements from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Rooks found that not only were “racial ideologies written primarily onto the bodies (skin and hair) of Black women,” but these advertisements “[suggested] to Blacks that only through changing physical features will persons of African descent be afforded class mobility within African American communities and social acceptance by the dominant culture.”1 This research establishes the impact of the language and imagery in advertisements for beautifying products on Black women’s perceptions of their beauty and what the dominant culture considers beautiful for Black women.
Kathy Peiss’s Hope In a Jar takes Rook’s analysis a step further, providing the historical and social contexts that make her research important to understanding the value of beautifying in Black communities. Peiss explains that many Black Americans during the early twentieth century saw hair straightening and skin bleaching as “white emulation” and asserted that Blackness is beautiful.2 However, she describes the ways by which a hierarchy based on physical attributes and a “lexicon of skin tones […] and hair textures […]” still had “explicit social, economic, sexual and psychological effects” on Black Americans, particularly Black women.3
In recent years, as the natural hair movement has exploded and more Black women are embracing their natural curl patterns, this lexicon to describe hair has expanded to include natural hair. In her master’s thesis, “‘I Love This Cotton Hair!,’” Kristin Denise Rowe interrogates the current natural hair movement in the United States, dissecting how beauty standards are “simultaneously contested, reified and reshaped.”4 She utilizes discourse analysis to uncover patterns in the ways that the natural hair community theorizes beauty via discussions of natural hairstyles, lengths and textures.5 In chapter four, Rowe inquires if some natural hair is “too natural,” questioning the use of words like “manageable,” “definition,” “control,” and “frizz” found on Carol’s Daughter hair care as well as other natural hair care products.6 Through her interpretation and analysis of this language, she begins to determine the definition of what is considered beautiful for natural hair and the potential effect those standards have on Black women.
Who writes the language on the hair care products also impacts the way Black women perceive and understand their hair. Susannah Walker’s Style and Status chapter six section on Black profitability discusses the ways that white and Black-owned beauty companies appealed to Black women consumers through their use of Black pride.7 According to Walker, as these white manufacturers began to understand the importance of centering Black beauty and pride in cosmetics marketed for Black women, “it was very likely that the advertising for these new cosmetic lines would use words and images evocative of Black pride.”8 In order to understand how language expressing Black pride influences Black women’s hair care purchases, it is important to understand what language Black women use to describe Black beauty and hair in general, which Rowe explores in another article, “Beyond ‘Good Hair.”
Here, she investigates how conversations around Black hair and Black beauty interact with the language that Black/African American women use, which Rowe refers to as African American Women’s Language (AAWL) or Black Women’s Language.9 She argues that in certain spaces language is used to “share, negotiate and make meaning of hair/beauty politics” and illuminates how, through understanding AAWL and where it intersects with hair/beauty politics, Black women might experience and negotiate hegemonic beauty standards.10 She supports this claim with original research, conducting focus groups with women from Michigan State University’s CurlyGirls group around “Natural Hair & Length,” “Natural Hair & Texture,” and “Natural Hair & The Language of Styling.”11 This article provides a framework for looking at the language used on hair care products because of their ability to shape “the way we understand hair politics, beauty and Black women’s subjectivities.”12
Carolette Norwood expands on the ways that these products’ messages affect how Black women perceive their hair into those lenses of hair politics, beauty and Black women’s subjectivities in her feminism-centered analysis “Decolonizing My Hair, Unshackling My Curls.” This article follows Norwood’s reflection on her natural hair journey and how her motivation for going natural was a feminist statement because she did it to resist oppressive messages that defined natural Black hair and Black women as unappealing, unprofessional and/or undesirable.13 She uses the autoethnographic method along with Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, among other texts, to dissect the politics of Black hair in relation to institutionalized racism, sexuality and empowerment. She also expounds on Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden’s concept of the “Lily Complex”’ from their book Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. The complex, which Norwood explained characterized her sense of self throughout her life, describes one’s attempt to assimilate and be seen as attractive by changing, hiding or concealing her physical traits.14
Through Norwood’s work, I hypothesize how dominant perceptions of Black hair, as a result of language use, may have a negative effect on Black women’s self-esteem. I also consider how embracing Black hair without definition or “controlled edges” can be a form of resistance and empowerment for Black women. Walker’s Style and Status becomes salient in this analysis as well, as she discusses how the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s positioned natural hair as a “rejection of a white aesthetic” and “an abandonment of commodified beauty culture.”15
Methods and Data
This study is a content analysis of three brands’—Creme of Nature, Olive Oil, and Dark and Lovely—natural and relaxed hair care products (follow links below for images). I will analyze the words, the colors and the images on the packaging to draw conclusions about what they imply Black hair should look and feel like. From there, I will hypothesize the effect that these implications have on consumers and how they reflect non-consumers perceptions of curly to coily hair textures. The relaxers analyzed in this study are white-owned Creme of Nature’s Super and Regular strength Advanced Straightening with Exotic Shine Argan Oil Relaxer; Black-owned ORS Olive Oil’s Extra Strength and Normal Full Application No-Lye Hair Relaxers; and white-owned Dark and Lovely’s Regular and Super strength Healthy-Gloss 5 Moisturizing No-Lye Relaxers with Shea Butter. The styling creams analyzed in this study are Creme of Nature Twist & Curl Pudding for natural hair; ORS Olive Oil Fix-It No-Grease Crème Styler; and Dark and Lovely Au Naturale Anti-Shrinkage Coil Moisturizing Souffle and Curl Defining Crème Glaze, for coils and curly hair, respectively.
While relaxers chemically alter curly hair to make it straight, styling creams create the defined, stretched and/or moisturized end result that many natural-haired Black women strive for, qualifying it as the natural hair care equivalent to relaxers for this study. Both products, as they are finishing products, determine the final state of a Black woman’s hair, and thus define and shape what that final state or style is supposed to look like by conventional beauty standards. The descriptions of what each product does as well as its imagery and coloring are what draw Black women to them and help them achieve or attempt to achieve the ideal style for their hair based on the beauty standards and dress codes of their environments. As a result, these products are integral in understanding what standards are placed on Black women’s hair and how those expectations reflect societal perceptions of Black women’s hair.
The relaxers from each brand used similar language to describe what consumers can expect the product to do for their hair: “stronger,” “longer,” “straighter,” “shinier,” “smoother,” and “sleeker.” The products’ most common guarantee was that they would leave consumers’ hair shinier and straighter than it was before. The promotion of longer hair reinforces societal beauty standards for women that position long hair as vital to their femininity and associate short hair with increased masculinity. The emphasis on straightness that these products create promotes a Eurocentric standard for hair, with long length and bone-straightness being qualities often described as European features. They do the same with shine, establishing it and sleekness as qualities that some afro-textured hair (coilier textures) does not achieve on its own through an average hair straightening process.
By promoting these Eurocentric beauty ideals, the relaxers position long length, shine, smoothness and sleekness as the most acceptable and proper qualities for straightened hair to have. This reinforces for Black women that afro-textured—even when straightened—is not good enough unless it meets those standards. The Dark and Lovely relaxers also reinforce colorism and texturism by differentiating relaxer strength by the skin-tone of the models featured on the box. The brand’s regular-strength box features a model who is lighter in skin tone than the model displayed on its super-strength packaging. The association of more manageable hair textures with lighter skin and a greater ability to achieve beauty exemplifies the texture hierarchy that Peiss discusses.16 It is important to note, however, that in 2020 Dark and Lovely changed the relaxers’ packaging, eliminating this color and texture association.
Two brands’ styling creams also share language by guaranteeing no “frizz” on natural hair after using the product; Olive Oil’s creme styler claims to “tame frizz” and Creme of Nature’s curl pudding promises to “smooth” curls. All of the styling creams promote their moisturizing properties as well as assuring stretched and defined curls to their consumers. Using language like “tame” on products tells Black women consumers that their natural hair is unruly and something that needs to be managed in order to be considered acceptable by society. Words like frizz, especially when used in contrast with smooth, tell Black women that frizzy, coily hair is a problem that needs to be fixed and that the only way to fix it is to slick them down and define them. Supporting Rowe’s analysis, Olive Oil’s styling cream having “fix it” in its name also reinforces that natural hair as it is is not good enough and needs to be managed in order to be presentable.17 This need for stretched curls also reiterates that length is a woman’s femininity and establishes hair shrinkage as a problematic side effect of natural hair that strips a Black woman of her femininity. Together, the styling creams’ emphasis on manageable, defined and stretched curls creates a beauty standard for natural hair around a texture hierarchy that positions type 3 hair (a hair texture made of loose curls that generally has minimal shrinkage and is often easily defined with minimal products) as the ideal.
A similarity between the packaging of each brand’s relaxers and styling creams, however, was every product’s promotion of its natural ingredients. While the styling creams highlighted their inclusion of argan oil, olive oil, mango oil, and bamboo milk, the relaxers highlighted their use of olive oil, pequi oil, shea butter and argan oil and emphasized their exclusion of lye (sodium hydroxide). This fixation on promoting natural ingredients on both products appeals to the ever-growing Natural Hair Care movement that has gained momentum in recent years. With more Black women, whether relaxed or natural, reaching for hair care products that include less chemicals and more all-natural ingredients, these brands benefit from emphasizing their use of oils and butters even if they are not the most prevalent ingredients. This promotion, however, can be misleading as these relaxers include chemicals like calcium hydroxide or guanidine carbonate which are slightly milder than lye but can still damage the hair and scalp. This discrepancy reflects how informed each product type’s consumer is: Brands expect Black women with relaxed hair to be less informed about what is in their hair care product and less inclined to care about the ingredients so long as lye is not one of them. On the other hand, these brands’ handling of each styling cream shows that they expect natural-haired Black women to be more informed about what they put in their hair and appeal to their knowledge of harmful ingredients; the Creme of Nature Twist and Curl Pudding, in addition to highlighting its natural ingredients, also promotes the exclusion of sulfates and parabens (which can dry out hair) from its ingredients list.
Discussion and Conclusion
After looking at the language and imagery on the relaxers and styling creams, it is clear that no matter what kind of hair a Black woman has, these products are marketed as a need rather than aid for them to achieve their desired appearance. Positioning hair care products as a necessity for Black women tells them that their hair is not beautiful and socially acceptable on its own. It implies that Black women must style their hair in order to fit the standards of beauty and respectability thrust upon them. A failure to meet those standards can also be detrimental to Black women as it can affect their self-esteem, as Norwood notes about her relationship with her hair.18 It can also hinder their ability to secure and keep jobs at workplaces with dress codes that discriminate against natural hairstyles. With that in mind, it is also important to note that looking at natural hair as an escape from Eurocentric beauty standards, as Walker discusses, is not as possible now as it was during the Black is Beautiful movement.19 While natural hair care standards do not necessarily adhere to a Eurocentric ideal, they now abide by a texture hierarchy that posits type 3 hair as the most socially acceptable and beautiful form of natural hair because of its natural elongation, definition and shine. For women with coilier hair textures, not meeting those standards can lead to a decrease in self-esteem because their hair is seen as ugly and not “good” enough.
As a result, what I would also like to challenge from Norwood and Walker’s articles is that natural hair is the ultimate assertion of Black pride and resistance to Eurocentric beauty. After looking at the strict standards that both relaxers and styling creams reinforce, I would argue that a Black woman actively exercising her ability to choose her hairstyling methods and products is one of the strongest forms of resistance. To exercise agency in hair styling as a Black woman is to challenge the same society that tried to control that hair and define what Black beauty is supposed to look like through everything that it is not. A Black woman’s hair is beautiful, Black and radical regardless of the products used to style it because it is what she wants it to be. In other words, Black women’s hair is beautiful whether it is relaxed, natural or somewhere in between. And—to return to Rowe’s argument that Black women’s use of call and response helps them create solidarity in hair struggles and an understanding of their beauty— that’s on wut? Period, luv.20
- Noliwe Rooks, Hair Raising Beauty, Culture, and African American Women (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 26.
- Kathy Peiss, “Shades of Difference,” in Hope in a Jar: the Making of American’s Beauty Culture (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 2007), 233.
- Peiss, “Shades of Difference,” 233.
- Kristin Denise Rowe, “‘I Love This Cotton Hair!’:Black Women, Natural Hair, and (Re)Constructions of Beauty” (master’s thesis, Michigan State University, 2015), ii.
- Kristin Denise Rowe, “‘I Love This Cotton Hair!’,” ii.
- Kristin Denise Rowe, “‘I Love This Cotton Hair!’,” 40.
- Susannah Walker, “Black Is Beautiful: Redefining Beauty in the 1960s and 1970s,” in Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975 (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 174-178.
- Walker, “Black Is Beautiful,” 175.
- Kristin Denise Rowe, “Beyond ‘Good Hair’: Negotiating Hair Politics Through African American Language,” Women & Language 42, no. 1 (Spring 2019), 43.
- Rowe, “Beyond ‘Good Hair,’” 43.
- Rowe, “Beyond ‘Good Hair,’” 51.
- Rowe, “Beyond ‘Good Hair,’” 43.
- Carolette Norwood, “Decolonizing My Hair, Unshackling My Curls: An Autoethography On What Makes My Natural Hair Journey A Black Feminist Statement,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 20, no. 1 (2018), 69.
- Norwood, “Decolonizing My Hair, Unshackling My Curls, 78.
- Walker, “‘I Love This Cotton Hair!’,” 186.
- Peiss, “Shades of Difference,” 233.
- Rowe, ““I Love This Cotton Hair!,”” 40.
- Norwood, “Decolonizing My Hair, Unshackling My Curls,” 73.
- Walker, “Black Is Beautiful,” 186.
- Rowe, “Beyond ‘Good Hair,’” 61.