“Why Jesy Nelson’s dreadlocks symbolise more than just a hair choice”

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Tobi Oredein
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“She has the ability to wear a hairstyle so rooted in blackness, but escape stereotypes that often come with dreadlocks,” says Tobi Oredein.

Some things are guaranteed to happen every year. The John Lewis advert always goes viral at Christmas, a nineties TV show or film gets a re-boot, and the topic of cultural appropriation rears its ugly head to take over our social media feeds and the column inches of our favourite publications. Thanks to the backlash Little Mix singer Jesy Nelson received after showing off her red dreadlocks on Instagram, the subject of cultural appropriation has become a topic of conversation once again.

In the most simplest of terms, cultural appropriation is defined as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of a culture by members of another and typically more dominant culture. As a black woman, and therefore from a minority culture, the subject of cultural appropriation has become one of frustration.

While Little Mix have been known for catchy pop anthems, the ladies have become style icons in the making due to their risk taking with fashion. With Jesy constantly experimenting with hair – having dyed it red, blonde, jet black and pink hair in the past – her decision to wear deadlocks isn’t that much of a surprise. Well, not to me at least. The star wore the style for a photoshoot and probably saw it as an opportunity to continue her adventurous hair choices, not anticipating the barrage of criticism it would spark. One Instagram user frankly stated: “Jesy. Please. That’s cultural appropriation. I completely respect you but please do not do that.”’

However, Jesy isn’t alone in her urge to try beauty and fashion looks that originated from a culture she doesn’t belong to. The hairstyle credited to Bo Derek – another white woman – is actually called Fulani braids, and Kim Kardashian’s incorrect citation of its origin culturally erases black women and their connection to the hairstyle, while simultaneously robbing black women the chance to be seen as beauty pioneers thanks to a style we’ve been wearing for centuries.

Writer Tobi Oredein discusses the power dynamics between white and black women. 

It has become tiresome to constantly explain that cultural appropriation isn’t just me as a black woman, screaming: “You can’t wear braids, because only black women can.” It is about power dynamics. It is about the fact that someone who is white can pick and choose elements from minority cultures that have been and in many cases still are, systematically oppressed by white people. Rastafarians have worn dreadlocks for a significant amount of time for both spiritual and political reasons that go beyond vanity. One reason those from the Rastafarian culture wear dreadlocks is that according to their interpretation, the bible asks believers not to comb or shave their hair. Meanwhile, some Rastafarians wear dreadlocks as a statement to express going against the norms of society, and ultimately a way of defiance against colonialism.

However, dreadlocks is not the only hairstyle that has cultural significance to black history. Cornrows is a hairstyle worn many years out of practicality for mainly black women, but when slaves came from their homes of Africa, they were asked to cover their heads, because their hair wasn’t what slave masters were familiar with. So you can understand why so many black women felt outraged when Katy Perry casually donned cornrows to look cool for her This Is How We Do music video. 

Jesy Nelson’s recent foray into the world of cultural appropriation shows a lack of sensitivity to how her hairstyle may make some women feel. To me, it was a clear that Jesy lacked the emotional intelligence to see that her decision was racially insensitive. Yet, ultimately, her decision will be forgotten and people will jump to her defense by saying she was trying to pay tribute to Rastafarian culture, rather than exploit it. But it has also dawned on me how much personal power white women have when it comes to their hair and beauty choices. While Jesy has been criticised for the decision, as a white woman, she is free to wear a hairstyle such a dreadlocks - free from the types of prejudice that comes when a black person wears the hairstyle. 

She has the ability to wear a hairstyle so rooted in blackness, but escape stereotypes that often come with dreadlocks. For a moment, cast your mind back to 2015, when E! host Guiliana Rancic said Zendaya probably smelt like patchouli oil or weed when she had dreadlocks. These stereotypes are often used against black people to maintain power structures and to ensure ethnic minorities don’t deviate from beauty styles that go outside the Eurocentric standards. By reprimanding black people for their decision to wear beauty styles that celebrate their heritage, dominant cultures use stereotypes to remind us that we should completely rid ourselves of our cultural identity and assimilate completely.  

For black women, wearing hairstyles that reflect our blackness can sometimes end in ridicule especially from the mainstream media, while some use occasions such as Halloween and fancy dress to dehumanise black people and reduce our cultural identity to nothing more than costumes. However, for white women, wearing hairstyles rooted in blackness can have the complete opposite effect, as high profile women such as Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry who “experiment” with black hairstyles are often labelled risk takers or trendsetters. It illustrates that for white women, hair and hair choices really are freedoms of expression. Less so if you’re a black woman.

Looking at Jesy and her dreadlocks, I realised unlike her, as a black woman, my hair choices haven’t always symbolised freedom. If anything, until a few years ago, my hair choices symbolised submission and oppression. I chemically changed the texture of my hair for over 15 years in order to fit into society’s beauty standards. As a young black woman, I felt I had no choice but to have my hair this way in order to be seen attractive and to fit in with how society expected women to look. 

I avoided braids and cornrows like the plague, as I knew they were seen as unkempt and untidy because programmes I watched often portrayed black people with such hairstyles as poor and from low-income backgrounds. I spent thousands of pounds on flowing long hair extensions, so I would comply to a femininity that was synonymous with the western gaze. Now, I feel regret for not celebrating by blackness through my beauty choices. I wonder why I didn’t have the courage to celebrate my heritage through my style choices.

Most women have defining moments in their hair history. One hair moment I can never forget comes courtesy of my best friend, Demi. During our teen years, she landed a part-time job at a well-known and highly respected retail store. When she first got her job, she made hair choices that fitted into the Eurocentric beauty standards that are pushed upon all women of colour. One day, she decided to change things up and have a hairstyle that drifted away from those beauty standards as she had an afro cut that was gelled down at the sides. The result? Her manager asked her to take her new hairstyle out in the staff toilets – something she never thought she’d have to do.

Jesy Nelson’s hair is, without doubt, an act of cultural appropriation. But for me, her picture is a reminder that hair shows the power imbalance that often exists between white women and black women. White women have the luxury to wear most hairstyles and not have their appearance affect them making an income, nor will it lead to them being judged and condemned by wider society. If anything, Jesy Nelson and white women who sport hairstyles rooted in black culture highlight how crossing cultural lines with hair choices can win them praise and allow them to reinvent themselves. Meanwhile, black women have used their hair choices to not just assimilate, but to survive in a society that still hasn’t woken up to the fact that deeply ingrained structural racism can wipe away the agency black women have when it comes to the hairstyles they wear in their everyday lives.

Images: REX Features/Tracy Watson Photography