An Analysis of Transformations in the Mass Media Constructions of Black Women’s Hair through Leisure Reading: a Case Study of Drum Hair Magazine
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The Black woman has gone through various physical transformations in terms of her body and shape but for this paper specific attention will be on her hair which has passed through transformations in terms of shape, length and texture. The mass media through the entertainment industry has over the years visually presented and verbally described the Black woman in terms of her hair through adverts, celebrities and the fashion industry. Exposure to such mass media messages for many is a leisure exercise which nevertheless, has created symbols of Black identity while re-enforcing concepts such as political and social class. Through the images and words of mass media channels such as magazines, Black women all over the world have been exposed to messages that promote a desire and craving to change the shape and form their hair takes; a shape that has ensured the Black hair care industry stays alive and thrives. Through the leisure reading activity of Black hair care magazines, Black women are encouraged to use various haircare products to transform their natural hair texture into one that is long and straight in order to better ‘manage’ and have a more ‘acceptable’ image/identity. This paper considers the prominent South African Black hair care magazine, Drum Hair Magazine as a case study to better understand how this leisure reading activity can make a reader feel relaxed and entertained while influencing their construction of the identity and social class of Black South African women. This is done through a content analysis of the words and images of six on-line editions of the selected magazine. The result of the analysis brings to the spotlight the aim of the on-line tabloid to encourage the readers to see Black hair transformations and the use of various haircare products as an incentive for social acceptance on the one hand; and feelings of happiness, confidence and success on the other. This is despite the harmful effects such transformations have on the health of Black women and their hair.
KeywordsSouth African women Black women’s hair Mass media Leisure reading Drum Hair Magazine
Mass media messages are transmitted through various channels ranging from television, radio, newspaper and the Internet. The consumption of mass media messages is classified as a leisure activity because of its ability to entertain, relax and make the audience forget about the everyday stresses of life. One of such channels is magazine reading which has also been categorised as recreational/leisure reading, reading for fun, or free reading (Mikulecky et al. 1979; Gilbert and Fister 2011). Studies have shown that such forms of reading are voluntary and through the activity, readers are better able to understand themselves and the world around them. Studies have also shown that women are more likely to read magazines and perceive the activity as a form of recreation than they would reading newspapers or other Internet sources (Gilbert and Fister 2011). For the South African Black woman, the leisure reading activity of Black hair magazines is not only entertaining and relaxing but also an important instrument that can expose her to tips and guides on how to ‘look the class’ through how she wears her hair. Being able to look and play the role of women who come from a more upper social class is a key for her personal advancement or career improvement (Mikulecky et al. 1979).
The Black South African woman is believed to be subjected to triple forms of oppression regarding her race, class and gender (Kunene 2018). In the history of this triple oppression are narratives that surround the Black female hair. The Apartheid regime of South Africa categorised its citizens by social and economic classes using the ‘pencil test’. A pencil was inserted into the hair of a baby born during this era to determine its status. If the pencil dropped, the baby passed the test and was classified as ‘White’. If the pencil did not drop, the baby was condemned to the lower class of ‘Coloured’ or ‘Black’ (Oyedemi 2016). Post-Apartheid witnessed many Black South African women who joined their Black sisters around the world to straighten their hair by applying chemicals to ‘soften’ and convert their hair into a longer and silkier form; or wear wigs and weaves rather than displaying their natural ‘kinky’ and ‘woolly’ hair forms. This desire to transform the Black hair was profoundly influenced by media classification of Eurocentric forms of beauty as the ideal representation of class, success and development (Thompson 2009). Mass media messages hardly depict natural Black hair forms thus leaving Black women, (including those in South Africa), with little choice concerning how to maintain and be creative with their natural hair (Greene 2011). The media, through words, images and other visuals, present the altered form of the Black hair as fun, progressive and sophisticated. Such images are essential for post-Apartheid South African women who are rising out of poverty and are being represented in the professional sphere due to improved access to education and work opportunities (Jaga et al. 2018).
2 The Black Hair Debate
Traditionally, pre-colonial African societies viewed hair as a signifier indicating the status of the individual (married, leader, initiated, alive or dead). The spiritual importance attached to the hair is an extension of the connection the head of an individual has with ancestors, the gods, the community and their destiny. Africans South of the Sahara were thus known to elaborately decorate their hair to show this connection. The importance of this connection was further captured through depictions made on various visual medium such as sculptural art (Sieber and Herreman 2000). In their exhibition preview, Sieber and Herreman (2000) present various African art works and pictures of past hair styles worn in various African communities. The artworks depict elaborate hair styles of ancient Africa and thus serve as one of the earliest media depictions of African hair as it was worn and signified. It is believed that such elaborate shapes and textures were possible through the addition of clay, mud animal fat and oils which took hours and sometimes days to achieve (Pearle 2017). For some cultural groups in Africa, the hair itself was believed to have spiritual powers and was thus used as an important ingredient for medicines and healing potions (Johnson and Bankhead 2014).
Contemporary literature categorises Black hair quality based on its texture, length and ‘grade’ (Lester 2000). Black hair grades are based on the social qualifications given with ‘bad hair’ being qualified with words such as short, matted, kinky, nappy, course, brittle and woolly; and good hair which was hair that was closer to the White European hair was described with words such as long, straight, silky, bouncy and manageable (Lester 2000). Scholars agree that the slave trade and later colonialism did not only play a major role in this relabelling but also served as the first stage of the African hair transformation for African Americans. Within Africa, colonisation and the Apartheid system translated everything traditional to mean something bad and evil while the embracement of Western ideologies meant accepting civilization and development. This was not only in terms of the mind but also an expression of the body and in this case the hair.
3 Media Role in Hair Transformation
In the history of African resistance to Eurocentric oppression Black self-esteem and pride served as a symbol of resistance starting from the Slave trade era when mothers told their children stories about Africa to keep the memory of the African culture alive. These stories were later retold through children’s story books and the aim of these literature series was to make African children love themselves and see beauty in their hair and bodies (Brooks and McNair 2015). These literature messages sought to give Black female children an alternative message to the media prominence of Eurocentric beauty. Contrary to these stories, many African American girls grew up seeing Eurocentric beauty through their mothers, aunts and even grandmothers who either straightened or permed their hair; or wore wigs and weaves of various lengths and colours. Black women who made the decision to stay natural did so when they learnt about the harmful effects of chemically altering their hair textures (King and Niabaly 2013). For such women, the most negative responses to their natural hair came not from peers and friends but from family members who put pressure on them to alter their hair texture and form (King and Niabaly 2013; Bankhead and Johnson 2014). Such pressures were mainly generated due to the influence of entertainment coated mass media messages which related success to Black hair transformations and not the stories of Black Pride told to children.
An historical look at the mass media (especially the entertainment industry and the advertising agencies) indicates that the role it played has had a great effect on how Black women see themselves and their hair. The early 1900 was dominated by media images of Black women with straightened ‘good’ hair. The fame of straightened hair was first promoted through Anna Malone’s hair straightening line and later Madame CJ Walker’s hot comb (Johnson and Bankhead 2014:88). Natural Black hair was seen as ‘bad hair’ and despite debates that questioned the altering of the Black hair and skin - equating it with self-hatred; it was obvious that the Black hair industry through their media adverts had won the battle. Major Black female public figures of this era all had their hair straightened and this ranged from every Black beauty queen and model to the wives and promoters of Black pride and civil rights fighters (Abagond 2010a). History provides very few examples of media presentations of the Black female hair in its natural state. One of such examples is the 1950’s Afro, a ‘puffed out nappy hair’ which originated in South Africa (where it was called the ‘Bush’) and eventually became the vogue. Prominent Black female figures in the entertainment industry such as Nina, Simone, Miriam Makeba and Cicely Tyson; and later leaders of the Black power movement promoted the hairstyle. This media projection of an alternative to straightened hair caught on with the younger generation especially amongst Black female university students (Abagond 2010b).
For some scholars, the media has racialized African beauty by presenting and celebrating Black female celebrities in the entertainment industry who have been able to successfully achieve a ‘white beauty ideal’ (Bankhead and Johnson 2014). Through entertainment, the media has been able to present the Eurocentric form as the ideal image of beauty, a standard that the Black woman has to accept. Some scholars believe that this is a form of racial oppression because it makes it harder for African natural beauty in the form of hair form and texture to be accepted in the global society and professional career world (Randle 2016). Such media bias has resulted in social pressures for Black women to aspire for a Eurocentric goal with few media images of ‘Black Beauty’ to choose from in terms of deciding how to wear their ‘kinky’ hair (King and Niabaly 2013). This dilemma becomes even more prominent for women who wish to rise in the social and professional ladder. For many, having the right look increases not only their confidence and self-esteem, but also the possibilities of being socially accepted and qualifying to represent a higher social status (Smith et al. 2011).
Within this dilemma of how African hair should be represented, have risen discourses within the media and amongst Africans as to what real Black beauty means. Research has shown that there is a strong relationship between beauty adverts that depict Black women as against White women and the development of Black women’s level of self-esteem (Gilchrist and Thompson n.d.). In the South African sphere, Gilchrist and Thompson (n.d.) note that the adverts such as those that promote shampoos for Black women depict only straightened Black hair as the only acceptable look of Black beauty. Other Black hair forms such as cornrows, natural hair or locks are not considered, thus leaving the viewers with only one definition of beauty. The target audience of these adverts are the emerging Black South African middle-class women who want to fit into the globalised professional world. The adverts present diverse hairstyles with accompanying products that help transform the Black hair (and ultimately personality) into more exciting and diverse looks. The messages present the Eurocentric look as one of liberty that allows Black women to change their hairstyles more frequently than other South African women (Balkaran n.d.). The South African Black woman is thus encouraged to see the Eurocentric forms of beauty as a form of happiness and confidence in a society that has witnessed decades of Black oppression.
The media debate over the years has taken a different turn with many looking at the economic effect of Black hair product consumption. Such debates spring from statistics which indicate for example that Black women in the United States make up 6 % of the total population but they consume 80% of all hair products (Nyamnjoh and Fuh 2014). For India and other Asian countries, a $9 billion market has been established through a sale of processed hair sourced from their women who shave their hair for religious purposes and from the dead. These processed ‘human hair’ are shipped out and sold to Black women in Africa and America who wear them as extensions and weaves (Nyamnjoh and Fuh 2014). In the United States, some African American celebrities in the entertainment industry made the booming haircare industry and its implications on the African woman as a focal point for public discussion thus raising awareness and questions of Black identity. The points raised through these mass media messages differed sharply from the Eurocentric mass media messages entertainment coated Western programs and adverts of African haircare products project of African hair and beauty. The discourses that it generated thus served as a foundation for scholars in their research into South African hair and its meanings (Majali et al, 2017). Contemporary research indicates that such awareness messages has encouraged more Black women to accept the natural state of their hair and to experiment with various styles and locks (Pearle 2017). Within this context it is important to consider how leisure reading channels like Drum Hair Magazine which is designed for Black hair care present Black hair form options through its images and words.
4 Theoretical Framework
Gudrun (n.d.) in an analysis of magazine covers examines how publications, through their choice of words and images enhance the pleasure a reader gains from the leisure activity. This is done through a combination of the language used, the picture placement and the simultaneous and equal presentation of both. Though such studies have been done under media study themes as a consideration of how such messages can increase the subscription and readership of the intended target audience, this paper adopts this method to examine how the media associate positive words to Eurocentric forms of beauty which promotes transformed Black hair forms as signifiers of the status of Black South African women.
Most magazine cover pages are designed to be reader-friendly by providing information readers would most likely wish to have within their direct visual sight. To achieve this, the publishers ensures that there is an interdependence of both the visual as well as the wordings (Gudrun n.d.). A magazine cover not only serves as an indirect advert for the magazine by attracting the readers to it but more importantly tries to reassure readers that they will achieve maximum enjoyment from reading its contents. The cover page highlights themes that will appeal to the leisure reading senses of the target audience. The cover page thus serves as a window or appetiser which appeals to this sense of leisure through consumption of the content. The need to achieve pleasure through reading is the driving force the magazine cover plays on to encourage the reader to continue seeing reading as a leisure activity.
The layout of soft sell magazines in themselves communicate meaning by creating codes of symbols that the reader can connect to (Gibson et al. 2015). Positive symbols inspire in the reader a sense of achievement which in itself gives the reader positive emotions and the belief that positive relationships can be built from this sense of achievement (Arcidiacono and Martino 2017). The association of personal achievement with positive feelings of the self and its social engagement makes the reader feel happy and have a sense of self-worth. Thus, the magazine will make use of words that can incite pleasant emotions, make the reader feel a part of the global and local society while encouraging a sense of satisfaction. Negative and unpleasant feelings that could make the reader feel sad, angry, worried or stressed are discouraged. By creating positive feelings from the leisure reading experience, the magazine not only encourages the leisure activity but also makes the reader more susceptible and more willing to adopt the ideologies presented through the media.
5 Study Instrument and Method
The research instrument used for this paper is the online edition of the Drum Hair Magazine. Drum Hair Magazine is a South African based tabloid established in August 2012, which has as its target audience South African Black women. Each edition costs between R40–45 which makes it a magazine targeting middle-income Black South African women who have interests in African Black hair and fashion trends. Drum Hair Magazine uses the platform of Black hair and its care to educate and advertise to its target audience hair, its use, its effects and its advantages. The magazine also exposes the reader to narratives that surround contemporary Black hair issues and trends through a showcasing of prominent and successful Black South African women in the entertainment industry.
This study adopts content analysis in analysing the words and images used by Drum Hair Magazine in its presentation of the Black female hair form. The data is presented based on an analysis of the words and images used in the selected on-line version of Drum Hair Magazine.
Each issue of Drum Hair Magazine features a prominent Black South African female public figure and they range from singers, actresses, broadcasters, models, entertainers and fashion designers. The issues present to the readers the ‘hair’ stories of these women. The magazine also presents as supporting stories, information about African American females in the entertainment industry and this is often introduced through passport sized pictures of the celebrities. In all the issues analysed, the major images depicted are of South African Black women. Each issue presents to the readers its mission which is to encourage Black South African women to 'Love your Hair'. This message is supported with photographs of prominent South African Black women who suggest that their hair played a major role in their success as public figures. Each major photograph is followed with captions that encourage the readers to desire a look similar to the celebrities featured. The captions also give advice, tips and strategies on how to achieve this desired look. Thus, the first aim of the tabloid is to make readers want the magazine's proposed version of beauty by presenting to them the images and hair stories of the South African Black female celebrities on the cover pages who wear weaves, wigs, extensions and chemically transformed hair styles. This is followed with captions which suggest credible hints and tips on how to achieve this look as given by the celebrities themselves and other professionals in the hair care industry. Such captions give the readers the feeling that adopting such options are safe and reliable because they have been tested and tried by experts. The tabloid also presents to readers the tools to achieve this look of success through advertisement of various hair care products.
The magazine introduces to its South African Black female readers images of artificial wigs, weaves, extensions and chemically altered versions of the Black female hair with words such as healthy, strong, shiny, silky, and long. The feeling the leisure readers are assured of after either chemically altering their hair or trying the artificial options and associated products are captured with words such as: success, the best, beautiful, happy and love. Not applying or adhering to these alterations are represented with words such as: itchiness, dryness, lifelessness, damaged, fragile and bad hair. The option of chemically altering the Black hair and adopting the Eurocentric form of beauty is prominently captured through the images of smiling and laughing Black women suggesting happiness and contentment; or women who look straight at the camera with no smile at all suggesting confidence and boldness.
Very few of the issues suggest to the readers the possibility of exposing their natural hair forms. One of such is Fig. 5 (Issue 5 of 2015) which presents the caption ‘Going natural? How to transition with ease’ but the images are of Black women in weaves and wigs. Within the page is a small image on the right hand side of a Black woman with a short closely cut hair with the caption ‘My short hair is just so easy’. Within the same issue is the passport sized photo of a Black woman with corn rows at the back of the head and a tuft of natural hair in front. This is one of three pictures of Black women with the other two women wearing artificial extensions and the caption ‘Better braids: how to keep your plaits perfect’. This concept of ‘going natural is followed up on in Fig. 6 (Issue 6 of 2016) which depicts on the left-hand side the image of a Black woman with natural kinky hair with the caption ‘Readers share their natural journeys’ and at the bottom of the page a passport sized image of a Black woman with short natural hair dyed tan brown. Figure 7 (Issue 7) further hints of a natural look with the caption ‘Hot Styles: Natural short, colour & weaves’. Issues 4- 7 (Figures 4- 7) have on their cover and advert pages images depicting Black women who wear closely cut hair; or styles that depict shaved hair on one side with either a weave or a blow-out-look on the opposite side or in front of their heads. Issues 3, 5, 6 and 7 introduce to the readers the use of braids as another possibility for a natural look. These issues nevertheless suggest that such a natural look must be aided with extensions to give the impression of possessing long and full hair (in other words, Black natural hair is short thus limiting Black women unlike the dynamic and glamerous styling opportunities long hair can give). Mothers are especially encouraged in Issue 7 (Figure 7) to adopt this artificial natural long hair look for their daughters through images of little girls smiling and looking happy into the camera wearing braids aided with extensions. These pictures are supported with captions that read ‘Looks for school & advice for little kids’, ‘happy, pretty hair days’ and ‘Give your daughter beautiful hair’. This image narrative is mixed with pictures of young Black girls with chemically relaxed hair smilling radiantly.
The Drum Magazine presents itself to its readers as a credible tabloid in African Black women’s hair care. Through the phrase ‘Love your hair’ in every issue, it presents to consumers a feeling that there are Black women who hate their hair or who are struggling to love their hair. This speaks to the narrative that has surrounded the Black hair type and form for decades. The use of negative words associated with the natural Black hair form will make the reader feel that adopting such hair forms will most likely result in depression and loss of confidence. The reader is vividly encouraged to embrace the Eurocentric form of beauty which is associated with numerous images of models and celebrities in the entertainment industry wearing weaves, perms and extensions of various lengths and fullness. The tabloid presents accounts from these women about how they achieved the ‘ideal look’ which implies that this is a significant point for their success. The tabloid then gives the consumers tips, strategies and products that can help them achieve a similar result. These are given by ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ in the African Black hair industry. To emphasise the confidence the women will feel after applying these alterations, the tabloid selects positive words to associate with the hair images promoted. Even though the magazine is aimed at attracting predominantly Black South African women, it is hard to miss that the natural hair form in its unaltered and natural state, is painfully under represented on the cover and supporting pages. The phrase “Love your hair” then almost seems conditional. The tabloid is silent about countering narratives that warn Black women about the possible hazards adopting this Eurocentric hair form can cause to the hair and body. Such hazards are not considered an option for discussion thus drowning other realities such as the huge amounts the Eurocentric beauty will cost and those who most benefit from such Black hair transformations. What is rather emphasised is the happiness, self-love, confidence and feeling of success Eurocentric beauty can give to the Black woman who wants to adopt the role of a middle-class, successful and professional South African Black woman.
The media is a tool for leisure that influences lifestyle decisions and cultural norms. The selected mass media channel (Drum Hair Magazine) brings to bear how the media has influenced the way South African Black women perceive their hair and define the ideal. The media presents to readers images of celebrities and professionals and backs this up with positive words. The result is that readers unconsciously compare themselves with these images and create a standard for their definition of the ideal and beautiful. Contrary images of natural kinky African Black hair are few and presented with neutral words thus giving the consumers limited contrary standards to aspire for. The consumers are then encouraged to use various hair care products which are ‘guaranteed’ to help give the desired look through the images and the accompanying captions. This encourages the consumers to buy the advertised products in order to claim the associated ‘beauty’ images of social status and success. This, perpetuates the narrative that natural kinky Black hair needs to be “fixed”, for the middle class Black South African woman to be happy and confident enough to be accepted and fit into a successful and professional social class.
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