When I began modeling, I could not know that over the course of the next few years I would spend hundreds of hours getting my hair straightened. My hair is more wavy than it is actually curly, but it seems to rouse in hairstylists some pre-linguistic urge towards taming. No sooner do I walk onto a fashion shoot, but assistants everywhere plug in their flat irons.
This instinctive straightening got particularly under my skin at one fashion show this winter. Staged in the Grace Building in New York, Oscar de la Renta’s Pre-Fall Collection featured twenty odd models in sophisticated, simple looks. I sat for a customary hour while my hair was smoothed and flattened beyond recognition. Once I was dressed and standing with the other models in “lineup,” however, I noticed a curious trend. The hair stylists had left the hair of all the Black models natural, with their original volumes and textures gloriously intact, but had straightened all the white models’ hair into exaggerated limpness.
This pattern revealed a fundamental paradox in the reasoning used to determine the hair-styling procedure for a given model. The decision to straighten a model’s hair did not appear to be based on a consideration of the model’s natural hair condition. I was living proof that this was not the case. Rather, the decision to straighten or not to straighten hinged on a consideration of skin color. Hence the application of the flat-iron, an instrument that parches hair follicles and splits hair ends, was weirdly discriminatory. 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 withheld that right from white models. Or, perhaps more accurately, it underscored codes for white-woman hair and Black-woman hair that have been the source of decades of hair manipulation and oppression by minority women trying to assimilate into dominant society.
In this sense the hair styles of the Oscar de la Renta show were quintessentially fashion styles. Superimposing cultural expectations onto biological reality is, after all, sort of the fashion industry’s M.O. When projected into society, fashion imagery perpetuates regressive essentialist notions of race and gender that I often feel deeply uncomfortable with. On the flip side, this same visibility could make the fashion industry a powerful place to carry out the work of de-stigmatizing physical difference and resisting the categorization of bodies by race (or otherwise). Imagine what could be accomplished if fashion were a site for appreciating variation in human traits, the exquisite idiosyncrasies that make us each individual. When the designer came backstage to review our preparations , he looked at me and said “I wish her hair was left a little more her own.” I couldn’t have agreed more.