African American Hair and its role in Advertising, Black Women's Careers, and Consumption Behavior

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

23 Pages, Grade: 1,2


Table of Contents


1. The History of African American Hair

2. Advertisements for African American Hair Care Products
2.1. Early Advertisements by White-owned Companies
2.2. Early Advertisements by Black-owned Companies
2.3. Current Advertisements

3. Hair Care as a Career Choice

4. Black Women’s Magazines



Ever smell fried hair?
It ain't like when your hair
catches on fire from a careless light

and it ain't like if you burned
your dog's coat picking ticks
with a flaming match

Not exactly, anyhow.
It's kinda like that
but you add a lot of

Dixie Peach and burn it in

with a red hot comb.
Careful near the ears…

(From “She press huh hair” by Gregory Millard)

In this paper for the seminar The American Culture of Consumption, I want to deal with the complex topic of African American hair. In 1992, African Americans bought 34% of all sold hair care products in the United States. They spent thrice as much money on this than any other customer group. The majority of the purchased products were hair relaxers. (Rooks, p.117)

These are only figures but they demonstrate how important hair is to African Americans. I want to explain the roots of this significance in the first chapter and show how the way hair was rated changed during the times of slavery. Then, I want to examine advertisements for black hair treatment products by white- and black-owned firms to find out if they differ in their strategies and how strong their influence on the consumers was and still is. The third chapter will deal with hair dressing as a career choice. In conclusion, I would like to provide answers for the question why African Americans might feel the urge to change their hair’s texture at all.

1. The History of African American Hair

Hair has always been extremely significant in terms of society, aesthetics, and spirit in all African cultures. As Patterson points out, it was socially important because it communicated age, marital status, ethnic identity, religion, wealth, geographic origin, and rank in the social hierarchy. Young girls from the Wolof culture in Senegal, for example, partially shaved their hair to show that they were not courting. Likewise, widowed women would not take care of their hair anymore during their period of mourning so that they would not attract other men. Royalty would often wear hats or elaborate hairstyles to emphasize their status. (

Of course, hair also has a high aesthetic value. Especially West African communities praise long, thick hair on women because it symbolizes the power of life, prosperity, and promises many healthy children. It is also expected that the hair is clean, neat, and well styled, e.g. in cornrows or other braids, especially with beads or shells. Many Africans believe that hair is the way to communicate with the higher being since the hair is the most elevated point of the body and therefore the closest to the Divine. This is also the origin of the belief that a single strand of hair can be used to put spells on other people.


Likewise, the importance of hair can be found in African American literature, for example in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Here, “hair becomes another character in the novel” as Mary Helen Washington claims. (cited in Rooks, p.7) Indeed, hair is a significant symbol for the protagonist’s (‘Janie’) development. It represents her strength and independence from the standards of the people in her community, who feel it is inappropriate for a woman of her age to wear it down. Her braid, which is described in phallic terms, implies her masculine power that threatens the men on her side. Most interesting, it is a symbol of whiteness as it is very straight. This sign for her being half-white is the reason why Jody, her husband, marries her. But he forces her to hide her hair under a rag and thus symbolically turns her into a servant. After his death, Janie takes the rag off and regains her independence and strength. (

Obviously, the novel applies many of the connotations that hair has among Africans and African Americans. It functions as a symbol for strength and freedom. In my opinion, the fact that Janie’s smooth hair makes her more attractive for Jody shows that many African Americans have internalized what the whites and their advertisements claimed, namely that African hair is not as beautiful as Caucasian hair.

Howsoever, the normal relationship between Africans and their state of hair was disturbed by the slave trade when their hair texture and the color of their skin became nothing else but the determiner for race. Physical characteristics were linked to intelligence, civilized behavior, and sometimes even to humanity. This theory can be found, for example, in Charles Hamilton Smith’s book named Natural History of the Human Species, where he writes that

“the typical woolly haired races have never discovered an alphabet, framed a grammatical language, nor made the least step in science or art”. (Rooks, p. 38) This reference to the different appearance of Africans, or African Americans respectively, was supposed to prove their mental disadvantages and therefore served as an excuse for slavery and racial discrimination. Slaveholders began to refer to their slaves as ‘woolly-haired’ to link them to animals and thus to justify the inhumane way in which they were treated.


The importance of the outer appearance can also be found in Smith’s basic subdivisions of mankind, where he classifies humans with the help of hair: “the bearded Caucasian, the beardless Mongolian and the woolly haired Negro” (Rooks, p. 38). This enumeration also shows the place that Smith attributes to the different races. The Caucasian is on top, the African at the base of his system. Such ideologies work with the outer appearance, especially skin color, hair texture and facial features and imply that African Americans cannot improve their status without the intervention of whites and without ‘becoming’ as ‘white’ as possible. Thus, the first step for self-improvement is having one’s hair straightened and one’s dark skin bleached. This, Noliwe Rooks has found out, is exactly the argumentation that the first ads for hair care products for black women used. (Rooks, p.38f.)

Due to these prejudices, black women started to feel that their hair was nappy and not attractive and wanted to change it. Thus, the history of straightening began already in the times of slavery. The women used hog lard or axle grease to make their hair shinier and less curly in order to copy the hair texture of white women and many mulattos. (Mayes, p.90)

In the 1830s, the feeling of having ugly hair and skin, and therefore being inferior, was encouraged by the advertisements for hair straightening lotions and tools and for skin bleaching treatments. They conveyed the idea that African American hair lacked something and was not beautiful but could be improved by making it smoother and straighter by using special products. (Rooks, p.13) By the 1920s, straight hair had become a signal for middle class status, also for men. (Rooks, p.75)

In the 1960s, when black pride movements and nationalist sentiments within the African American communities became important to many black people, hair was reanimated as a factor for racial identity. In the eyes of the black pride followers to straighten it meant to reject one’s ‘African self’ and showed that the person took no pride in his or her African ancestry. (Rooks, p.2) During these times, the Afro became very fashionable since it had the reputation of being ‘natural’ and was therefore acceptable. Ironically, the Afro is not even truly ‘natural’ because it needs to be blown out or slightly straightened to build the curls. Therefore, as Tamara Hollins reveals, it rather is “a combination of white grooming techniques and a constructed beauty ideal centered in blackness.” ( Additionally, Africans who saw African Americans wear this hairstyle often wondered why they did not groom their hair. So if Africans usually do not wear this hair-do, what is ‘natural’ about it? However, in the middle of the 1970s the trend went back to processed hair and this has not changed much until today. (Rooks, p.90)

As I said, the roots of straightening lay in the times of slavery, when the curly African hair was compared to animal fur. When hair care products for African Americans began to publish advertisements with the message that ‘natural’ hair lacked beauty, the feeling of inferiority increased and spread the habit of relaxing the hair. In the following chapter, I want to analyze different kinds of advertisements from different times to show how they influenced the hair culture of African Americans and how hair became more and more important for their self-esteem or self-hate.

2. Advertisements for African American Hair Care Products

2.1. Early Advertisements by White-owned Companies

The first ads to promote hair-relaxing products appeared in African American periodicals in the 1830s. The companies that manufactured these products were white-owned. Their ads conveyed the idea that African American hair lacked something and that only smooth, straight hair was pretty. By straightening it, so they said, African Americans would gain social acceptance. Although the procedure was difficult and also dangerous because the hair had to be washed, spread out, be covered with the solution and be pressed with a hot iron, which not seldom caused burnings on scalp and ears, many women were willing to endure this ordeal to gain straight hair. Still, many African Americans felt that this habit was a disavowal of the African ancestry. (Rooks, p.13)

Nevertheless, more and more products for the straightening purpose were developed. In the late 19th century, skin lighteners and hair straighteners were marketed in advertisements that claimed that only through the use of these products African Americans would find acceptance by the white culture. Striking is that these were, besides wigs, the only products for the enhancement of the African American women’s beauty that were advertised for. There were no special lotions, garments, ointments or the like that were targeted at the African American women, like there were at the white women. (Rooks, p.26) To me, it seems like the manufacturers thought that the biggest ‘problem’ that black women had was their ‘nappy’ hair and dark skin and that this had to be taken care of before anything else.


Excerpt out of 23 pages


African American Hair and its role in Advertising, Black Women's Careers, and Consumption Behavior
Dresden Technical University
American Culture of Consumption
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
435 KB
Includes history of African (American) hair, advertisements from different decades, hair care as career choice as well as black women's magazines. Main focus is the African American culture of consumption. Double spaced
African, American, Hair, Advertising, Black, Women, Careers, Consumption, Behavior, American, Culture, Consumption
Quote paper
Sandra Radtke (Author), 2003, African American Hair and its role in Advertising, Black Women's Careers, and Consumption Behavior, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: African American Hair and its role in Advertising, Black Women's Careers, and Consumption Behavior

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free