Why I Care About Michelle Obama's Hair

It lowkey breaks my heart to say this, but I’m not convinced that America is ready for a First Lady who wears her hair in all of its unfettered natural, highly textured glory.
Publish date:
March 30, 2012
natural hair, beauty, issues, Michelle Obama, afro

When I saw a photo of Michelle Obama with fluffy, full, kinky, coily fabulously natural textured hair make the rounds on Facebook like crazy last week, I instantly knew it wasn’t real. How could it be? Michelle Obama is best known for her sleek, elegant bob -- most notably maintained by celebrity stylist Johnny Wright. Not to mention the fact that natural hair of the volume featured in the faked photo of the first lady takes time to cultivate. Add to that, seeing as even the subtlest of Michelle Obama’s sartorial choices become fuel for right wing criticism, I just knew the photograph had to be the handiwork of wishful thinking and Fotoshop by Adobé. As much as I’d love to believe that this country is openminded enough to embrace natural hair in the White House, I’ve also read enough online comments to know otherwise. It lowkey breaks my heart to say this, but I’m not convinced that America is ready for a First Lady who wears her hair in all of its unfettered natural, highly textured glory. The above photo was pinned to the walls of every woman with natural hair that I’m FB friends with. The comments that unfulred underneath were absolutely glowing with heartfelt expressions of hope, pride and inspiration. But those were from the relatively small number of women who are looking for national images that reflect the one they see in the mirror every day. Lots of people seemed to accept on face value that the photo was real. But when Maeling Tapp also known as Natural Chica figured out the photoshopped hair was in fact hers, she posted the real picture and got more than 1,500 likes.

While it’s awesome to have hair that’s considered iconic enough for Michelle O, I had to wonder if Mae was at all weirded out by the whole thing. So I reached out to her to see what it felt like to see your hair adorning the head of our FLOTUS.“It was unbelievable to see the picture go viral and read all the positive responses to the first lady wearing a curly, natural hair style,” she said via email. Folks were so excited that once the hoax was revealed many expressed real disappointment. The comments switched from “OMG, she looks amazing!” to, “I wish this was real.” And it made me wonder as I have in the past -- why do we care much about how the FLOTUS wears her hair? Mae had her ideas about that. “For years, wearing a natural hair style has been seen by some people as not 'professional' or 'elegant' enough," she explained. "With more women embracing and wearing their natural texture, many of these negative stereotypes are slowly being diminished. I believe that there were many people who saw this photo and thought of the major impact that Mrs. Obama could have had in further diminishing these negative ideas associated with natural hair.” She’s right. This hair issue runs so deep. Old indoctrinations die hard. There are generations stacked on top of generations of women who weren’t taught to love or how to care for their hair in its natural texture. Generations that still believe that the texture of their hair isn’t "good," isn’t beautiful, and won’t be accepted at work, school, church, in the streets or even at home in the presence of polite company. There are so many women who've been taught to believe that straight, long hair is the standard of beauty. So anything other than that is less attractive, less valid, and often interpreted as some kind of political statement that may not be the intention of the wearer (i.e., an Afro equals "militant").

Consequently, many of us who wear our hair natural tend to look for validation on television, in advertising, in magazines and on blogs. We anoint celebrities as our hair icons. We’re looking for a Beyonce or Oprah or Michelle Obama to rock a fro to show the whole world what we already know -- that our hair is indisputably gorgeous in its natural state. It makes me wonder how it would feel to be Michelle Obama. How much pressure does she feel, when she gets dressed? Did she see the photo being shared all over social media? And if she did, what did she think about the response? If Michelle Obama decided to let her hair just do its thing and wore a loose natural style, it would absolutely change the game. It would say to the doubters, detractors and naysayers that black hair is beautiful and glamorous, without having to be straightened by heat-related or chemical means. It would say to the world that natural hair is professional, admirable and desirable. Maybe she’ll do it during her husband’s second term (yes, I did just name it and claim it). Or maybe after the White House, when the Obamas are free to be themselves away from the searing glare of the spotlight. Or maybe she never will -- going natural has been a great path for me but by no means does that mean that I think it should be everyone’s path. Sure, it'd be more than cool but in the end it's Mrs. Obama’s prerogative to do what she wants to with her style. I mean she’s dealing with enough pressure and scrutiny as it is. So if the first lady decides to let her 'fro grow we should applaud her (I know I will). But at the same time, let's not saddle her with the weight of our collective expectation.