Over 10 years ago I made the decision to go “natural.” As in stopping my monthly visits to the hair salon to get my hair straightened with the use of relaxers chock full of chemicals so harsh that they would burn my scalp with each application. By that point, I’d been getting a relaxer for five years but was ready to embrace my afro-textured tresses. It was a tough journey. Unlike today, store shelves weren’t stocked with products specifically designed for my hair type, which made washing and styling a chore that took an entire day to get right and required black women to become kitchen chemists. We whipped up mayonnaise, eggs and all sorts of other ingredients you were more likely to find in a cake to get our hair right. But as more black women began going natural, more products started popping up in stores. Shea Moisture was one of them.
This week, the company released a completely ridiculous commercial meant to appeal to a broader consumer base. The ad was all about “hair hate” and featured a blonde woman, a redhead and bi-racial woman with what’s known as “good hair,” or a looser curl pattern that’s more accepted than afro-textured hair. The actress with the curls said people made fun of her and used to throw things to see if it would stick in her hair. The blonde woman explained how hard it was styling her hair all while sliding her fingers through long straight tresses — unimpeded. The redhead confessed she dyed her hair platinum blonde for seven years.
Such struggle stories! The commercial angered black women with afro-hair who primarily make up Shea Moisture’s consumers and brings the company upwards of $200 million a year.
Now here’s the problem. A commercial about hair hate didn’t feature any black women with afro-textured hair. It all sounds trivial, but I can’t recall anyone telling blonde and redheaded women that their hair was inappropriate for the workplace. Earlier this year, a study confirmed something black women have known since we were kidnapped, enslaved and conditioned to believe that our kinky hair was the worst — there’s bias.
On average, white women showed explicit bias to Black women’s textured hair. They rated it as less beautiful, less sexy, less professional than smoother hair. Black women, on the other hand, had significantly more positive attitudes toward textured hair, particularly Black women in the natural hair community. They rated the pictures more positively. But when we asked how society viewed these various women, they assumed there was a certain level of social stigma against textured hair.
Just last year a court of appeals said it was okay for employers to discriminate against applicants based on hair after a black woman with dreads sued employer Catastrophe Management Solutions for rescinding a job offer based on her hair. “They tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about,” Chastity Jones says human resources manager Jeannie Wilson told her before asking for a take back on a job offer.
There are countless stories about schools banning traditionally black hairstyles like dreadlocks and cornrows. Stories like the afro-sporting South African student who lead a protest because her school forbade children from wearing afros. Even the U.S. Army initially banned natural hairstyles until the controversy led to a repeal.
The fact is: Hair bias is real life for a vast majority of black girls and women with hair that requires a bit more TLC.
What made Shea Moisture great is that it worked when products like Pantene, Suave, Herbal Essence didn’t. It has nothing to do with “reverse racism.” It’s about hair science in which kinky hair isn’t the same as straight hair. The structure is entirely different. Kinky and cottony hair are more likely to be dry and easily prone to breakage. Therefore it requires more moisture and ingredients that aren’t as harsh as the ones found in mainstream products meant for oily, straight and stringy hair.
Unfortunately, Shea Moisture messed that up by reportedly changing the formula of their products to accommodate straighter hair found on the heads of white women. Suddenly, a lot of black women’s holy grail went straight to hell. While there are more products on store shelves, there’s still a gap between many mainstream products available and the number of black hair care products. We’re still underrepresented. The difference is evident when I enter a store and have to go to the back of the haircare aisle to the “ethnic hair” section. So when black women find a product that works for their natural hair, it’s a big damn deal. In fact, one in four black women has trouble finding the right product for her hair while more than half haven’t found anything that works. Meanwhile, white women have the pick of the litter.
If Shea Moisture wanted to advertise to white women, perhaps they should’ve created an entirely different line instead of becoming successful and abandoning their core consumers who built their company one Curl Enhancing Smoothie at a time. Haircare isn’t the place to get all Kumbaya, we are one because every hair strand isn’t created equal. We’re different, that’s okay.
Shea Moisture has already apologized for their screw-up and promises to do better, but it may already be too late. Hopefully, it’s a lesson other brands are learning. Never underestimate a group of women who spend $500 billion on hair care.