‘What is your definition of beauty?’ asks Selfridges, the UK-based luxury retailer. At first reassuringly democratic, the question carries a waft of faux-chumminess, where beauty is obviously independent of anything a brand could tell me. But, despite my cynicism, Selfridges plotted an expansive map of beauty culture, covering everything from age to body alteration throughout its 6-week program, The Beauty Project.
One of the main aspects of the campaign is a 4-minute film exploring the resurgent trend of natural afro hair called ‘A Return to Natural’, where Hannah Pool (writer/curator), Marc Hare (shoe designer), Adio Marchant (Bipolar Sunshine) and Monique Sterling (Theatre Director) meditate on their personal journey with the ‘fro.
Whilst a seemingly fortunate inclusion of minorities in the beauty debate, the campaign’s surface empowerment is undercut with a narrow understanding of what is ‘natural’, what it is to be ‘natural’ and the supposed moral, post-oppressive utopianism that it affords.
The word ‘natural’, especially in a beauty context, spews ideas of honesty and being real. It’s important to note the position it maintains in a binary of options, though — being natural only gains significance when compared to the fake. The processes towards the ‘natural’ can switch on an infinite cycle of subtraction, or, as Sebastian Truskolaski’s mentions in an article on beauty theory, the appraised standard of nature can suddenly disappoint with its emptiness. “Adorno argues that ‘Nature is beautiful in that it appears to say more than it is.’ And, in a way, that’s precisely the point: mere nature is only beautiful where it steps outside of itself by saying ‘more than it is’: by making itself completely into artifice.”
That’s not to say being ‘natural’ (whatever that is) can’t enliven or enrich, but it’s worth underlining that the positives aren’t by default. The title ‘A Return to Natural’ builds itself upon an unstable premise, alluding to a single, long-awaited homecoming when home, in actuality, can be any place and is only as good as you make it.
Statements that fashion a relationship between being ‘natural’ and being true to one’s self lose grounding In fact, it becomes a bit tired. Surely (attempted) authenticity is an overly hyped signifier of self-assurance. Why are we still posturing?
The question then arises: ‘Why would you be other than what you are?’ or, as Hannah Pool candidly asks, ‘Why do so many black women put another woman’s hair on their head? This interrogation, posed 3 minutes in to the film, is met by an array of claims articulating the alleged insecurities that inform wig or weave wearing.
‘They are fighting to compete with all the women who may have straighter hair’
‘Femininity is very much read through long, silky flowing hair’
‘I think black women spend more money on their hair than white women simply because they are chasing many ideas of what they are supposed to do’
Whilst this may motivate some hair transformations, it gravely simplifies the desires behind black beauty choices. The possibility that women of color like to dip into trends or experiment is sidelined, condensing participation in beauty culture as ‘trying to be’ rather than ‘freeing one’s self up to be’. Agency has, and is being, denied to minorities in the beauty context, and the façade of choice often gives way to guilt and shame, whether a woman chooses to follow the norm or steers away from it.
And the money thing? The staggering amount of cash that [some] black women pay for their hair? Well, is there a cap on the amount that should be spent, and who is in a position to interrogate that decision? This phenomenon of black hair money is referred to twice in the video and framed within the infrastructure of a luxury retailer. It scolds women for their spending whilst silently dictating how they should spend … splurge less on your hair so you can spend more money with us here in our department store (plausible, no?).
The film ends with a montage of Monique Sterling’s iridescent Afro, whilst her doppelganger donning chemically straightened hair rotates into darkness, relieved of its temporary spotlight. The final words, before the credits, are an assertive ‘keep your hands off my hair’. Slightly irritated and confused by this point, my impulse was to turn that exact phrase back to the video, with a resounding ‘but why don’t you leave my hair alone?!’
With all things considered, the film campaign ceases to be about natural hair, Afro hair or even general hair choices.
Instead, like first question posed in the film, it’s about what your hair says about you … because, let’s face it, everyone is watching.