H&M recently launched a new kids campaign and photo in particular has angered the internet.

The photo in question features a young black girl whose hair appears to have been neglected and completely unstyled.

Much of the backlash can be summed up by natural hairstylist Vernon Francois, who took to Instagram to express his disappointment with yet another offensive advertisement from H&M and wrote,

This beautiful young girl’s #kinky hair appears to have had very little to no attention yet all of her counterparts have clearly sat in front of someone who was more than capable of styling other hair textures.”

His post along with the original photos (see below) have since sparked a heated debate on whether the girl’s hair is actually “unkempt” or if the black community is just internalizing and projecting a hatred for natural black hair. My own initial reaction to Francois’ post was how ridiculous it was to see a little black girl with her hair undone in a national campaign. But I had to question whether my own struggles with my 4c hair were clouding my vision. I questioned why I felt so offended by the photo.

h&m black girl hair controversy
The campaign in question/ credit: H&M

It’s true that dark skin and kinky hair is not closely tied to traditional beauty standards, but let’s be clear: this isn’t a debate about the beauty of the girl’s natural hair.

It’s no secret that black girls’ hair requires more maintenance than other ethnicities. We need more moisture, more time, more attention. Many of us take pride in that because our hair’s versatility makes us that much more unique. 

The main argument for those who support the ad is that the “messy” hairstyle the campaign was aiming was evenly distributed among the child models. H&M specifically noted in a statement via Twitter that the campaign was inspired by the idea that “kids should be kids.” They wrote,

“The school-aged kids who model for us come to the photo studio in the afternoon after school and we aim for a natural look which reflects that.”

The thing is though, black hair is not the same as white and Asian hair and shouldn’t be treated as such. There was styling available for every child involved — no matter how “minimal” — and for a reason. They were to be photographed appearing a little disheveled to capture the essence of a carefree child but there was still intention behind it. The kids with loose hair textures had messy buns with flyaways and slightly tangled hair while the little black girl had her hair thrown back in an unbrushed, unmoisturized ponytail. 

The public critique surrounding one little girl’s hair is unfortunate, but by running the ad, H&M knew it would spark controversy. Hair is such a sensitive and complicated topic for black people so a discussion was inevitable. Knowing H&M’s history with racially insensitive ads, I can’t help but assume there were no natural black hairstylists available to minimally style the girl’s 4c hair. If there were one person in that room who understood how to handle a kinky texture of hair, this debate might not even be happening.

Francois, whose career is dedicated to handling different textures of hair also wrote in the post,

“Prior to this campaign appearing, this photograph will have been seen and APPROVED by countless ‘professionals’. Let’s say conservatively 50 people. It’s breathtaking to me that not one person looked at this shot and had the same reaction that the internet seems to be feeling since the campaign broke.  THAT IS AN ISSUE. We must do better. Our girls, our young women deserve better.”

From the hairstylists all the way up to corporate, no one could see a potential issue with her hair. If the people in charge don’t care enough to notice a problem, why would they take the necessary steps to fix the problem? Further, if they don’t care to recognize a problem, then why would any of their hairstylists feel the need to recognize a problem?

A lack of interest in understanding our hair isn’t just an issue for black models, though, it’s an issue for all black girls. It’s crying in a hair salon chair while a non-black hairstylist yanks through our curls with a rat-tail comb. It’s going to summer camp and having to explain to our counselors why we need a swim cap so our hair doesn’t get wet after a fresh press. It’s showing up to picture day and the photographer messing with our perfectly gelled down ponytail. 

Everyone should make more of an effort to understand all types of hair, but for people trained in cosmetology, it is literally their jobs. While the vast majority of black hairstylists understand how to work with non-black hair, you’d be hard-pressed to find a non-black hairstylist who knows how to handle black hair. So, why are black girls not given the same effort to understand our hair? 

If you work in hairstyling, whether it’s at a tiny hair salon in your community or you’re working photoshoots and fashion shows, then you should be able to style every type of hair all the way from straight to kinky. Yes, all kids should be allowed to be kids, but they should also be allowed to feel good about their hair and the people they trust to handle it.

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Feature photo by nappy

Categories: Style & Beauty