I have a fair quantity of curls on my head. They're no ringlets, of course, but moderately coiled nonetheless, and usually unruly. It's something I consider a defining feature of mine, and something I struggle to protect, because on 90% of my modeling jobs my hair is straightened. Exhaustively straightened, unrepentantly straightened. It strikes me as a knee jerk reaction—as soon as they see me enter the room, and almost without considering what they're doing, hairstylists plug in their irons, section off my hair, and set to work on what can be up to an hour spent transforming my appearance. This has come to distress me over the past two years, and so I was especially conscious of, and peeved by, a certain occurrence backstage at a show this winter…
It was an occurrence which probably no one else noticed, but it struck me as discriminatory, and racially discriminatory at that. The reason it went so unnoticed, I believe, was because it reversed the target of discrimination as we know it. Now it’s true there’s a degree of danger in the throwing around of the word discrimination, and it’s also true that there are plenty more gravid instances of the thing to be found both elsewhere in society and within the industry of Fashion itself. But with full knowledge of these facts, and utmost deference towards them, I still found myself driven to examine this particular incidence backstage because it pivoted on myself and twenty odd other models—and our curls.
The season was Pre-Fall, the collection one largely of furs, gypsy skirts, and silk evening gowns. Small teams of hair and makeup artists were on site to primp us for the shows, and once we were all dressed and in “lineup,” I noticed that the hair stylists had left the hair of all the African American models natural, untouched almost, with its unique volume, texture, and structure gloriously intact. All the caucasian models, on the other hand, had their hair exhaustively straightened by flat-iron into exaggerated linearity that defied, in the cases of hair with wily texture like my own, the very keratin of each strand on our heads.
This pattern revealed a fundamental inequity in the reasoning which had been employed in determining the hair-styling procedure for a given model, for if the decision of which model’s hair to straighten and which model’s hair to let alone was not based on a consideration of the original state of the model’s hair, which I was living proof it was not, it could only then be based on a consideration of skin color. Hence the application of the flat-iron, an instrument that parches hair follicles and splits brittle hair ends, to say nothing of the damage incurred through the toxic sprays and mousses that aid its efficacy, was purely discriminatory, and racially so. It went unnoticed, by all but me, because of its trivial, even frivolous nature and its inconsistence with racial inequity as we more frequently see it: this particular differentiation recognized a right (the right to naturalness) of African American models and denied that right to caucasian models.
And it is this, the right to naturalness, that suffered here most. For this irrational approach to hair styling championed what one ought to look like over what one does look like, subordinating recognition of nature to veneration of archetype—and, as this archetype involved the correlation of ethnicity with appearance, hence of stereotype. It was clear that amid the haphazard backstage preparations, someone, consciously or unconsciously, had divorced corporeal authenticity from ethnicity—two things which should naturally be conjoined—and superimposed a certain artificial feature on a certain ethnicity with no firmer basis than the hue of a hide.
I don’t seek to justify or condemn the decisions of the hair stylist at this show, but rather question how the industry of Fashion can claim to be culturally liberal and ‘cutting edge’ while perpetrating, and hence exemplifying to the masses under its influence, ethnic stereotypes of appearance. Differentiation by race is a slippery slope in any scenario, but in this industry it is uniquely dangerous for the very reason that thousands of people, youth especially, follow, admire, and hang on its every dictate and insinuation. In selectively applying electricity—the heat of an iron—to alter a person’s surface, the designer, the hair stylist, the presentation of this collection at large jeopardizes society’s appreciation for the full scope of variation in human traits, the exquisite idiosyncrasies that make us ourselves.
More often than not, a fashion model’s situation is little applicable outside the surreal niche that is our industry. The lesson learned from the hair straightening case, however, actually can be applied elsewhere, for few would deny that human beings in general should be valued without having to be revised into more aesthetically acceptable, more socially coherent variations. As the designer of the show said of me when he came backstage to review the preparations that morning, “I wish her hair was left a little more her own,” and I personally wished it had been left entirely my own! If Fashion be the bastion of style and individuality, it has a duty then to value individuality, and a duty to diminish, not fortify, our culture’s long-ingrained differentiation between races. In that sense, and in the sense that it remains deceptively covert, this is one trend, I think, that bears bucking.