The Culture of Curls: What Hair Really Means in Mixed Race Societies

By Isidora Stankovic

Look through any fashion magazine and you might notice something puzzling. Almost without exception, models of every race have the same sleek, straightened hair. The message from these media sources seems clear: these painstakingly smooth hairstyles are simply better. Women around the world have taken this message to heart and adopted straightened hair as a beauty ideal, but for some women, hair texture means something more. In societies with large mixed race populations, hair extends beyond beauty and becomes a factor that reveals ethnic heritage and even socioeconomic background. According to Professor Roberto González Echevarría, Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures at Yale University, “hair is a fashion statement as well as a statement of ethnicity.” Curls and kinky hair are loaded with stigma in many countries, in part because they represent the effects of historical interactions between different ethnic groups.

The legacy of European colonialism echoes strongly in Cuba, and has been influential in shaping race relations, social structure, and the identities of mixed-race individuals. Professor González Echevarría explains that Spaniards brought a relatively small number of African slaves to Cuba in the 16th century to replace the annihilated labor force. In the 19th century, the number of African slaves on the island grew as the country invested in the sugar industry. Interactions with white Europeans and black slaves created a significant mixed-race population, and the growth of this group has made it increasingly difficult to identify people as either black or white and produced a change in categorization of individuals. Thus, hair has become an important tool for labeling and social stratification. According to González Echevarría, “There are many gradations of mulatto in Cuba, and some are gauged by how kinky their hair is.” He adds that Cubans can be prejudiced against kinky hair, noting that to have kinky hair is to “tener pelo malo,” or “to have bad hair.” They may call the hair of black individuals “pasa,” and women of European origin even refer to their hair as “pasa” when they are having a bad hair day, often saying “tengo la pasa alborotada” (“I have messy/wild hair”).

Women will go to great lengths to achieve sleek, straight hair (Courtesy of Creative Commons).
Women will go to great lengths to achieve sleek, straight hair (Courtesy of Creative Commons).

Similarly in Brazil, sugarcane formed the backbone of the country’s economy for centuries and European settlers brought African slaves to work the plantations. According to Jéssica Leão ’16, a student from Salvador, Brazil, the interaction of these ethnic groups has created a fluidity of race due to an intensely mixed society; however, she says Brazilian society ultimately values European heritage most highly. Leão explained that Brazilians sometimes refer to nappy hair as “cabelo ruim”—a strongly negative label that directly translates to mean “bad hair.”

Beyond prejudices against kinky hair, curls historically were used as an actual tool, much like skin color, in determining an individual’s racial identity of an individual. Official racial segregation under apartheid, the system of legally enshrined racial segregation of the native black majority and the European white minority, began in 1948 and ended in 1994, though its effects are long-standing. Soekoe explained that under apartheid, there existed three main classifications of race in South Africa —black, white, and colored. The 1950 Population Registration Act required that all individuals be classified into a racial group, with physical characteristics used as a primary tool. According to South African Nicola Soekoe ’16, the usage of the “pencil test” during apartheid, exemplifies the degrading use of hair to label people. The so-called pencil test was used in ambiguous cases to determine whether an individual was colored or white by putting a pencil in the person’s hair. If the pencil fell out, the person was white. If it stuck, he was colored. “In the case of Apartheid South Africa one’s hair often determined one’s racial classification and, subsequently, one’s freedom,” said Soekoe. She later revealed the difference in hair type within her own family; while Soekoe has curly blonde ringlets, her father has tight black curls. Sokoe recalled her father saying, “‘the difference between our hair is that I would have failed the pencil test.’”

“It didn’t mean much to me at that age,” she stated, “and I jokingly proceeded to test both our hair with a pencil, but thinking about it now his hair’s texture could have resulted in my family being torn apart.”

The association between hair and socioeconomic status in these three countries has resulted in high demand for straightening treatments and large businesses that sell such treatments globally. In Cuba, Echevarría remembered the “elaborate process in which [black cooks and maids in his house] tried to straighten their hair,” all in an attempt to achieve a more European look. Today in Brazil, Leão noted that the immense pressure to have European hair has resulted in an epidemic in which individuals of all different races are bleaching their hair blonde. Perfectly styled hair indicates higher social class, and at the nightclub Pink Elephant in São Paulo, bouncers tend to let in girls with blowouts over girls with unstraightened hair.

The process of straightening or relaxing one’s hair can jeopardize one’s health, however. Poorer women who cannot afford expensive treatments turn to dangerous alternatives that end up damaging their hair and searing their scalps. But salon-quality treatments can also be harmful both to clients and hairdressers. In Brazil, many women use progressive straightening treatments, commonly known in the United States as the “Brazilian Blowout.” Companies have cleverly marketed the product to meet the incredible global demand for straightened hair, claiming the treatment promotes healthy hair in addition to smoothing strands. The Brazilian Blowout involves applying a chemical mixture to freshly washed hair, then blow-drying and ironing the hair straight. The process promises to eliminate frizz and gently straighten hair for about three months, and the more treatments one undergoes the longer the results will last. However, the Brazilian Blowout typically contains formaldehyde as a key ingredient—a toxic compound famously found in embalming fluid that is harmful to inhale and ultimately damages hair. The treatment may burn hair and even cause hair loss, creating a devastating problem for women seeking more “manageable” hair.

Despite the popularity of harmful straightening and relaxing treatments, in recent years movements have arisen that aim to empower women by encouraging them to accept their curls. Brazil, the same country obsessed with straight hair and the birthplace of the Brazilian blowout, stands as one of the leaders of this movement. In particular, Leila Velez’ salon chain Beleza Natural, or “Natural Beauty” in English, represents one of the major advances in teaching women to love and care for their kinky hair. According to Forbes magazine, Beleza Natural specifically caters to women typically of black or mixed background and offers cuts and products carefully developed for kinky hair. The salon and the beauty lifestyle it promotes have steadily been gaining converts from the Brazilian Blowout who have realized the dangers of traditional straightening methods. Beleza Natural is not only a salon, but also an institution with a program for women of all classes to learn how to not only care for their hair, but to celebrate the unique cultural heritage their curls represent.

Our hair represents an extension of our personality, but in societies with large mixed race populations it has come to define individuals and their backgrounds. Whether used as an indicator of socioeconomic class or as a tool for racial classification, hair is an especially important element of identity. Its inherent changeability makes hair susceptible to straightening treatments among mixed race individuals hoping to achieve a more “European” look, but current movements to increase appreciation of natural hair textures suggests a major social shift.
Isidora Stankovic ’16 is a History major in Timothy Dwight College. She can be reached at