Let’s Talk About the Diversity Problem in Natural Hair Ads for Black Women

Let’s Talk About the Diversity Problem in Natural Hair Ads for Black Women
Photo: Getty Images

What does—or should—the face of natural hair look like? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for months now. As a black beauty editor, I’m likely more aware than the average woman of diversity and representation not only in ads, but in packaging, products, and the missions and people behind different beauty brands. But lately, consumers are taking more and more companies to task when they fail to represent or serve a fair and realistic variety of skin tones and hair types. This is happening not just within the realm of major, mainstream beauty brands, but even with those that claim to be specifically made by or for women of color.

Last April, SheaMoisture—a Harlem-bred, black-owned company—found itself at the mercy of Twitter when it released an ad titled “Hair Hate,” where women shared the insecurities they’ve had to face because of their hair texture. Despite the fact that a range of different curl patterns and ethnicities were featured, this particular ad was completely devoid of darker-skinned women with kinkier textures—the same women who many felt have supported the brand since its humble beginnings. Some went as far as to accuse the brand of abandoning its loyal core consumer in an effort to appeal to whiter audiences. As expected, SheaMoisture quickly issued an apology and revealed an additional “Hair Hate” video dedicated solely to kinkier textures after the damage had been done.

“While this campaign included several different videos showing different ethnicities and hair types to demonstrate the breadth and depth of each individual’s hair journey, we must absolutely ensure moving forward that our community is well-represented in each one so that the women who have led this movement never feel that their hair journey is minimized in any way,” SheaMoisture’s statement read.

For all the power black women harness, we’re still fighting to see ourselves accurately represented in advertising.

Admittedly, I didn’t consider outright boycotting the brand, but I did spend some time re-educating myself on smaller but equally reputable black-owned brands that I could spend my hard-earned money on. The good news is that there are plenty. According to a 2015 Census Bureau survey, black female business owners had the highest rate of growth compared to other groups and also make up a huge percentage of the $1.2 trillion dollars black people spend overall. No one has bigger buying power than we do, and as a result, our influence is paramount.

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According to Huffington Post, a Nielsen report titled “African-American Women: On Science, Her Magic” reveals that black women “over-index by 86 percent for spending at least five hours on social networking sites each day. Forty-three percent of black women say they like to share their opinions about products and services by posting reviews and ratings online, and 47 percent agree that people often come to them for advice before making a purchase.”

Almost every woman chosen to represent us looks the same: light-skinned with perfectly spiraled, loose curls.

But for all the influence and power black women harness, it seems we’re still fighting to see ourselves fully and accurately represented in advertising and on social media—even the kind made for and by us. During my search for new brands to shop, I quickly noticed that the photos I saw on Instagram felt like one big, long ad. And almost every woman chosen to represent us looked the same: light-skinned with perfectly spiraled, loose curls. The gamut of skin tones didn’t feel like a reflection of the community I had grown to love so much.

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As a mixed race woman, I’m well aware of my privilege. I know that I’m more likely to see someone who looks like me because my particular features—skin that’s on the lighter end of the dark spectrum; hair that’s curly but coiled more loosely than some—is deemed less threatening to mainstream beauty standards. But if there’s one place that I didn’t expect this to happen, it was within the natural hair community. Even within our own supposedly safe spaces, we’re still fighting to be included.

Even within our own supposedly safe spaces, we’re still fighting to be included.

It’s common knowledge that all black women don’t share the same hair texture, but generally speaking, women with darker skin tones have tighter curls, and they make up a huge part of the hair-care industry. However, the advertising for said products frequently feature men and women that look nothing like the consumer. They look like me, but frankly, that’s an incomplete representation of the community, and as such, does us all a disservice.

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On the bright side, the focus of advertising and black hair beauty standards is evolving to be less about a look and more about the health of your hair. In that sense, no one is excluded—even those who choose to tuck away their natural strands under a sewn-in weave or wig. Just because fair-skinned women with loose curls dominate natural hair advertising, their blackness shouldn’t be diminished. But perhaps the images we’re seeing haven’t evolved as quickly as the overall mind-set of the community they serve.

Change needs to happen, especially in a world where black women are still punished for their natural texture.

There is no one face of the natural hair community. It’s made up by many—as it should be—but we have yet to see media and ads that encourage women of all shades and textures to love their look. Change needs to happen, especially in a world where black women are still punished for wearing their natural texture in schools and the workplace. If the images we’re bombarded with by brands don’t begin to more accurately mirror the women they target, I hope we’ll start to see a backlash similar to the type cosmetics companies are now facing when their foundations don’t reflect the range of skin tones of real women.

Accountability is vital, so I call on my fellow women of color to continue to pay attention and call out the beauty brands that aren’t doing our natural beauty, and our natural differences, the justice they deserve.