Everyone living in a consumerist society experiences beauty culture personally. Messages come to us loud and clear—from our phones, our TVs, the billboards we pass on our commute—and they insist that though we are held to a universal standard of beauty, the path toward it is ours and ours alone. We alone pay for the products that are meant to make us more beautiful, we get on the scale that tells us we aren’t quite there yet by ourselves, we discreetly and obsessively look at the likes we get (or don’t get) when we post a new selfie on social media, and we’re alone when we decide if it means we look a mess.
And so in this personal quest to feel both accepted and beautiful, we look for allies. For many Black women, Shea Moisture—a Black-owned company started in 1992 by a Liberian-born man and his mother—felt like one. Until yesterday.
Not since Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” documentary have Black people gotten it so wrong, so publicly, with Black hair. Except, to be fair to Shea Moisture, there is barely any Black hair in the company’s new commercial. Instead there is a White woman with long blonde hair, two (two!) redheads and one racially ambiguous woman with non-kinky hair that resembles the texture that has been giving music video casting directors wet dreams since MTV debuted.
In a word, this felt odd coming from a company whose reputation was built on Black hair. But the commercial’s message took things from strange to outright offensive over the course of just 60 seconds. “Break free from hair hate,” the commercial said, product pimping Shea Moisture as the way to the follicular promised land.
“Everybody…everybody…everybody gets love!” the commercial’s actresses say. Except, no. Black women who could not pass the paper bag test do not even get airtime. Shea Moisture co-opted the language of the natural hair movement, with its blogs, tweets, panels and books about finding acceptance and self-love in a world full of racially-fueled hair hate, but it did not feature a single kinky-haired woman. Meanwhile, Black women have been teaching ourselves, our children, even our ignorant co-workers to love our hair as much as the rest of the world loves the hair of women who look like the ones in this commercial.
Shhh, listen: You can still hear the sounds of Black women muttering, “Kiss my ass, Shea Moisture,” as they watch the commercial for the first time.
If Bernie Mac were still alive, he would have threatened to beat the company leadership ’til the white meat shows.
Some argued on Twitter that Shea Moisture was trying to reach a broader audience. More heads of hair, more dollars. But in this multiculti mélange, where were the actual women who spend their money on Shea Moisture? Where was the representation of the people who had, in effect, paid for the advertising that had erased—and insulted—them?
To bring up another comedian, Charlie Murphy warned us about types like Shea Moisture: Habitual Line Steppers. This isn’t the company’s first offense. In 2015, the company tweeted an image of a chubby-cheeked, blonde-haired White toddler with the caption “Uh, we have a problem, we ran out of Shea Moisture.”
We, who!? Black women on Twitter immediately wanted to know. The brand defended itself, insisting “We came across an image of a little girl with a puzzled expression that we imagine our #SheaFamily has when they run out of product, so we shared it with you. No ad. No agenda. As a certified minority-owned business, we are so proud of our heritage, our community and how far we’ve come….”
That tweet happened the same year that the company brought in a non-Black partner, Bain Capital, as a minority owner. Perhaps the people behind the brand thought that the short-lived controversy was not important. Because two years later, they tried it again, substituting one White child for three White ladies and a curly haired woman of color. And on a Monday (April 24) when Black Twitter would have normally been celebrating Barack Obama’s first public appearance since the inauguration, instead it let loose on Shea Moisture. All. Day. Long.
Judging from the comments, Black women online did not seem satisfied when the company released an apology on its Facebook page, with the opening line “we really f-ed up.” Yes, you did, and casual, buddy slang isn’t going to save it from threatened boycotts and a storm of bad press.
Black women spend a lot of our time navigating levels of insults about our beauty. We also spend a lot of time shielding ourselves from letting these messages change how we feel about our hair, skin, lips, noses and bodies. The world has shown us zero examples to support Shea Moisture’s kumbaya vision of White women suddenly bemoaning their hair (“I just didn’t feel like I was supposed to be a redhead,” one says in the commercial. “So what?” replied Black women everywhere.)
Historically, women like the ones in the ad have not lost jobs, faced hostile crowds or been trashed in popular culture—by White people, Black people and even elected officials—because of their hair.
Shea Moisture knows this. And since it’s a Black company making money off Black hair that didn’t release a commercial about Black women’s beauty empowerment until it was worried about losing our money, it wins the Pepsi award for tone deaf, offensive advertising. Beauty culture remains a social reality that we must navigate alone in our efforts to feel publically accepted, and now, many Black women are doing it without so much as a backward glance at Shea Moisture.
Ayana Byrd is the co-author of Hair Story: Untangling Black Hair in America (St. Martin’s Press; 2001) and a proud consumer of Black-owned hair products, like Hair Rules, that don’t make her feel crazy with their advertising.