Hair and identity

MIT Campus News

Sefa Yakpo has always been interested in the question of the beauty standards that shape the lives of women of African descent. Growing up in Ghana, Yakpo recalls going with her mother every Sunday to the salon to watch her mother have her hair done. The posters and pictures in hair product commercials showed women and girls with straightened hair, hair that didn’t resemble Yakpo’s own.

Yakpo begged her mother to let her have her hair straightened. It seemed to her a coming-of-age rite. She wanted to have the sleek, shiny, hair of the girl on the box for the “Beautiful Beginnings” hair products. But in the intervening years, she has pondered whether such rejection of the natural texture and look of her hair was somehow an adaptation to “colonial” or “European” standards of beauty. Yakpo wondered whether her own complicated relationship to her hair might be a microcosm of the broader social and cultural questions facing African women.

A graduating senior majoring in French and management science, Yakpo decided to take up the challenge of doing a senior thesis in French, and to use this opportunity to explore the politics of beauty among Francophone African women. Working with her thesis advisor, Professor M. Amah Edoh, Yakpo decided to investigate criteria of beauty for Black Francophone African women now and in a historical perspective. What informs ideals of beauty? What kind of social, cultural, and economic factors lead to the situation that for women of African descent, a simple matter of hair styling becomes imbued with bigger issues?

Yakpo’s research consisted in the analysis of two bodies of primary sources, AWA: la revue de la femme noire, a French-language independent magazine produced in Dakar, Senegal, by a network of African women between 1964 and 1973, and videos from a very popular YouTube channel on black hair created by a young …

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