Gen X Natural Hair Movement

Gen X natural hair movement and the struggles associated with wearing hair natural

The Gen X natural hair movement is already making waves in the beauty industry and showing no signs of slowing down. Taking its cues from those born between 1965 and 1979, the trend encourages its followers to embrace their curls, coils, and kinks as part of a larger celebration of self-expression and appreciation of natural beauty.

As an African-American Gen-X woman from the midwest, I grew up seeing my counterparts wearing mostly relaxed hair. I rarely – and I do mean RARELY saw Black women with natural (unrelaxed, unpressed) hair. I can remember seeing Black women on television with natural hair and being perplexed. Which is why the Gen X natural hair movement means so much to me.

“How did they get their hair to do that?” I wondered with my relaxed hair.

I was amazed by the beautiful curls, swirls, knots, and waves God gave Black women. At the same time, all I knew was the white, creamy, sometimes painful relaxer treatments that beat the living daylights out of my hair and rendered it limp and without definition.

It was all I knew. I thought straight hair was indeed “natural”. So, when I had an opportunity to explore this topic in my master’s class, I did. I wanted to talk to other women within my age group and see if they felt the same cognitive dissonance I felt about growing up and being socialized to think straight hair was more desirable than kinky, natural hair.

Oh, the pressing combs I endured. That sizzle dangerously close to my face. It was horrible. The burning chemical compounds put on my scalp until I could not handle it any longer – all to look like an ideal that was not defined by me nor meant for me to imitate.

What is the Gen X natural hair movement? In recent years, the trends for natural hair styles have shifted significantly. Gen Xers were among the trailblazers who advocated for going au naturale, but now a much broader range of people embrace natural hair. The success of natural styles has become so widespread that trends like braids, extensions and wigs are regularly seen in both mainstream media and everyday life. Natural hair is no longer just a trend – it’s becoming normalized as an accepted form of self-care in many communities.

Our hair is beautiful just like the hair of other cultures. We just haven’t been raised to know it.

What Are the Benefits of Embracing Natural Hair?

Embracing natural hair can offer many tangible benefits, from saving time and money to boosting confidence. When you embrace natural hairstyles and care options, you don’t have to buy expensive products or visit stylists for treatments regularly. Additionally, opting for a more natural style allows your self-perception to be based on how you feel about your appearance rather than conforming to conventional beauty standards, which may not fit with how you perceive yourself.

I hope you enjoy reading my paper. I welcome your comments below.

Gen X Natural Hair Movement Abstract

This research study is an exploration of the influence social media has had on Black, Generation X women’s perceptions of their natural hair (hair that is unprocessed by chemical straighteners).  It presents the factors that may have contributed to these women viewing their hair negatively and the role social media has had in changing those perceptions from negative to positive. It investigates the significance of growing up in a time when few images of Black women were presented to them in the media and when Black hair carried more negative connotations than positive.  This study revealed that women of this age group who experienced emotional and social negativity about their hair during childhood found a safe haven in a social media outlet.  There, they found support, resources, information, and recommendations that made their decision to be authentically themselves less daunting and traumatic. 

Introduction

            Social media is a tool for belonging and membership, and it can contribute to a sense of belonging (Miljeteig et al., 2022).  This research explores the positive effect of YouTube on how middle-aged Black women view their hair. Previous studies have discussed assorted topics relating to Black women and hair. The primary focus of this study, however, will be the impact YouTube had on improving self-worth in Gen X Black women who may have had negative images of Black, natural hair instilled in them from a young age. Although many other social media outlets exist, this study will center on YouTube as it was the medium most participants in this study used.  

Area of Focus

Existing research acknowledges social media as a catalyst for Black women to embrace their natural hair (Neil et al., 2018: Ellington, 2014).  These women gain many benefits from social media outlets, including instruction, acceptance, and community.  It falls short of telling the sorties of Black women born between the middle 1960s and early 1980s (Turner et al., 2022), often referred to as Gen-X. They did not grow up seeing images of Black women wearing natural, unstraightened hair in media (Roberts, 2004) and likely not in their communities. 

Growing up, Generation X Black women did not experience the social visibility of other Black women with unstraightened hair or often see authentic versions of themselves in broadcasting (Ellis-Hervey et al., 2016). The occasional images they did see were of Black women with straightened hair. This straightened hair mimicked White culture and was not representative of their hair as it naturally was (Thompson, 2008a). As a result, Black girls may have succumbed to the social comparison theory in which they compared themselves to White images and concluded their hair was not attractive (Thompson, 2008). 

Have you ever considered how women who participated in the Gen X natural hair movement were predisposed to think their hair was not “normal?”

Older Black women and natural hair. The Gen X natural hair movement

Existing research 

It is well documented throughout existing literature that society has oppressed Black women because of how their natural, unstraightened hair presents (Ellington, 2014; Ngandu‐Kalenga et.al, 2022). The persistent discrimination has resulted in a law called the Crown Act, which protects Black women who wear their hair in natural, unstraightened states (Pitts, 2021). While women are technically free to wear their hair how they wish, reality exists in some workplaces that straight hair is more professional (Orey et al., 2019b), which places pressure on Black women to straighten their hair to conform to White standards (Halley, 2019).

This unfair pressure creates challenges for all Black women.  Be that as it may, Gen X women’s early years may make this social navigation especially muddled should they want to wear their hair naturally. Research has been remiss in researching how they might feel about their natural, unstraightened hair, as well as the role of social media in their hair self-acceptance.  For many Black women, it is not uncommon for those closest to them to be unsupportive of them wearing their hair naturally – including Black males (Ellington, 2015).  This study seeks to understand and document the experience of middle-aged Black women in accepting their natural hair and how social media aided in self-acceptance. 

Purpose of the Study

This qualitative study explores endeavors to accomplish that. Beyond exploring the life experiences of Black women participating in the study, it confirms the benefits of YouTube in their hair journeys. A study by Neil et al. (2018) confirms YouTube has had positive influences on Black women which is confirmed by the millions of views on its Black natural hair channels. These safe, supportive spaces (Neil et al. 2018) have likely been a significant tool of empowerment for women – like in this study – who did not grow up seeing their hair associated with many, if any, kinds of beauty.  This may make women unfamiliar with how to care for their natural hair.  This is why women use YouTube as a makeshift university (Ellington, 2015) for hair care resources, affirmation, and for inspiration to care for their bodies as well (Ellington, 2015) as their hair. 

Research questions

            The philosophy behind the research questions was an exploration of life history.  The questions were divided into three themes for content analysis.  The first was a focus on the participants’ lived experiences during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.  Secondly, the questions concentrated on the messages the participants perceived or received about Black natural hair and its attractiveness during these stages of life.  Finally, the questions centered on how the participants utilized social media in their natural hair journey. Examples of the research questions are:

1. As a child or adolescent, did people you admired on television or in magazines have natural, unstraightened hair?

2. Growing up, did you feel straightened hair was more acceptable? If so, to whom? Why or why not? 

3. What is the relationship between YouTube use and feeling good about and caring for your hair?

The questions were worded in ways relevant to the participants and adjusted (and explained) accordingly when it was necessary. 

Background and Rationale

Black women’s natural hair has been controversial in American society because it is distinctively different from what is considered normative or favorable – which is White straight hair (Thompson, 2009) or hair textures close to it. From youth, Generation X Black women saw mostly images of straight, White hair in television commercials, cinema, and even on the Barbie dolls in which they played (Thompson, 2009). Many of these girls were not taught to love or accept their hair as it naturally was, but instead, learned to attribute pejorative terms such as “bad and “good” to it based on the texture it had. 

Making self-acceptance challenging were these internal cultural metrics that gauged whether hair was acceptable or repugnant. For instance, the straighter hair was, the better it was considered and thus called “good” and conversely hair with thick, kinkier textures was considered bad (Randle, 2015). As children heard these recurrent messages, both overtly and covertly, they were more prone to believe them (Jacobs, 2016).  This internalization of negative racial stereotypes (Bailey et al., 2011) may have shaped how Black Gen-X women viewed themselves and others like themselves.  

Natural Black hair in society

Aside from the internal cultural bias, societal experiences outside families and homes may have also impacted women’s views or agency as it related to their hair.  Natural hair has been deemed inappropriate in social constructs and especially in workplaces (Randle, 2015).  Black hair has long been used as a tool of oppression and the subject of many Black hair-related lawsuits (Pitts, 2021). To remain palatable and marketable in the job market, Black women likely felt limited options as it related to their hair, so they conformed by straightening it (Donaldson, 2012).  

Conforming included choosing to integrate into the majority culture. These women applied chemicals to their hair to relax the curl and flatten their hair shafts so it would look more like White hair and, thus, be more acceptable to White sensibilities (Thompson, 2009).  These often-costly chemicals often contained lye or similar compounds that could cause chemical burns to the skin and damage to the hair such as split ends, frizzing, and hair loss (Shetty et al., 2013). Other Black women opted to get hair weaves. Weaves are methods to hide their natural hair with artificial straight hair woven on or over it (Ellington, 2015). Both the chemical straighteners and the weaves caused damage to women’s hair.  Some studies associate chemical straighteners with serious health issues as well (Wise et al., 2012, as cited in Shetty et al., 2013). 

Social media as a tool of liberation

Social media has become a conduit for Black women to break free from the mental chains of unhealthy cultural socialization (Ellington, 2015). On YouTube’s natural hair channels, Black hair is dissociated and disentangled from racist torment and promotes self-worth for Gen-X and all Black women (Randle, 2015). There, the emphasis is on caring for and celebrating the uniqueness of natural Black hair – not on using chemicals or heat to make it straight (Robinson, 2011).  YouTube videos are something of a digital training venue (Alston & Ellis-Hervey; 2014, Ellis-Harvey et al., 2016) for the women.

Social media may serve as not only a place of “connection”, but also an outlet for Gen X women to access the “larger social movement” of natural hair (Whittier, 1997). The study conducted by Garrin et al. states peer relationships can serve to develop a unified posture, empowering Black women to accept themselves as they are and oppose the European hairstyles typically considered normative (2017). 

Research Methods

The data in this study is comprised of 22 Gen X Black women from various areas of the United States. Initially, one-on-one interviews were to be used.  However, early in the study, it was determined to use small groups because individual interviews proved to be time-consuming and lengthy. Small groups were not only expeditious but provided a supportive and lively interview dynamic. Nine women were interviewed individually, and the remainder of women were interviewed in groups of three. One-on-one interviews lasted between 35 and 45 minutes.  For confidentiality reasons, the women were given pseudonyms.

Small group interviews lasted between 60 to 90 minutes. Each question was read aloud, and participants answered questions voluntarily. Interviews took place exclusively online and were recorded with permission both by video and audibly. Additionally, the surveyor took handwritten notes during the interviews. Being that hair is a sensitive topic in the Black community this interview format was ideal as it was more personal. In research by Mohajan, interviewing is useful in “suggesting possible relationships, causes, effects” (2018, p. 39).  The interviews were conducted over three weeks. 

Participant Criteria

 There were requirements for the women participating in the study. First, each must currently wear their hair naturally, without any chemical manipulators, unstraightened for at least three weeks out of the month or most of the time. Secondly, they must have used chemicals or heat to relax their natural curl patterns in the past. The third requirement was to have used social media websites for information and emotional support regarding their hair. 

Recruitment Efforts

The recruitment strategy was an opportunity-based sample collected from social media invitations posted on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. The social media posts solicited the participation of women who fit the above criteria. Hash tags were used to draw the proper demographic. After the initial post, 14 participants replied in approximately 24 hours. The women scheduled their participation by sending an email to a Gmail account.  A response was sent to them with Zoom link information. Women were invited to share the social media posts with other Black women who fit the criteria. This snowball sampling rendered additional participants. None of the participants were paid or compensated.

Procedures and Measures

During the interviews, women were asked questions related to three themes.  The semi-structured interview process contributed to a more relaxed interview.  The chosen methods align with the study’s objectives to understand Black women’s experiences, the messages they received as children, and how social media has empowered them to embrace their natural hair.  The researcher avoided bias by not replying or contributing thoughts or ideas about the subject matter. Before completion of the interview, the researcher’s notes were read back to the participant to check for understanding or misunderstanding. 

Data Analysis 

            The data was analyzed to identify recurring patterns or themes.  It was then chronicled and interpreted to understand the experiences of the women and the similar experiences that contributed to their view of their unstraightened hair, and the way society impacts that view. Comments and responses were entered into a color-coded spreadsheet. The interview notes were compared to identify the patterns.  The interviews were transcribed using Google Docs’ Voice Typing feature.  

            Much of what was shared can be coded and categorized as stories.  Narrative analysis aided in understanding the perspectives and experiences of the participants.  They shared stories with personal historical relevance and this data was used to extrapolate information about their past experiences and perceptions of natural hair as well as their use of YouTube. 

Results Analysis

Of the 22 women surveyed in this study, 78% recalled being told as a child their hair was “bad” and their hair was called “kinky” or “nappy.” Just above 86%, or 19 participants, said comments hurt their feelings and affected how they viewed their hair in its natural state. Of the women, 18 said they struggled with hair acceptance in adulthood because of the messages they received from family members or other children growing up.  One woman stated, “I always felt like my hair was a problem for my mother and no one said my hair was pretty unless it was pressed.”  Most of the Black women interviewed estimate they spend an average of 10 to 30 minutes weekly on YouTube for hair-related topics. 

However, when they were transitioning to natural hair, 19 of them said they spent more time on YouTube and it helped them feel emboldened to make the move toward discontinuing relaxers and straighteners. The remaining three women stated other social media platforms were their primary sources of information. Emily, a mom of three, leads a team in a medical testing office.  She said, “People with White or straight hair can say hair doesn’t matter because all we see is straight White hair. We think it is what hair should look like.” The European benchmark of beauty in which white hair is the bar for beauty confirms her comment (Ellis-Hervey et al., 2016).

Interview Theme 2

Participants were most animated responding to how society has impacted their experience with natural hair.  Thalia, a 53-year-old medical professional, said, “I was afraid to go natural about ten years ago.” When asked why she felt fear, she said as the only Black doctor where she worked, she was concerned about how her colleagues and patients would perceive her.”  The terms often used in Black cultures for abandoning the artificial straightening methods are going natural to go natural (Ellington, 2014). Another participant, Kisha who appeared to be in her late 30’s, quickly interrupted.  She replied that her job was not her concern but the way her family and friends would react. She said her mother disapproved of her “nappy” hair and said she was going to “press” her hair while she was sleeping.  Kisha is a hair stylist in an African American salon.  She said she just recently started learning to do natural hair for clients. Before, she specialized in relaxed hair because that was what made up most of her clientele. At one point, she said, “I cringe when people bring babies in for chemical relaxers. It’s not sending a good message to them.”

Interview Theme 3

The second interview question asked how social media positively impacted their concept of their hair, during a one-on-one interview with one of the younger participants- born in 1983. She stated she was nervous about going natural because she only knew how to style her hair when it was relaxed. “I got my first perm (i.e., relaxer) when I was 9 years old.” She went on to say, “I was 36 when I decided to go natural, and I was clueless about styling my hair. It seemed foreign to me.” When asked how she learned to style her hair, she said “I watch videos by Naptural85 (Naptural85, n.d.) because she had coarse hair like mine.  Most of those girls on YouTube are biracial and have good hair. I cannot relate to them”

Kimberly said YouTube has been a “lifesaver”.  She went on to say, “I watch hair videos because I like seeing all the things our hair can do or become. I like seeing something positive about my kind of hair” She went on to say, “Growing up the only natural hair I saw was on the tv series “Roots”. As the other women chuckled, she said, “I figured if the slaves’ hair was always covered in rags, that meant it had to be ugly or something!” A correlation could be made to women who hide their hair with wigs or weaves, however, no data was gathered to support or deny this concept.

Experiences and Comments

Kim, a 48-year-old woman shared “when I was a girl, I used to put a towel or shirt on my hair pretending I had long, flowy hair.”  Two of the women in the group chuckled and nodded.  When asked if anyone had done something similar to what Kim described, the other two women in the participant group of three raised their hands. When asked why they did that, Kim replied that girls with long, straight hair were deemed pretty and to have good hair.  She did not refer to White women, although it could have been implied that is what they were imitating.  Another participant, Shari, a member of the clergy in her 60s, said as a child, she idolized an actress named Jane Kennedy because her hair was straighter and long. 

Tanya, a 52-year-old attorney, remarked, “When I was a kid, the only people I saw with natural hair in movies were slaves and women in Blaxploitation movies” – films featuring exaggerated Black characteristics resisting racism with violence and stereotypical street methods. Alexander describes these characters as limited and diminished to “make them more acceptable to predominantly nonblack audiences” (p. 839).

This research study found that 5 Black women with thicker hair types found comfort in seeing other women style those hair types on videos, but it was not a motivation for them to go natural or wear their hair unstraightened. All participants in the study said they go to YouTube to find ways to make their hair grow longer or to be “healthier” – not to be convinced to go or remain natural.  A small contingent, 5 participants, said they go to YouTube for hair product suggestions. Only two of the twenty-two participants said YouTube did not help them feel better about their hair. The remaining participants (20) said it does and has in the past. 

Hair and Self-Image – Gen X natural hair movement

In research by Ellis-Hervey et al., hair does not necessarily correlate with Black women’s self-esteem, but women who wear their hair in natural states of being may be less impacted by the opinions of others (2016).  Yet, the journey to achieve that state of confidence is likely hard-fought and may have psychological implications for girls on a journey toward self-acceptance (Bellinger, 2007 as cited in Ellis-Hervey, et al., 2016). Morrison states it is not uncommon for Black women with natural hair to exchange war stories about how their hair is treated and perceived in the larger society (2018). Social media outlets can provide a similar forum for this sort of support.

Discussion

            This paper initially attempted to explore how various social media outlets provided support, instruction, and inspiration for their natural hair journey.  During interviews, YouTube was the overwhelming social media outlet of choice for the participants. Of the 22 participants interviewed, 21 responded YouTube was their preeminent choice related to hair care topics. Only one other preferred Instagram over YouTube. These research findings confirm Gen X women benefit from the copious amounts of YouTube content. 

Limitations 

While unstraightened hair was the focus of this study, some women expressed they occasionally straighten their hair using heat or by stretching the hair in some way.  All but 5 participants in the study said they straighten their hair from time to time for a change or to trim their ends. These straightening efforts cannot necessarily be linked to a sense of low self-image or assimilation.  Another consideration for this study is hair type.  Some women who participated in the study had naturally straighter hair than other participants. One participant in the group had strong conversations about the struggles of kinkier hair types being more formidable than women with straighter, wavier hair. This fact could have skewed results and possibly inhibited full participation in the discussion. 

Conclusions

A great deal of literature examines the discrimination and the proliferation of social control as it relates to Black hair. A seemingly global problem, hair is not simply hair for many Black women but a tool to control, demean, and subjugate Blacks since slavery (Alston et al., 2014).  This still-existing control contributes to Black women being their truest selves and having agency in something as primal as their hair.  This study and the most recent literature are showing women are turning to YouTube to gain empowerment and inspiration to unburden themselves from the burdens of others’ opinions.  On YouTube, the participants see their uniqueness as a strength and not something to hide or manipulate. This study has drawn from existing bodies of research and confirmed Black Gen X women had challenges embracing their hair because of messages they heard earlier and fear. In accomplishing this feat, this article urges scholars to examine generational experiences that influence how Black women of various ages in self-acceptance.  

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