Study: Black girls commonly have negative experiences related to their natural hair

Teasing, unwanted hair touching reported among young Black girls

May 24, 2022

Teasing and unwanted hair touching are just some of the negative experiences Black girls go through because of their hair, according to a new study.

Research from the Arizona State University Department of Psychology shows how prevalent it is for young Black girls to have negative experiences related to their hair. The study, which is the first to examine hair satisfaction in young Black girls, was published in the journal Body Image. woman brushing the natural hair of her child A study published in the journal Body Image has shown that when young Black girls wear their hair natural, they can experience verbal teasing and even unwanted physical touching of their hair. Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels Download Full Image

“Negative experiences related to hair are normative for young Black girls. Even girls as young as 10 years old reported negative experiences because of their hair,” said Marisol Perez, associate professor of psychology at ASU and senior author on the paper. “These experiences are a form of stereotyping that can occur among youth related to hair, however, there is very little existing literature documenting the hair-related experiences of Black youth. We are trying to make sure their voices are heard.”

This study was motivated by recent examples of Black youth being suspended from school, threatened with punishment or not permitted to participate in extracurricular activities because of their hair. 

These situations and other examples of regulating people, including adults, based on the appearance of their hair has inspired advocacy from nongovernmental organizations and corporations alike to expand protection against discrimination in schools and the workplace to include hair differences.

Arizona cities are starting to take note, with Tempe recently joining Tucson in banning hair discrimination.

“Hair is such an integral part of who we are: it serves as an extension of our identities and how we present ourselves to the world. Being told that how you express yourself is wrong or having to fit that expression into limited standards of what is deemed appropriate can come with shame and can lead to internal conflicts such as depression or low self-esteem,” said Layla Ismael, an undergraduate student at ASU and a co-author on the paper. 

'Good hair'

The research team worked with community organizations to recruit participants. In total, the study included 105 girls aged 10–15 years old who identified as Black or African American. The girls answered a series of open-ended questions about satisfaction with their natural hair, social comparisons of hair, bullying or teasing because of their hair and pressure to wear their hair a certain way. 

When the girls were asked to define "good hair," the most common answers included descriptions like “long," "flowy," "wavy," "soft" and "straight.” "Bad hair" was described as “short," "nappy" and "hard to comb through.”

The most common response to the question about where the criteria for good or bad hair comes from was how the media portrays Black models and celebrities with hair that has been chemically altered to be straight or wavy. The second most common response was receiving negative feedback about natural Black hair at school.

“Employees in school settings play an important role in how Black girls perceive their hair. The girls were impacted both by negative comments and by the absence of positive statements. For example, if a girl chemically straightens her hair, she might get positive comments, but nothing is said when she wears her hair naturally,” Perez said. “The absence of positive statements contributed to the negative reinforcing messages.”

Verbal teasing, unwanted hair touching  

Between 14–54% of the girls reported verbal teasing or bullying because of their hair, starting in preschool or kindergarten. 

The prevalence of verbal teasing or bullying was dwarfed by touching girls’ hair without permission. Touching of hair without permission was reported by 78% of 10-year-olds, 50% of 11-year-olds, 81% of 12-year-olds, 65% of 13-year-olds and 70% of 14-year-olds. 

“Having an understanding of what Black kids go through is important, even for something that might seem trivial like hair,” said Mel Holman, an ASU graduate student and a co-author on the paper. “This study shows different types of discrimination and microaggressions that young kids might go through that are not recognized by others because people think it’s just hair.”

Time to do better

The research team also asked the girls what they do when they have a negative experience because of their hair. The answers included thinking positive thoughts, such as how they love themselves and their natural hair, and relying on their family for support.

“Parents can teach their children to love themselves for who they are and encourage them to wear their hair out naturally or in braids,” Holman said. “Parents can tell their kids it is not OK when other people want to touch your hair without your permission, it is not OK when people say things about your hair that makes you uncomfortable. Parents can tell their kids it is OK to say, ‘It makes me uncomfortable.’”

Perez added that parents can also role model wearing natural hair and complimenting it. Parents reinforcing natural hair in themselves and in their kids is a powerful message for youth that can increase their body confidence.

Though the girls demonstrated resilience with their answers about thinking positive thoughts after negative hair-related experiences, Perez said that is not enough.

“These girls should not have to be resilient. We all need to do a better job celebrating natural hair – in the media, in school settings and in the beauty industry, which financially benefits from girls and women thinking they need to alter their hair.” 

Connected by ENERGIZE

Holman and Ismael found their way to Perez and the Body Image Research and Health Disparities lab through the ENERGIZE program, which connects students from underrepresented populations with yearlong research opportunities.

“This entire experience has heightened my interest in research, and getting the chance to study groups that are often neglected by research was eye-opening,” said Ismael, who is in her junior year at ASU.

Now a graduate student in counseling psychology, Holman started working on this project as a senior at ASU. 

“I am interested in pursuing research in psychology because I have noticed that a lot of existing research and principles are based on white, cisgender college-educated men. The world consists of more than that, and we need to do more research on different types of people,” said Holman, who is currently working on their master’s thesis with ASU faculty members Em Matsuno and Cristalis Capielo Rosario.

This study was funded by the Dove Self Esteem Project. In addition to Perez, Ismael and Holman, the research team consisted of Taryn Henning and Kimberly Yu of ASU; Lesley Williams of Mayo Clinic Arizona; and Stacie June of Unilever Corporation.

Science writer, Psychology Department


‘There are endless opportunities’: Public speaking passion pushes ASU grad forward

May 24, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

For many people, public speaking is something that often elicits a slew of negative emotions. But not for Trinity Winton — a recent second-time Arizona State University graduate. Portrait of ASU grad Trinity Winton. This spring, Trinity Winton graduated from New College with a master's degree in communication studies. Download Full Image

“I'm one of those rare people that absolutely adores public speaking, and being able to polish my craft has really helped me flourish in college,” Winton said in a 2019 interview, when she was recognized as the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Science’s Outstanding Undergraduate.

After completing her bachelor’s degree in communication with a minor in public relations and strategic communications in 2019, Winton continued to hone her public speaking skills at New College in the communication studies master’s degree program.

Winton was closely involved with CommLabASU and worked her way up from undergraduate mentor to graduate student coordinator. In these roles, she explored a number of opportunities, including working with students, creating and delivering lessons and co-hosting a podcast. She also served as a student writer with ASU Project Cities, where she completed two reports analyzing risk communication practices with the City of Peoria and affordable housing with the Town of Clarkdale. 

In addition, Winton completed an applied project with Assistant Professor Nicole Lee, where she conducted a communication audit for the Washington Elementary School District. Through her research, she provided the district with evidence-based recommendations on how to improve their stakeholder communication practices.

As the first in her family to graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, Winton said this moment is especially significant.

“This degree means the absolute world to me and my family,” she said. “What's really important is that while this degree means a lot to them, I want them to know how much their support means to me, and this degree was a team effort. It wasn't just me; it was everyone around me.”

Here, Winton shares more about her experiences at ASU and what’s next for her.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study communication?

Answer: My decision to study communication at both the undergraduate level and the graduate level really came down to childhood dreams. I never could stick with one thing; I always wanted to do everything. When I finally sat down to apply for college and then apply for a master's degree, I still had that thought in my head, and a communication studies degree allows me to go anywhere, help anyone, do anything and achieve my childhood dream. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at New College — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Something I learned at New College throughout the duration of my degree was the concept of intrapersonal communication — or communication with yourself. I never really thought about what I say to myself and how I propel myself to do my best every single day. In learning that concept, I learned how to talk better to myself and remind myself I can do this, I can achieve this, I can go to graduate school and I can make my dreams come true.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: One of the most meaningful and surprising lessons I learned while I was at New College came from Professor Michael Walker. He told me at any point in your life, you are allowed to say no if you can't handle something. It's OK to take a step back and say, “No, I don't think I can handle this right now.” Hearing that might sound silly, but it's really meaningful to have the power in college to say no.

Q: What was your favorite place or spot on the West campus for studying or meeting friends?

A: My favorite spot on campus is definitely CommLabASU. I have been there for all of the time that I’ve been at New College and I've always found that when I want someone to talk to, when I’m having a bad day or when I'm having a good day and I want to share good news — that's always where I ended up. The moment I toured the West campus, I knew it was for me. The calm vibe of the campus really just spoke to me. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: My best piece of advice for those who are still in school is if you don't have everything figured out or if you don't know exactly what you want to do after you graduate — that's OK. Keep exploring and keep learning. You don't have to be confined to your degree. If something captures your interest, explore it. If I could tell them anything, it would be to go for it. Do what makes you happy and explore relationships and find meaning within your degree.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I always say there are endless opportunities, and I'm ready for them. Whatever comes my way and excites me, I'm ready to hop on it. Through my fondness of public speaking, I have the confidence and motivation to meaningfully communicate my personal message as well my organization’s message. Public speaking allows me to competently share all the wonderful things my organization accomplishes and what we hope to accomplish in the future. During my time at New College, I discovered that I have strong attention to detail and a knack for administrative work. Because of this, I was led to a wonderful position I currently have with ASU’s School of Life Sciences as a graduate recruitment program coordinator.

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences