The Politics of Hair: From 3000 B.C. to Kim Kardashian13th February 2018
Surprise surprise, Kim Kardashian was back causing controversy this week. One hundred and seven million of her hungry followers were drip-fed Instagram stories and nude polaroids of the zeitgeist queen and her new hairstyle. “So guys,” she begins when addressing her followers, “I did ‘Bo Derek’ braids, and I’m really into it.” These ‘Bo Derek braids’ are in fact Fulani braids or ‘Corn Rows’, they are a cultural creation of the Fulani People: a tribe which has used the style since 3000 B.C. and is scattered across West Africa, concentrated principally in Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Senegal, and Niger. The Bo Derek to whom Kim K attributes the style is the actress and producer, now aged 61. She sported Fulani braids in the 1979 rom-com ‘10’, a film which determined the young starlet as a ‘sex symbol’ and her braids quickly became eponymous.
It is not uncommon to see models and celebrities with cornrows, so why was so much fuss made about Kim’s? Many put it down to this attribution; actress Kelechi Okafor suggested on Twitter that Kim has done ‘anything to avoid dealing with admitting she’s inspired by black women’. Everyday Feminism defines cultural appropriation as a practice ‘in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.’ By ignoring the heritage that comes with a cultural practice, Kim is not only carrying out cultural appropriation but completely disregarding the culture she’s provoking.
Cultural appropriation may be a minefield, but it is a minefield which we need to learn to navigate.
In the context of Kim’s weighted assertion that ‘she doesn’t see colour’ in 2017, the fact that she is white-washing this hairstyle which, in the words of Refinery29, ‘isn’t just a protective style, but a tie to African heritage’, is suggestive of a greater ignorance. Kim may not be the first to do this; Mark Jacobs was questioned for using dreadlocks in his Spring/Summer 2017 show with an almost entirely white line up, and ASOS was in hot water for selling a Native American headdresses. But as a highly influential figure, Kim has an imposed responsibility to act as an example – one she continuously rebels against. This was clearly demonstrated with her second caption in the series of photos in response to the controversy. Moreover, surely as a successful business woman, she is wise enough to know that taking cultural examples from a figure from the 70s and 80s is risky and certainly not representative of current views.
Cultural appropriation may be a minefield, but it is a minefield which we need to learn to navigate. At times we will all have been guilty of this practice, wearing certain makeup, hairstyles or clothes which appropriate an oppressed culture, but we cannot hold ourselves to the same standards we did in the past. In an interview, founder of Wah Nails and Guardian Columnist Sharmadean Reid stated that she was more offended by Kim’s ‘tits out aesthetic’ than she is her braids. As a black woman who uses straight hair extensions, she believes she is put in a complex position, and suggests that we should not feel forced to be offended by Kim Kardashian’s hair. Each person is entitled to their own opinions, and ‘it is important to remember that there are unique cultures within cultures within race’. Yet, this does not negate the harsh and offensive reality of Kim Kardashian’s problematic plaits.