“#LuvYourMane”: Black Female Body Politics and Self-Care in Social Media Spaces

Timeka N. Williams and Dora Sobze

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The first time the general public saw images of Michelle Obama shrouded in a kinky mane, The New Yorker illustrator Barry Blitt was challenged for his politically incorrect reference to former Black Panther Angela Davis. Four years later, within days of Barack Obama’s re-election, an anonymous source released an image of the First Lady in a modern but equally frizzy afro. Blog visitors praised the digitally-modified photograph, agreeing that America was “ready” for a naturally Black first lady. These shifting responses demonstrate the functional differences in two mediated spaces.

Michelle Obama

Figure 1. Digitally altered photograph of Michelle Obama with natural hair.

In mainstream media, Black women’s bodies are subject to intense public scrutiny and are often evaluated according to unattainable Eurocentric standards, regardless of their perceived social status. Yet, Black women are using online spaces to reimagine Black beauty amidst a myriad of otherwise degrading caricatures or cybertypes. Within these spaces, they also reclaim their bodies as spaces of creative expression and personal fulfillment.[1] Our paper analyzes the ways in which Black women imagine a 21st century Black beauty aesthetic through online channels of communication. We read their graphic and linguistic interventions on web 2.0 hair blogs/vlogs (i.e., video blogs) as the building blocks of resistive methods of self-care that obstruct the hyper surveillance of Black female bodies. Finally, we adhere to Lisa Nakamura’s caution against reading the Internet through positive-negative dichotomies, instead arguing that these complex coalitional spaces also engender essentialist aesthetics that disavow some women’s claim to Blackness.[2]

Blogging toward a Rhetoric of Self-Care

The images, remedies, and testimonies that visitors find at a blog like “Curly Nikki” all work together in service of the mission to offer “hair therapy.” Blog founder, Nikki Walton, also a licensed psychotherapist, has assumed the role of the therapeutic guide and uses the site to train Black women to love their hair. She writes:

People will say on the site sometimes: ‘It’s just hair, it’s not that deep,’ but they come to the site everyday, so maybe it is that deep. For Black women especially, it’s wrapped up in our quality of life.[3]

Moving a discussion about the Black female body to the “couch” creates the opportunity for Black women to re-script the ways in which they relate to themselves through hairstyle. Rather than acting as a media space in which Black women are subject to an othering gaze, Black hair blogs are a meeting place for Black women who are often in search of healthier and more affordable methods of hair maintenance. Intimate exchanges between commenters, producers, and loyal visitors give rise to conversations extending beyond hair care into larger issues including sexuality, gender, economics, and politics. Thus, these spaces facilitate instruction on hair maintenance, but they also open the door for discussions of “wholeness” and “womanhood.”

Many of the women who enter online hair communities do so with aims of self-definition, self-creation, and self-improvement in mind. Hair styling practices fit into a larger discourse of empowerment and liberation. Sometimes this freedom is described as a journey or coming of age story in which individuals experience a personal epiphany motivated by a boost (or loss) of confidence that is mapped onto the body. For example, blogger/vlogger Antoinette of “Around the Way Curls” writes about her decision to go natural as a turning point: “I was coming to terms with how truly shallow and unaware of myself I had been up until that point.”[4]

Bodily autonomy through self-managed hair care is one of the recurring themes of freedom that circulate in the hair blogosphere. When asked, “What’s the best thing about being curly?” by Curly Nikki, a featured “Hair Idol” answered: "The best thing about being curly is the ownership of my curls.”[5] Another woman from a separate feature responded to the same question saying, “Freedom from heat and harsh chemicals. Freedom to jump in the lake and not worry about getting my hair wet. . . .It's ‘just hair’ but it makes me feel special, confident, and beautiful.”[6]

As is the communication custom in Black hair salons, on social media sites hair is the gateway for a more holistic discussion of self-care. After conducting ethnographic research at an urban Black beauty salon, Kimberly Battle-Walters found that Black women frequent beauty salons religiously, with permanent appointments ranging from once a week to bi-weekly.[7] Since the women stay an average of two to five hours for each salon visit, stylists and patrons often forge a community in which issues around gender roles, relationships, and other lifestyle matters may be released, analyzed from multiple perspectives, and ultimately solved. Social media sites serve the same function without the financial burden, making them more accessible. By participating in Black hair blogs and their resistive practices, Black women reclaim the Black female body as a site of care for the self.

Renegotiating the Commercial Beauty Sphere

The practices of self-care taking place online confront the dominant ways in which Black women have been taught to relate to the space on top of their heads—that is to say that Black women challenge dominant ideas in order to understand hair care as emotionally self-fulfilling as well as self-managed. These social media safe spaces have emerged in the midst of a cultural environment that pathologizes Black women as obsessive consumers who nearly single-handedly “sustain a multi-billion dollar Black hair care industry.”[8] Comedian Chris Rock’s documentary-styled film Good Hair (US, 2009) is one of the most notable texts that marks the Black female body as a shrine to consumption and even describes hair care as a kind of relationship negligence. As one featured Black male describes in the film, “White women love you to touch their hair. Pull it, yank it, swing them around by it.” As for Black women, “you can’t touch the weave.” Hence, Black American women are presented as slaves to an industry that rejects the beauty of their hair in its natural state and makes them sexually less desirable.

Historically, Black women’s bodies, hair included, have served multiple functions for oppressors of various identities. When Black women’s hair was styled at the pleasure of their enslavers, they were forced to adopt styles that mimicked Eurocentric hair textures, or styles that offered minimal interference to the daily workflow. Those historical styling pressures linger today, as Black women continue to balance societal expectations of professionalism and beauty with the reality of hair that may not meet those standards in its natural state. Any choice that a Black woman makes regarding hair care carries emotional, physical, and financial costs.

By contrast, the Black hair blogosphere has become a space in which Black hair and commerce are discussed in a way that often reverses the power dynamics between Black women and the beauty industry. One article, “6 Relaxer Lines that Have Gone Natural,” featured on “Black Girl With Long Hair,” claims that the purchasing power of Black women has led to observable shifts in commercial sales and product strategy.[9] Another blog post discusses the commercial implications of the natural hair movement in more depth. One commenter, Imani, writes:

Its abt CHOICE and society backing OFF and letting us be ourselves without fear of backlash or having to explain ourselves for not liking it long, flowing, silk and curly! Siding with hair care giants bc they had to be “forced” to make more nourishing products? God forbid we want our hair to NOT fall out or dry out!. . . We have a right to ask for what we want and when naturals realized we didn’t have a voice abt what went in our hair, we spoke up & now white & blk hair care giants r ALL OVER natural products only bc it makes them MILLIONS. If the hair care giants feel attacked, its bc they r losing money bc women are deciding they don’t HAVE 2 have perms and so they are losing MILLIONS every year as more ppl come to the realization that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and that perms are NOT good for everyone.[10]

Equipped with their own community toolkit, blog visitors can boycott commercial products altogether or purchase products that meet their standards—changing the terms of their relationship to the commercial hair industry to meet their own needs and desires.

“Good hair means curls and waves/Bad hair means you look like a slave”: Competing for Natural Black Beauty[11]

Despite the sisterhood felt among women who are part of the natural hair blog community, Black female body politics still incite rigid contestation among Black people. Between 70 and 80 percent of Black American women use chemical treatments, also known as relaxers, to loosen curly or kinky hair into textures more comparable to a Eurocentric ideal. When hair maintenance practices are read as an indication of one’s general beliefs about which hair textures are most beautiful, or most authentically Black, hair can become a source of intraracial division. By posting comments and messages punctuated with hashtags such as #teamnatural or #teamcurly, blog visitors create solidarity among natural-haired women while ostracizing Black women who do not identify as natural, or who feel as though they fall in between these categories. Commenters like Lina at “Black Girl With Long Hair” often discuss how these tensions interrupt their everyday interactions with other Black women:

I am natural, but I have met the natural hair Nazi and the “sista” natural, and all of the other naturals who want to criticize, badger, and get into straight up shouting matches with other women, because they choose to perm or relax their hair. I find it very ironic sometimes how naturals want to be accepted, and just want others to “understand,” when sometimes we can be the ones that are not understanding at all!. . . .I even met a natural girl who told my sister (who is relaxed) that being “natural” was the intelligent and professional thing to do, even though my sister has a M.D. and Ph.D. and is FAR from unintelligent or unprofessional![12]

The Black hair blogosphere has also shaped perceptions of which textures are considered to be “natural” and which kinds of naturally Black curl patterns are considered to be “beautiful.” In this sense, “naturalness” is not always indicative of texture, but also indicates Black authenticity. Thus, social media discourse indicates that a texture continuum exists where the values of different hair types subtly parallel historical conceptions of “good” and “bad” hair. Vlog visitors like MelsharyA often admit that the hair-typing system leaves them feeling excluded by fellow natural hair practitioners:

This is the second video I’ve seen where someone with looser hair pretty much tells other people [with kinkier textures] to suck it up. Yet you have a favorable texture. I hate hair typing as well because it’s pointless. But I feel you don’t want to identify your texture because you don’t want to hear that you have it easier than kinky hair girls.”[13]

Kinkier textures signifying African descent are considered more authentic, while looser textures signifying interracial mixing and Whiteness are read as being tainted. Contradictory to values related to authenticity, looser curl patterns and longer hair lengths tend to be valued and discussed as “favorable,” “beautiful,” or more “manageable,” similarly to how Eurocentric features are often valued as “good.” Thus, even as social media sites facilitate a reimagined Black beauty era where the everyday woman can become her own arbiter, hair wars persist.


The digitally altered photograph of Michelle Obama incited a discussion of the larger implications of demarcating boundaries of authentic Blackness that rely on specific styling techniques. Commenters debated whether Obama had a duty to use her platform as a tribute to Blackness by adopting a curlier hairstyle, or if it was more important that she adhere to the status quo and maintain a more universally accepted image. The conversation might not have been possible without the contemporary digital technologies that facilitated the production of an image that achieves the look of realness, and the immediate dissemination of the picture. Once it emerged online, the image was reposted on multiple blogs and eventually made its way to mainstream outlets such as[14] The image garnered thousands of “likes” across the respective web sites where it was reposted.

This image, and the Black female discourse that gave birth to it, demonstrates the importance of emerging technologies as Black women (re)present themselves to the online world and engineer a visual and linguistic vocabulary that affirms their definitions of self. If Black women cannot see a reflection of their own kinks and curls when they look at the most popular public figures, the next best thing seems to be able to digitally impose the style of their choosing and admire the illusion. Thus, Internet and social technologies have provided spaces in which Black women have reclaimed their hair as a site of self-care, and where external pressures from community or corporate advertising may be marginalized. The trends and practices that have emerged from this mediated discourse steer cosmetic industry trends so that Black women—once viewed as passive consumers—practice their agency as empowered hair practitioners.

Nevertheless, ideologies that center on specific presentations of Black hair while marginalizing others continue to be reproduced within the same sites that seek to challenge texture hierarchies. The virtual hashtag battles waged between #TeamNatural and the women who prefer #CreamyCrack[15] indicate that these social media spaces cultivate coalitions just as easily as they make room for opposition. Yet even debates that foster exclusion demonstrate that Black women are leading transnational discussions, which trouble notions of beauty that might otherwise face weaker resistance. Through blogging, posting, and commenting about hair, Black women are actually talking about agency, wellness, pleasure, and identity. Although, when we consider the history of public scrutiny, surveillance, and exploitation of the Black female body, perhaps talking about hair is enough.


[1] Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York and London: Routledge, 2002).

[2] Nakamura, Cybertypes.

[3] Nikki Walton, “Biography,”, 27 August 2010, Read Here.

[4] Antoinette, “A Journey of Trial and Error: How I Transitioned for Ten Years,” Around the Way Curls, 17 January 2013, Read Here.

[5] Nikki Walton, “Tanida’s Naturally Glam,”, 21 March 2013, Read Here.

[6] Nikki Walton, “Nikki Green is Naturally Fabulous,”, 20 March 2013, Read Here.

[7] Kimberly Battle Walters, Sheila's Shop: Working-class African American Women Talk about Life, Love, Race, and Hair (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

[8] “Chris Rock on the billion dollar black ‘good hair’ industry,”, 4 November 2009, Read Here.

[9] Christina Patrice, “6 Relaxer Lines that Have Gone Natural: How Their Products Stack Up,”, 26 March 2013, Read Here.

[10] Imani, “Comments,”, 25 October 2012, Read Here.

[11] India Arie, “I Am Not My Hair,” from Testimony: Vol. 1 Life & Relationship, performed by India Arie and Akon (2006; Los Angeles: Motown Records), compact disc.

[12] Lina, “Comments,”, 21 November 2011, Read Here.

[13] Melsharry Arias, “My Natural Hair TEXTURES + Why I Don't Hair Type,” (video blog), 15 January 2013, Watch Here.

[14] “Michelle Obama with natural hair: Photosphopped image goes viral,”, 23 March 2012, Read Here.

[15] “Creamy crack” is a colloquialism used to describe the cream-based chemical relaxers that many Black women use to restructure the texture of their hair from curly to straight.

Timeka N. Williams is a doctoral candidate and a Rackham Merit Fellow in the Communication Studies Department at the University of Michigan. Hard at work on a dissertation about media, everyday hermeneutics, and Black womanhood, Timeka spends her time thinking about Black female audiences and producers, and teaching undergraduates to think more critically about media texts.

Dora Sobze is a writer, and social media marketing professional. She is currently working with the team at the critically-acclaimed hair blog, "Thank God I’m Natural".