CHICAGO — On a recent afternoon at Chicago’s Dewey Elementary Academy of Fine Arts, Ladon Brumfield asked a group of 9 and 10-year-old African-American girls to define beauty.
The nearly 20 girls unanimously agreed that if a woman had short, kinky hair, she was not beautiful. But when Ms. Brumfield, the director of a project empowering young girls, passed around a photograph of Lupita Nyong’o, the darkbrown-skinned actress who sports an extra-short natural, the girls were silent for a moment.
Then, once again, their answer was unanimous: They agreed Ms. Nyong’o was beautiful.
“It’s like they had to make a mental readjustment,” said Ms. Brumfield, founder of the nonprofit Girls Rule! “This was in conflict with the overwhelming imagery they receive from the media about having to have long hair.”
For more than a decade, increasing numbers of black women have been wearing their natural hair in afros, braids, locks, and twists. But now, thanks in part to Ms. Nyong’o, it’s the TWA, or teenie-weenie afro, that’s getting a second look and expanding notions of beauty into the larger culture.
Ms. Nyong’o isn’t the first black woman or celebrity to sport a super-short natural. But what’s different is that she’s been embraced outside the black community as both media darling and graceful beauty. Ms. Nyong’o recently was named the new face of Lancome cosmetics.
Experts say that extra-short hair will have to go to great lengths to overcome many of today’s issues surrounding beauty and hair that reach back to slavery. But it may give more women who have been contemplating the “big chop” the confidence to do so.
“Even when we were wearing afros during the ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ (period of the 1960s and ’70s), people said, ‘Who has the bigger afro?’ and length was an issue,” said journalist and black hair historian A’Lelia Bundles, 61. She’s the great-great-granddaughter of black hair care magnate Madam C.J. Walker.
“Hair is considered our crown and glory, and women view it as an expression of selfhood. But as we get older and become more secure in ourselves, hair often is just hair.”
“For a lot of black women, hair is an accessory, but they’re also looking for validation,” said Tonya Roberts, who studies multicultural trends at the Chicago office of market researcher Mintel. “When things become acceptable to society, it’s a wink to [the black community] that it’s OK — especially if the question is: Will I be able to get a job with this hairstyle? Will my co-workers or family members accept me?”
As part of a national survey Mintel released last year on black hair care, the company asked black women to rate six hair styles shown in photographs. The styles included hair that was braided, long and straight, short and straight, natural, long and curly, and locked.
Although women considered hair that was long and straight and long and curly to be “high maintenance,” they deemed the styles “healthy,” “sexy,” and “professional.” Short hair, which Mintel defined as about jaw-length, was considered the most “professional” and “classy” of all the styles. Natural hair was viewed as being low maintenance while conveying confidence.
“We didn’t ask about the teenie-weenie afros because a couple of years ago people weren’t talking about them the way they are today,” Ms. Roberts said, adding that the firm plans to ask about the style in this year’s survey.
Throughout history, long hair has been viewed as a marker of beauty and femininity among various cultures. But length has been elusive for some black women, whose hair texture can range from straight to wavy to curly to kinky, because the natural coil of the hair makes it appear shorter.
Women who have desired longer hair have depended on hair straightening products, hot combs, flat irons, weaves, extensions, and wigs.
Frances Simmons, a natural hair care professional who visits Chicago public schools to talk to students about proper hair care, said she’s not against women getting weaves or extensions that are woven in properly. But too many girls are getting them at a very young age and at the expense of healthy hair and a healthy self-image.
“I’ve met a lot of girls who prefer some type of hair contraption, rather than their own because they feel hair has to be long to be beautiful,” said Ms. Simmons. “It doesn’t matter if the fake hair is matted and cheap and braids [are] falling off. What does that say about our self-esteem and self-worth?”
Lanita Jacobs, a University of Southern California associate professor of anthropology and American studies and ethnicity, has written about the politics of black hair, and why length and texture matter so much to women of color.
“We grew up stretching our curls out and saying, ‘See this is how long my hair really is,’” said Ms. Jacobs, who’s black and wears her hair in a short afro. “Length is always somewhere in the room unless you take it out of the equation and go in the opposite direction, and that’s what Lupita and others are doing.”
When Chicago resident Candace Peterson, 28, cut most of her hair off in 2011, she said she took in a barrage of negative feedback before she became confident about her hair. She hopes Ms. Nyong’o will inspire girls to love their hair length and texture.
“Lupita’s look is something I’d never seen before [as a standard of beauty] in Hollywood,” said Ms. Peterson. “Maybe I’m an optimist, but I hope she represents a shift. You never know what will make a difference in a child’s life. Maybe by seeing someone who looks like her, she can feel more self-assured and brave.”