If you aren’t up on your Twitter hashtags this week, Smoochr created quite the (I’m sure intended) buzz when #shutdownsmoochr began trending earlier this week. On Blavity, Tyler Young called the new dating app a “digital paper bag test.” Allowing users to filter their prospects based on skin tone, lip size and hair texture, it started many conversations about the ugly truth behind colorism and the divide that it creates.
While most of us know the history behind people of color being labeled by their shade in comparison with a brown paper bag, there was also a very real test conducted to determine grade of hair during the South African apartheid regime. The “pencil test” was used to group South Africans as white, Coloured or black and to determine which rights and duties were to be assigned according to classification. If a pencil fell through the hair, one could be deemed white or Coloured. These labels were used to decide who was inferior. A version of this test today? Try booking an appointment at a salon that does not specialize in natural hair and then the response (and sometimes increased price quote) based on the question, “What type of hair do you have?”
Ask most naturals about their hair type and texture, and they will be able to rattle off a number and letter combination that coordinates with an understood type of hair. Andre Walker created the original hair-typing system with the intention of helping women learn to care for their particular type of hair. This was quickly adopted and adapted by the natural-hair community and often used to determine which products work best, or which YouTube tutorial you should watch.
The placement of soft curls has found its way on the top of this hierarchy, accompanied by rhetoric of “desirable” and “manageable” hair. And if you need an example of media (both black and white) falling in line with this thought, just look at the comments about Gabby Douglas from 2012. This amazing girl was out winning gold medals, and the main topic of conversation was about her ponytail. She was only 16 years old at the time, and already met with the heavy weight of public expectation of black women's hair.
Unfortunately, that comparison and commentary begins at a much younger age for black girls. Summer of last year, Vogue got black Twitter riled up (once again) with an article on how North West’s curly hair was inspiring the next generation of girls with natural hair. The publication’s decision to credit a biracial North and ignore the coils of Blue Ivy Carter (who has faced more shade about her hair than days she’s been on this earth) sent a clear picture of what is deemed acceptable hair. Vogue's choice of celebrity babies spoke volumes about the “good vs. bad” hair stigma being very much alive and well. We clap back when things like this happen in mainstream media but tend to ignore all of the instances where we do this to ourselves.
I’m definitely not pointing any fingers. I am a proud member of Team Natural, and most of my hair favorites have “perfect curls with just water and a shake” hair. I have fallen into the idea that defined curl days are “good hair days,” and the kinky texture that comes with humidity must be tamed and controlled. You’ll find a drawer of curl smoothies, custards and flexirods in my bathroom, too.
We may celebrate all textures and types in our mind and among our friends, but there is still a very apparent media and brand-marketing bias regarding the desirable type of natural hair. Just count the number of products marketed to black naturals that use the term “curl” or guarantee to “loosen.” There is a quiet understanding that this is what we are all looking for—to loosen our texture and achieve defined ringlets.
I agree that a dating app that reduces us to complexion, hair texture and lip size should stir some outrage, but the creators of Smoochr just designed the filters that we already use on ourselves. Texture classifications, commenting on the grade of a child’s hair or stocking up on products that promise to unleash our curls may be pushing us to classify ourselves in the hierarchy of acceptability when it comes to black features.
I may be “happy to be nappy” in my own circle, but the larger natural-hair community could be sending signals that they are swiping left on my “4b” kinks.
Shayna Watson is a freelance style and beauty writer who can be heard saying “Natural hair is a lifestyle” at least once a day. A Pittsburgh native, she currently lives in a shoe-box apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.—which is fitting, since she really loves shoes. You can check out her personal style musings on A Nu Creature and follow her on Instagram.