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Viola Davis goes natural

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Oscar nominee Viola Davis is featured on the cover of the February issue of the LA Times Magazine. While the article focuses on her work as an actor, mentor and soon-to-be producer, I think the real story is her hair — her natural hair. In a four-picture spread by photographer Ruvan Afanador, Ms. Davis' radiance is undeniable. With the exception of Whoopi Goldberg, this marks the first time, in recent memory, that an A-list, African-American, Oscar-nominated actress has dared to go "bare," so to speak. The beauty in this bareness is breathtaking, affirming and, might I add, courageous.

The writer bell hooks said, "When we allow ourselves to experience the sensual pleasures of various black hair textures (especially in its natural state), we unlearn some of the negative socialization we are bombarded with about black hair." Ms. Davis' images exude a sensuality that she herself resisted at first. In a recent interview, the actor stated that she arrived for the photo shoot with her wigs in hand. Even when the photographer shared that he thought her hair beautiful, she initially said that she could not sit for the shoot with her hair in its natural state. I, among many, am glad that the photographer persuaded her to free her 'fro. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to understand why she would initially resist.

Popular images of African-American women, whether in media targeted specially to them or in the mainstream, offer as examples of beauty women adorned in weaves from women of other ethnicities. It is also becoming more common to see African-American women with their "hair" dyed blond. Over time, these images have resulted in a rigid conception of beauty. The parameters are so narrow that Ms. Davis openly expressed her fear of butting society's beauty boundary by showing her hair au naturel.

Is Ms. Davis, as an African-American woman, alone in this fear? Do other women of African descent express apprehension of what lies beneath the wig, the weave or the relaxer? I say no to the first question and yes to the second. Patricia Hill Collins, Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, might deem Ms. Davis' conflicted feelings about revealing her hair as based in the promotion of European standards of beauty that often negate other forms of beauty. According to Ms. Collins, "Prevailing standards of beauty claim that no matter how intelligent, educated, or 'beautiful' a Black woman may be, those Black women whose features and skin color are most African must 'git back.'" I believe that by removing the head cover and sitting for the photos showing her hair, Ms. Davis displayed resistance to this beauty standard.

I teach a number of college courses that explore issues of identity, image and media. I have also worn locs for almost 10 years. During class discussions, the greatest disapproval of a natural choice tends to come from African-American female students. They have described natural hair as dirty, unprofessional, and just not feeling right. They say they prefer the smooth feel, look and versatility of chemically relaxed hair, or purchased hair. Their perspective about a much-maligned aspect of their body is perceived as common sense rather than collective conditioning.

My hope is that in the future, Ms. Davis and other women of African descent will more often embrace the pleasure, the power and the politics of who they are in all of her natural glory. In fact, I hope Ms. Davis considers wearing her hair natural to next month's Oscar ceremony. In doing so, she may signal to her mentees, those watching, and perhaps herself, that among the majority of media images depicting African-American women and their hair, there is another option, one that is stunningly beautiful in its simplicity. It is also a message that is affirming in its courage and resistance to the beauty status quo.

I'll be watching the red carpet. Hairs to you, Ms. Davis!

Heather E. Harris is associate professor of business communication at Stevenson University and co-editor of a book about the 2008 presidential campaign. Her email is hharris@stevenson.edu.

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