Rihanna had her long locks cut into an edgy bob. (Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images )
A year ago, Chris Rock's "Good Hair" hit theaters, examining the historically complicated relationship many African Americans have had with their hair.
Now two new videos are rocking YouTube with the idea that times have changed: African American hair — any hair, for that matter — can be stylish, fun, beautiful or funky, and an expression of individual flair, no matter its texture, color or length.
Willow Smith, the 9-year-old daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, is pure joy as she tosses her head around in her upbeat music video "Whip My Hair," which debuted Oct. 18. In the video, Willow wears a cavalcade of hairstyles, whipping around long braids, flaunting a faux 'hawk, dancing in Afro-puffs and twists, and commanding the room in a cotton-candy-colored extravagant 'do. "Don't matter if it's long or short, do it — do it with your hair," she sings.
At the same time, the Sesame Street video "I Love My Hair" has become an Internet sensation this fall featuring an exuberant brown Muppet who joyously sings about her natural hair and all of the ways that she can wear it: in an Afro, cornrows, barrettes — "up, down and all around" — embracing individual expression and showing that hair can be fun.
In the '60s, allowing hair to go naturally into an Afro was seen as a political act of defiance. But now, as seen in the videos, the zeitgeist seems to be shifting. Outdated stereotypes seem to be losing their hold, thanks to factors as disparate as reality TV, the Internet, multiethnic families and a biracial president. Defiance as expressed in Willow Smith's video is about daring to express one's individuality, refusing to be stereotyped and changing the conversation.
Within the beauty industry there has been an explosion of individual expression. The diversity can be seen in the range of hairstyles worn by African Americans — styles that are copied by people of other ethnicities. Whether it's Beyoncé's glamour waves, Rihanna's faux-hawk and vibrant hair color, Corinne Bailey Rae's fluffy soft curls, Cassie's punk rock half-shaved head, Whoopi Goldberg's dreadlocks, Michelle Obama's conservative coif, Solange's buzz cut, Janelle Monáe's pompadour, Erykah Badu's afro, Alicia Keys' braids, Chanel Iman's super-straight locks and ballerina bun, or Halle Berry's pixie-ish crop — women are showing that hair can be beautiful in many ways.
Beverly Johnson, the super-model and businesswoman who in 1974 became the first African American model on the cover of Vogue, recalls that in the 20th century, women of color were already adopting a variety of styles. "When I was modeling, we had Pat Evans, a model who had her hair totally shaved; Joyce Wilford, who was on the cover of Seventeen [in 1971] in a tiny little afro; and you had me with my hair slicked back.
"But now I think there's even more [options] with the popularity of hair extensions and how the wig business has just taken off," says Johnson, who has the Beverly Johnson Hair Collection, a popular wig and hair extension line, as well as a line of paraben-free hair-care products.
Today's hairpieces include extensions, synthetics, myriad textures and colors. They are lightweight, inexpensive and look natural. They make it easy to change styles, and women of all ethnicities are wearing them: Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson and Raquel Welch have wig collections, too.
"You can go from a short cropped look with bangs to long, blond hair in the same day," Johnson says. "People are really in love with the whole idea of having versatility without having to cut, dye or bleach your hair. I think that it is about freedom, imagination, having fun and really entertaining yourself."
Johnson adds that more diverse hairstyles are increasingly being accepted in conservative settings. "The world is a smaller place, and we human beings are taking time to appreciate and acknowledge each other's culture," Johnson says.
Ursula Stephen, the hairstylist who shot into the spotlight when she cut Rihanna's long locks into a sleek bob, is not so sure that "acceptance" is the key word pertaining to this flurry of individuality. "I'm 50/50 on it," says Stephen, who feels that there's still more negative judgment of African American hair.
But the popularity of reality TV shows featuring people such as bikers, tattoo artists and punk rockers has helped bring once extreme styles into the mainstream. Stephen says that if you're great at what you do, there's no need to conform. "We have created our own name so that acceptance from the outside doesn't really matter anymore," she says.