Is Natural Hair a Fetish to the Public Eye? One Woman Explains

We’re in the middle of a beautiful time of glorification of natural hair. The media and pop culture have collectively shifted to celebrate curls in every form. In turn, this has put the representation of hair on a pedestal in some people’s eyes. This is ironic, considering the fact that women of color have been fighting for an equal playing field when it comes to hair since the beginning of time. Not that I’m saying the work is done when it comes to the overall acceptance of natural hair. The harsh reality is that women are still being subjected to microaggressions and discrimination in the workplace in school systems on a daily basis because of the way they choose to wear their hair.

Just a few decades ago, the ideology America held in high regard was that straight hair was the single most beautiful hairstyle. This false notion contributed to the overuse of chemical relaxers and perms, which are treatments used to physically alter natural hair to become straight for long periods of time. It also flooded the minds of women of color with the belief that we needed to straighten our hair so we could have the same opportunities and be praised under the limiting societal standards of beauty the same way our white counterparts were. It was incredibly damaging to my self-esteem, and it was the reason I didn’t learn to love my natural hair until a few years ago.

During this transformational time, the outlook on natural hair has manifested into a fascination. Textured curls have always been an anomaly, but the fetishism associated with natural has turned into another form of discrimination. Whether it’s warranting unwanted attention from the opposite sex, tokenism in white spaces, or superficiality, the overarching obsession with naturally curly hair has objectified women even further. Kristen White, a 25-year-old living in New York City, decided to embrace her big, fluffy curls a few years ago. Her experience since she began wearing her curls has been a complex one. She loves her natural hair, yet she takes advantage of the freedom of switching up her styles when she feels compelled to because she can.

During this time, she’s been in situations where she’s felt like men in particular are attracted to her primarily because of her hair. She’s also felt like the opportunities she gets are because of the strange fetishism with natural hair. Below, she talks about how her natural hair is not anyone’s access to black hair or meant to fulfill anyone’s curl fetish.

It makes me wonder: Do you like me for me, or are you attracted to me because of my natural hair?

“I frequently visit the same coffee shop almost every day. I realized that when my hair is straight, people don’t even recognize me. It’s like, who are you again? And I literally go to the same coffee shop. Because I freely wear my hair in various styles—curly, straight, braids, twists, and more—oftentimes, people mistake me for a different person. More recently, I’ve honestly felt a lot less attractive when I started to get my natural hair straightened. The collective response I get from men and other people is feeling more average and regular with straight hair. It’s because every woman can wear straight hair. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I wish I could get my hair like that when it’s curly.’ Those with natural hair have different textures and aren’t capable of replicating your exact curl pattern. People are drawn to my curly hair. But at the same rate, it’s so frustrating because I’m the same girl with straight hair. My face is the same, my body is the same—everything about me is the same but my hair.

“I was out at a party last Friday, and this guy came up to me and was like, ‘your hair is so sick, it’s insane.’ And I responded, ‘If my hair was straight, you wouldn’t be saying this.’ It makes me wonder: Do you like me for me, or are you attracted to me because of my natural hair? Because my curls are larger and something different than what you usually see? Recently, this became even more apparent to me at a casting. I went and my hair was big and curly, which garnered lots of attention. We went for callbacks, and my friend, who also has natural hair, had her hair in a bun the first time we went but wore her curls out the second time. The casting director asked my friend, ‘Wait, were you here the first time?’ And my friend responded that she was. He went, ‘I don’t remember you for some reason.’ And she responded, ‘Maybe it was my hair? Because it was up. And he said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what it was because I don’t remember anyone with big hair like hers,’ referencing to me.”

Natural hair is being fetishized right now because it's popular and it's what everyone's into at the moment.

“What is it about my big hair that makes me more memorable? Is it because it’s not an attainable style for all people? In a way, this makes me feel so pressured to wear my hair like this. It’s like, I guess if I get a callback, I can’t do anything different to my hair because they may not like me anymore. This possibly could be an insecurity of mine, but it’s also what society pushes in front of me. Natural hair is being fetishized right now because it’s popular and it’s what everyone’s into at the moment. When I do something else with my hair, it’s not received the same way.”

I notice these comments more frequently with men than women.

I notice these comments more frequently with men than women. Once I was dating a guy and shared with him that I was going to go home and straighten my hair and get it trimmed. He said, ‘Don’t do that.’ I responded, ‘What do you mean don’t do that?’ He said, ‘Don’t—you’re going to mess up your curls.’ Then I respond, ‘No, I’m not. I’m going to wash my hair, and then it’s going to get curly again.’ He said, ‘I don’t think you should do that. My ex did that once, and her hair wouldn’t get curly again, and I like your curly hair, so you shouldn’t.’

“In another situation when I was dating a guy, I put him through the ringer with my different hairstyles. I was curious to see how he’d perceive my hair each time he changed it. He liked my twists, he loved my curls, but when I wore my hair straight, it was a completely different story. Once he literally told me I looked like Meryl Streep because my hair was straight. I’m sorry, Meryl Streep is an amazing woman, but I don’t want to be compared to an older white Hollywood woman.”

My frustration lies in the simple fact that I am not my hair.

“My frustration lies in the simple fact that I am not my hair. If I had to move in this world based on the way that my hair looked, I’d never be anywhere because I have so many different hairstyles I’d like to try. But if I had to change my hair based on the way that I thought it’d be perceived by the universe, I’d be screwed. But remember when everyone liked straight, chemically relaxed, or permed hair? Think about this: Kendrick Lamar in ‘Humble’ is rapping ‘Show me something natural like afro on Richard Pryor.’ Textured hair is becoming a trend, especially in pop culture. You can’t be as mad at the trend because it’s encouraging women to start embracing their natural hair.”

At the end of the day, if you choose to straighten your hair, it doesn't change who you are.

At the end of the day, if you choose to straighten your hair, it doesn’t change who you are. Don’t put me in a box and make me a poster child for natural hair. Just a few years ago, I was only a straight-haired girl. It felt so liberating to finally start embracing my natural hair, but any time I choose to straighten my hair now, people make comments and act like all I can wear is my big, curly hair. I’m not going to act like this doesn’t weigh on me. The last time I straightened my hair, I didn’t feel pretty for a whole week. I was trying to take a bunch of selfies and appreciate my hair. I even texted my friend and told her I didn’t like my hair straight anymore. It’s because everyone’s conditioned me to be that big, curly-haired girl. I feel a way when I don’t wear it like that, and that’s not okay.

“Right now, when my hair is freshly washed and newly curled, I feel the most beautiful. When it’s straight, I like it when it’s more of a wavy, beachy curl I do with a wand. I had to find what straight style I felt the most confident in. I know bone-straight hair or rounded ends don’t work for me anymore. I’ve found that wand-curling my hair and then brushing it out to give it a loose wave works so well for me. The nature of the beast is about finding which styles work for me. Someone recently commented on my Instagram picture saying, ‘I’m in a loving relationship with your curls’ and I was like, ‘That’s interesting, but not with me?’ Women who are also natural come at me too. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve used flexi rods to assist my curls more and have received backhanded comments from fellow natural girls.

“Everyone feels so entitled by the standard in which they choose to do their hair. I see women with curly hair using hot tools to give their curls more definition all the time. Natural hair women who don’t put heat on their hair find frustration in that process and point fingers like you’re not a ‘real’ natural girl just because you’re putting heat on your hair. You can’t take that away from people based on the process in which they use to do whatever look they want to achieve. That’s not fair.”

I'm not here to be a natural hair blogger, I'm here to be me.

“I definitely get more male attention when I wear my hair curly than straight. It’s almost an uncomfortable amount of attention—it’s like gawking. I feel like a piece of meat. I know for a fact that I don’t get that kind of attention when my hair is straight—it’s like people perceive me more as an ordinary girl. It’s so weird. I don’t know why there’s such a fetish. I can’t pinpoint it. Is by wearing my hair curly the only way I’m going to attract the people I want in my life? Or are those even people I want in my life if that’s the only way I can attract them? I don’t know. It does become a double-edged sword because I love my hair curly. I truly enjoy it the same way other people do; I just don’t like that people perceive me based on how I choose to wear my hair. I’m not here to be a natural hair blogger—I’m here to be me.

“I’m only 25 years old; I have a whole life to live where I’m going to do different things with my hair. I can’t just wear my hair curly my whole life—that’d be boring. I like to experiment with different styles and want to have fun doing it. I just don’t want to have fun at the expense of other people’s thoughts on what makes me the most attractive based on what hairstyles I have. I don’t care. I didn’t ask for anyone’s opinion. If I’m dating someone, I do want him to think that I’m beautiful with my hair straight, curly, in twists, braids, or even with no hair. Caring about what other people think will run you into the ground, so I’m taking it step by step. I’m trying not to consider anyone else’s opinions and just think about what I like when I look in the mirror—that’s what I’m sticking to.” ■

To all the women like White who’ve made a choice to celebrate their curls, know this: There may be a time when you feel personally victimized, but that doesn’t take away from the value of your hair. Your beauty remains with you through every style you wear. There’s power in the freedom of hair—hold on to that.

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