Your (Afro-Textured) Hair Is Beautiful: The Trauma of Texturism

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In our third episode in our four-part series, we’ll be diving into texturism and its impact on many Black and Latino individuals. We’ll also look at ways to gain more appreciation for your naturally beautiful coils and curls. 

Dec. 1, 2022 – It’s your first day of work at a new job, and you’re a bundle of nerves and excitement. Your hand goes to press the “Join Meeting” button. As you take a breath, that pesky thought fights to gut-punch your self-esteem

“What message will my hair send to my new colleagues?”

If you’re not a person of African descent, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. Historically, our natural hair texture has been deemed unattractive, unprofessional, and, perhaps most upsetting of all, “unkempt.” Thankfully, the natural (afro-textured) hair movement has gained momentum (on and off) over the past few decades.

In our new docu-series “Color by WebMD: WebMD’s Exploration of Race and Mental Health,” we’ll dive into what’s known as texturism and its impact on many Black and Latino people. We’ll also talk about ways we can gain more appreciation for our naturally beautiful coils and curls.

The Four Main Hair Types

Texturism – or discrimination based on how close or far your natural hair is to European (fine, straight) tresses – can be commonplace within many communities of color, according to Vanessa Gonlin, PhD, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Georgia. To help explain where and how texturism works, she breaks down the four main hair textures.

  • Type one: Straight hair
  • Type two: Wavy hair
  • Type three: Curly hair
  • Type four: Coily or coarse [afro-textured] hair

Not only may people inside your racial group treat you poorly based on your afro-textured hair texture, but those outside your race may also view afro-textured hair in a negative light, according to Gonlin. 

“I have type 3 hair, and I’ve never been concerned that I would have a difficult time at a job interview because of my natural hair,” she says. “But I know other people who have coily, type 4 hair who do have that concern.”

It Starts Early 

As someone born with afro-textured hair, I have a strong connection to texturism – and so does my sister, Liz Davis, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Kansas City, KS. Liz traveled to the WebMD office in Atlanta, and we discussed how texturism affected our self-concept without us fully realizing it. Liz says some of her earliest, most traumatic experiences surrounding hair happened when we went to beauty salons to get our hair relaxed, or chemically straightened.

“I just remember my scalp getting burned and scabbing up in different areas,” she recalls.

Many people don’t consider the psychological factors of getting your hair relaxed, as well as what type of message it can send about what type of hair is considered “attractive,” Liz says. 

“I don’t even think that I had cognition to understand that my hair texture was being changed.”

Liz and I also talked about what it was like growing up in predominantly white communities, and how much Eurocentric standards of beauty influenced how we viewed our hair. In college, Liz remembered showing a friend (who was white) various photos of haircut styles and asking her which one she should get.

“I remember her saying to me, ‘Liz, these are all white people. Don’t you want to pick a hairstyle that’s representative of you and your skin color and your culture?’” Liz says.

Liz began researching Black, natural hair content creators on social media who talk about their natural hair journeys, as well as share about how they’re taking care of their afro-textured curls.

“I wanted that for myself. I started to become more empowered in my own sense of self and in my culture,” she says.

Facial Features

Featurism is often less spoken of, but it still plays a major role in how people of color are treated within their own communities and can have damaging effects on one’s self-perception, according to Radhika Parameswaran, PhD, associate dean of The Media School at Indiana University in Bloomington. Featurism centers on how close or far one’s physical features are from typical Eurocentric (narrow nose, thinner lips) features. 

“If your features depart from the very sort of ‘European ideal,’ then you’re not seen as beautiful. Hence, you have eye-altering surgeries in Japan and people in other parts of the world getting cosmetic surgeries that help you achieve features that are more approximate to this ‘European ideal,’” she says.

This phenomenon is widespread within many Latino communities, says Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

“For example, if a person has light skin and a wide nose, then there is still that stereotype with comments like, ‘Your skin color is beautiful, but look at your nose,’” she says. 

Mental Health Effects of the ‘-isms’

The mental health effects of texturism can be seen in “the most subtle ways,” Liz says. Statements like “I don’t like my skin. I don’t like my hair. I hate social media because everyone on there is so much more beautiful than me” are commonplace with many of her Black and Brown therapy clients, she says. 

When Liz asks for examples of these “exceptionally beautiful” people, they’re typically pictures of lighter-skinned people of color, with looser curl patterns and Eurocentric features. 

“It’s an incredibly painful place to sit in when someone is hurting and in pain because of who they are,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with their hair, skin, or facial features. There is something wrong with our society that’s privileging a Eurocentric standard of beauty.”

Next, we’ll look at what’s being done to combat colorism, featurism, and texturism. WebMD traveled to Dallas to visit the May family – two millennial parents with Afro-Latina triplet girls.

Their example is a great lesson for people of color, and non-people of color alike, on how to tackle these harmful thought patterns that children can often adopt at a young age.

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