Seeing Beauty in Difference via the Obama Women's Travel Through Africa

Juliette Harris

Obamas arrive in Tanzania, July 1, 2013. White House Photo: Pete SouzaThe aesthetics of black women’s appearance is the focus of a new Hampton University Museum initiative, Seeing Beauty in Difference (SBD).  One of the project's goals is to assist with the preservation and evolution of sculptural appoaches to hair care that African women developed over many generations. African women's hair care and styling is a multifaceted form of material culture that has many functional, social, aesthetic and philosophical meanings that are not only historically significant but can evolve to reflect 21st century sensibilities and life. However this material culture is rapidly shrinking to consist mostly of hair extensions as it gives way to the influence of massive Western media.

SBD is based on the recognition that the history of black people’s oppression throughout the African Diaspora, and particularly in the U.S., has extended to the aesthetics of personal appearance. Some of the lingering effects of that aesthetic oppression are reinforced today by popular media which, culmulatively, has the effect of limiting the projection of black women’s beauty to a narrow range.  This narrow projection, based on long-standing racist biases and a conventional, aesthetic orthodoxy (i.e., “Africoid-looking women need not apply” – Diddy said as much in a casting call for a Ciroc commercial shoot) is being powerfully communicated worldwide. The subject of personal black feminine aesthetics is sensitive and complex because of the physical diversity of African and African descended peoples. Because our appearance ranges from African to Caucasian, no one approach or narrow set of approaches to beauty fit all. So our aesthetic philosophy and practice must necessarily be broad and flexible, not restrictive as big business and corporate media tend to make it.  This middle way of plurality, not advocacy of just one side of the long and wearisome, black hair politics debate, can help reconcile the debate.

Emulative Beauty Practices Among African Women

Being the target of criticism from every interest group on the planet is part of the job description of the president of the United States.  We all see our “issues” and concerns reflected through U.S. policy.   As the SBD team looks at this head of state,Michelle Obama's first Instagram, taken in Senegal. it’s that, the “head,” that we closely scrutinize because of our hair-related research for the project.    Our primary interest, however, is not Obama’s expertly cut head that reflects his race-gendered, social initiation in the black barbershops of Chicago.  (The functioning of the black barbershop as a cultural institution has been examined extensively by social scientists and in popular media.)

Our scrutiny is focused on the heads of the Obama women.   As they made their way through Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, June 26 to July 3, 2013, the visual significance of their hair as they interacted with black girls and women was useful to witness and discuss from an SBD perspective.  As the young man introducing her at the Google chat in Johannesburg noted, Michelle Obama “is a model for numerous women around the globe."  In that role, she must represent the U.S. people as a whole, not her own personal interests, and that she does exceptionally well.  So, while one of the purposes of the Obama trip is support democratically-run governments in developing African nations, it’s harder for the women in the family to officially represent what SBD calls “a democracy of hair,” although, in other ways, they have clearly affirmed pluralism and choice in black feminine hair styling.  

A “hair democracy” is one in which there is a plurality of approaches to black girls' and women’s hair care and the approaches have parity — not just philosophical parity but parity in prevalence.  Now straightening and extension processes are predominantly prevalent.

Young Senegalese girl at dance performance for Mrs. Obama.  Traditional African hair artistry is in decline. Photo from video posted by Michelle Obama.Most of the African girls and women who made it into the picture frame with Mrs. Obama in Senegal either have long hair weaves and extensions or short hair hard pressed so that it can be pulled into a scraggly knot with the too-short hair at the nape of the neck sticking straight out.  They may believe that they must wear their hair in long styles and straightened styles to look contemporary and successful.  They may also believe that the coiling texture of their hair is not as aesthetically pleasing as straight hair and that long hair is more attractive than short hair. A few traditional styles could be seen but the most resounding "talking heads" on Senegalese women and girls were those that were pressed, extended or weaved.  As the linked "talking heads" photo indicates, the art of very finely braiding short natural hair into thin, narrow, cane/corn row styles (like those of the two young woman in the right foreground) is waning.

What SBD sees as the problem of extensions and weaves does not reside at the traditional or individual level. (Weaving fibres into the hair was one of countless hair practices in Africa prior to the massive penetration of Western media.) It is problematic as a collective, contemporary phenomena. In Africa, the overwhelming majority of women on the covers of African women’s magazines such as African Woman  and New African Women, the Miss Universe and Miss World contestants from African nations, the female stars of Nigeria’s Nollywood and other popular African films and videos, the women delivering the news on local African television and other highly visible exemplars of African female beauty and professional success look like straight/long-haired, homogenized mixtures of mixed race ancestry or emulate that look. By not augmenting the length of their hair with extensions is one way that the Obama women symbolize their understanding that all hair can be of equal attractiveness, regardless of length.

This discussion of black feminine aesthetics vis-à-vis the Obamas African trip is challenging, sensitive and even, occasionally, painful for the SBD team. Imagining the physical and financial tolls exacted by African women’s perception of beauty that honors Western forms over their own forms and the loss of the women’s own artistic, beauty practices is distressing.   And the subject is challenging because it’s so politically charged and emotionally fraught.  Unstraightened hair for African American women is associated with a divisive, nationalist ideology of the “black power” era and, conversely, black women’s straightened hairstyles are associated with social indoctrination and self negation. Both views are over-simplified, have fallacious aspects, and in the U.S., have generally been over-taken by the consensus among most African American women that what makes hair “good” is the quality of its health and maintenance, not whether it is natural or straightened.  This pluralistic aesthetic philosophy, however, is more difficult to express on an individual level.

Anyone familiar with the history of the Obama women know that their projection of conventionally beautiful personas comes with the role of being American First Family, not from a disavowal of a more pluralistic aesthetic.  All the immediate members of First Families, regardless of Malia Obama on campaign trail, 2007.ethnicity, have to reflect an aesthetic standard acceptable to the average American — the shoe store assistant manager’s wife in Topeka — not their own proclivities.  Like Jacqueline Kennedy, Michelle Obama is admired for being able to toe this line while expressing a personal flair.

The female Obama family on the 2013 Africa trip was comprised of Malia, Sasha, the First Lady, her mother, Marian Robinson, and her neice Leslie Robinson.  We wondered if the singular, straightened approach to hair care for all five women may reinforce the belief among African women that they First Niece Leslie Robinson wore a special hair style on election night, 2008. She is shown here with her brother, Avery, and Sasha Obama. Photo posted by Obama campaign.must wear their hair this way to look like they’re also doing well.  And, conversely, does this singular approach inadvertently augment the belief that’s there little or no place for pluralistic approaches – natural as well as heat and chemically straightened methods — for styling the hair of successful and upwardly mobile women?  Or for just being attractive, in general? (A more precise description of Sasha's hair during the trip is: smoothed back with a wavy texture in front.  The variety of textures resulting from combinations of black and non-black ancestries is interesting. In its most unrestrained state, Sasha's hair probably would look like a soft-textured 'fro. Both soft and dense textures have styling advantages.)

We were concerned about SB questions during the First Family’s visit to Senegal. In the video posted by Michelle Obama, a young adolescent girl with frazzled, over-processed hair held a mini tablet to capture the moment.  (A still from this video is shown above.) In looking at the world through an electronic tablet, she may be losing sight of cultural practices developed by her foremothers that fit her unique beauty.

Our concerns were assuaged as we watched the family’s travel through South Africa but returned as we observed their visit to Tanzania.  In South African younger as well as older women are holding on to their feminine traditions by evolving them.  In Tanzania, older women are mindful of such cultural preservation but we saw little evidence that it's being evolved by young women.

We know of the First Lady’s very strong intent to signal her support of various approaches to hair care as part of a pluralistic black feminine aesthetic.  For example, on the historic, election night of November 4, 2008, with just the immediate Obama family, FLOTUS mother Marilyn Robinson and “First Niece and Nephew,” Leslie and Avery Robinson, forming the Obama party on stage and backstage, the symbolism of aesthetic plurality and parity via Leslie’s persona was conspicuous.  Michelle Obama’s niece Leslie wore an artfully cornrowed hair style.

A similar symbolism was evident in Malia’s occasional style of afro-puffs and cornrows when the Obama family was first coming to public attention and, as an older child, in 2008 and 2009, when she wore natural, twisted and twist-out styles as shown in numerous photos.  However, possibly because of outcries from Republican bloggers who said, among other things, that Malia looked like “street trash” and possibly because she outgrew the twist and twist out styles, Malia has since been seen in public with a simple, straightened style.

 As the Obama women traveled through South Africa, we saw that the country was an excellent representation of the pluralistic aesthetic proposed by SBD that can address problematic aspects of black hair care and symbolism.  All styles and looks – African and Western; traditionally-inspired and Western-influenced – appear to have parity in South Africa.  To an outsider’s eye perusing visual media during the Obama’s trip, various beauty approaches seem to accepted about equally and we get the impression that a black feminine aesthetic democracy flourishes there.

Upon their arrival in Johannesburg, for example, the Obamas were greeted by the country’s minister of international relations and cooperation, Maite Mkoana-Mashabne whose natural, medium-short hair was deeply-conditioned to give this simple style a luster.

One of the reasons why South Africa is a leader in pluralistic black feminine aesthetics is because of the example set by highly visible, much-admired women such as Nelson Mandela’s wife Garca Machel whose personal aesthetic was shaped by the interaction of African independenceSouth African singer, Lira. She's also shown in the thumbnail cover image for this article. Lira performed at the Obamas' 2013 inaugural ball. fighters and African American political activists, and  Lira, a young, South African singer rising fast on international scene. Lira was prominently featured and described as representing the new South Africa in the June 29, 2013 Obama Diary, a leading blog on the first family.

Lira’s sculptural hair style looks very contemporary but has deep roots in South African tradition as exemplied by Nonkosi in the photo shown here. (Click on the photo to see how Nonkosi hair resembles Lira's.)  In an essay in Sarah Nutall’s Beautiful Ugly anthology (where the photo also appears), an American women studies professor describesNonkosi (right) with fellow prophet Nongqawuse,  circa 1857. Photo: Wikipedia Commons Nonkosi and Nongqawuse in this way:  “They are not, in my view, pretty.”  But according to the broader, pluralistic aesthetic that SBD promotes, Nonkosi and Nongqawuse are striking and attractive, despite the duress that they may have been suffering when the photo was taken.

At Michelle Obama’s Google Plus talk in Johannesburg with South African and American youth, two of the four young people on stage with her were young women.  One had a shoulder-length, natural Afro style.  The other wore braided extensions that were pulled back into a ponytail.

Greeting the Obamas, South African First Lady Tobeka Madiba-Zuma – in a tailored suit and short, straightened hair cut in a chic style – projected a classic style perfected by African American women. 

As we looked to Tanzania, the final stop on the Obamas’ African itinerary, we continued observe how black feminine aesthetics fit into international relations.  The Tanzanian women and young girl greeting the Obama’s upon their arrival in the country were a striking representation of aesthetic pluralism: one wore very short natural hair and traditional dress, one was in full ceremonial dress including headdress, and the little girl wore western dress and a cornrowed hairstyle with short extensions that looked culturally apt but, upon closer view, heavy and concealing. In the streets of Tanzania, many women had hard-pressed hair that is injurious to the hair and was not well-styled.

Young woman demonstating soccket ball to Obama during Tanzanian trip.In comparing photographs of Michelle Obama’s current African trip and her 2011 trip to South Africa and Botswana, the evolution of the First Lady's own hair care regimen is evident.  Then her hair sometimes looked exhausted from processing; now, like Oprah, FLOTUS shows that straightened, Michelle Obama on 2011 trip to South Africa and Botswana.coily hair can thrive.  Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey have the best hair care available to women anywhere. It has encouraged the growth of Michelle Obama's hair and maintained the growth of Winfrey's. Few black women in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora have such resources. But the best hair care does not require monetary resources. In appearing on the September 2012 cover of O magazine with unprocessed hair, Winfrey said it's a relief to be who you essentially are.

In the photo of the 2011 trip to Africa, Michelle Obama is shown with a little girl whose skillfully and creatively designed cornrowed hairstyle is an artform that should be preserved as one in an array of traditional and contemporary, African and Western-influenced approaches to hair care for black girls and women.  An important aspect of American policy promoting representational government at home and abroad is the development of the aesthetic parity and pluralism that we all seek. Beauty is a form of equitable self-empowerment available to all women because women are endowed with beauty and there are infinite forms of beauty. All women who love and take care of themselves can be beautiful in their own ways.  And, to the degree that women are healthy, confident and powerful, society as a whole advances.

Seeing Beauty in Difference: The Project

The Obamas are welcomed to Senegal by President Macky Sall and First Lady Marème Sall, June 26,2013. Apparently, to be most presentable, the hair of the flower-bearing girl was styled to look contemporary and Western, and not reflect the unique, skillful artistry of the country's own cultural traditions, as does the women's ceremonial dress. White House Photo: Pete Souza.In May 2013, the Hampton University Museum submitted a proposal for Seeing Beauty in Difference (SBD), a global initiative on expanding the conventional perception of black feminine beauty and the role that visual art can play in this expansion.  The project received more than 3,500 votes in an on-line voting challenge sponsored by ArtsFwd, an organization that supports next practices for arts leaders.

The SBD project did not make into the finals of the national challenge but we benefited from the opportunity to focus attention on this issue. The volume of votes and voter comments for SB let us know that many other people feel that the project is an important undertaking.

We’ll continue the effort in fall 2013 with an application to a funding program sponsored by Bringing Theory to Practice, an organization that supports student involvement in civic action.  We’ll propose to engage Hampton University students, guided by faculty and staff, in developing instructional and interactive technologies to host a global exchange on seeing beauty in the diversity of African and African Diaspora people.

Our overall objective is to expand the limited, popular perception of the black feminine aesthetic by facilitating the collective development of a more pluralistic aesthetic.  This will involve bringing HU students and faculty together with visual artists, art critics, museum directors and curators and other visual arts professionals in planning and hosting a global exchange to promote the art of seeing beauty in more inclusive ways.  Artists and other visual arts professionals will be included because they have a highly-developed aesthetic sensibility and have mastered the art of seeing beauty in difference (and in the case of artists, expressing it).

Additional information about the Seeing Beauty in Difference rationale is provided in this May 2013 article.

Project Statement

The conversation about African Americans shirking from even gentle sun light because we don’t want to get darker, and disliking the fullness of our African features and hair textures has been going on for decades.  Chris Rock’s Good Hair and Bill Duke’s Dark Girls documentaries deeply probed and expanded the dialogue.

Where does the dialogue go from here?  How do we go from dialogue to formulating and promoting a flexible, 21st century black feminine aesthetic philosophy?   And is there a role for visual artists and other art experts to play in this conversation?  We’ve been pondering such questions at the International Review of African American Art (IRAAA), a journal published by the Hampton University Museum.  

Out of our head scratching came the Seeing Beauty in Difference project which was a semi-finalist for the Business Unusual National Challenge

Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela's wife, 2010, Johannesburg. The hair of the girl in the foreground is a masterful example of design and execution in sculptural creation. However, in the U.S., survivals of this style were disparaged as black people sought full opportunites and acceptance American citizens in the 20th century.  Having short hair was a shameful stigma for African American girls growing up during much of the 20th century.  Photo: The EldersThe “different” beauty that the project will encourage people to see is beauty that deviates from a monolithic, aesthetic norm.   It’s possible to do this while maintaining an appreciation of familiar forms of beauty.

Today, the standard perception of black feminine beauty is based on a diminution of the Africoid aspects of black women’s physical features. The most immediate consequence of this perception range from the delusion to frustration of prototypically African-looking women trying to Leslie Robinson, left, on election night, 2008. This is the full image; cropped version appears above.achieve a beauty that is impossible for them.  However the consequences of this perception has consequences that reach far beyond these women, themselves.   And the problem is confounded by the physical diversity of African Diaspora people.  African-descended people's appearance is very diverse and this broad range complicates the development of an expansive, self-affirming African American feminine aesthetic. 

 Our vision for the success of the initiative is : (1) To augment the European classical aesthetic definitions of beauty  (fineness of facial features and hair texture, regular proportions, symmetry, fairness)  with more contemporary and pluralistic definitions that can be applied to African characteristics such as broad noses, full lips, kinky hair and deeply pigmented skin. (2) Show the psychological havoc that the traditional Western aesthetic hegemony has wreaked on people from non-Western cultures, and  (3) show how this more inclusive aesthetic  can be implemented and encourage its implementation.

The project goal is to collectively formulate a pluralistic aesthetic for black women based on the broad diversity of their appearance and provide support for women and girls to incorporate the philosophy into their lives.   Seeing Beauty in Difference will create an interactive web platform to support the participation of visual arts professionals and people throughout the African Diaspora in this exploration.   The challenge is to crowdsource a philosophy of personal beauty based on individual uniqueness and circumstance