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In 2008, when Barack Obama was sworn into office, newly-minted first lady Michelle Obama proudly stood next to him. She held the Bible as he made the oath to our country, donning a custom lemongrass Isabel Toledo dress and coat, with her coily curls smoothed into a voluminous silk press. And while her outfit screamed modern and memorable—an aesthetic mirroring Jackie Onassis’ clean-cut pink suit and unforgettable pillbox hat—we were ushered into an era not seen since that time: a first lady with influential style. Her relatable J.Crew picks sold out by the minute; small POC designers like Jason Wu became household names—diversity was represented on T.V. and became a part of history.
While Michelle’s sartorial choices and mere presence in the White House seemingly illustrated progress in Western society, her hair choices conveyed that America still has a long way to go.
Throughout the FLOTUS’ time in office, her hair choices remained what many would deem “safe”: silk presses, often donned by fellow Black women Monday to Friday, with curls only making an appearance on a weekend washday or during a tropical vacation; chic bobs, which signaled not only style, but also that the former lawyer-turned-politician meant business; bangs when feeling bold; and sweeping updos for state dinners and high-profile galas.
We didn’t see what we witnessed during her most recent book tour: box braids, top knots, and natural-looking protective styles. While promoting The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times in Washington D.C., Michelle expressed to the audience that, in office, she strategically decided to wear her hair straight in an effort to not shift the focus and dialogue from politics to her hair. After all, America was just “getting adjusted” to having a Black president. “Let me keep my hair straight,” she told the audience, addressing the beauty optics she carefully presented during her time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “When you’re carrying all this other stuff…these differences, and you’re trying to do your job, it’s just an extra burden on overcoming.”
Last month, Senate Republicans blocked the CROWN Act, a California law which prevents discrimination in the workplace for Black people wearing their hair in protective and traditional hairstyles—including locs, afros, twist-outs, and wash and gos. This disdain for kinky, curly coils is loud and clear when you walk into American workplaces, and even everyday spaces. Blackness is ironed out; despite the array of styles our tresses can transform into, many Black women feel more comfortable wearing their hair straight. This comes as no surprise, when research by Dove indicates that 63 percent of Black adults have faced hair discrimination and 25 percent of Black adults have been sent home from work or faced disciplinary action due to wearing their hair in a natural or protected style.
The same research reveals that 58 percent of Black adults say that hair discrimination has impacted their ability to advance at work. With so much pressure placed on Black women regarding their hair, and the emotional beating the Obamas took while in the White House, why would we expect anything less than an Easter-esque silk press from Kamala Harris? And who among us can really blame her?
While Harris’ legacy is undoubtedly her title as the first female vice president of the United States, her hair offers an opportunity for a beauty revolution. What would it mean for Black women everywhere if she wore her hair in natural curls? The irony that seeing the VP in box braids is more shocking than the Democratic party kneeling in kente cloth is laughable. Why does Michelle only feel comfortable showing us her texture and true style now?
Despite calculated moves by their elders, the children of the political elite are taking personal hair decisions into their hands unapologetically. During the Obama administration, the Obama girls took more creative liberty with their hair on more than one occasion, whether it was Malia Obama proudly displaying her short curls in a wash- and-go with bangs after a family summer trip to Martha’s Vineyard in 2009 or Sasha’s braided crown for the 2016 White House State Dinner. And when Kamala Harris was sworn into office in 2022, her stepdaughter, Emma Emhoff, proudly wore her natural Jewish curls during the inauguration. However, America was not privy to Malia or Sasha in box braids, like we saw in 2022 when they were spotted hiking in Los Angeles.
I long for the day when I stroll around the National Portrait Gallery and see a first lady wearing a protective style, posing proudly in knotless braids. Or better yet, a portrait of the President of the United States in a freshly picked, well-oiled afro. While the House of Representatives gave us the space to dream for a more diverse hair future, the Senate vote and the unspoken shackles of hair oppression placed on Black women leaders in the White House illustrate America’s scrutiny toward Black women and girls. Enough is enough.
Danielle James is the Digital Beauty Director of ELLE.com. Previously, she was the Fashion and Beauty Director of HelloBeautiful.com and MadameNoire.com. She’s bylined for The Cut, InStyle, Allure, Business of Fashion, Nylon, Essence, Good Housekeeping, The Grio, and Huffington Post. Danielle enjoys sailing, thrifting, Japanese whiskey, Naomi Campbell’s runway walk, and Rihanna in the comment section.