A Beauty Product’s Ads Exclude the Black Women Who Use It

Last week, the hair-care line SheaMoisture faced a powerful customer backlash. The offense was a series of online video clips that highlighted the versatility of the brand’s shampoos, conditioners and styling aids.

One clip features women discussing how much they struggle with their hair. Some of the women are white; the only non-white woman prominently featured in the clip is very light-skinned with loosely textured curly hair. The ad encourages women to reject “hair hate” and “embrace hair love in every form.”

When the video was released on social media, SheaMoisture’s black customers revolted. Social media users with huge followings, many of whom have provided years of free advertising for the brand, criticized it as marginalizing their loyal black buyers in an effort to attract white women.

Understanding SheaMoisture’s target market is critical to understanding this backlash. The brand has long been marketed to black women with “natural hair” — hair that is not chemically straightened. For black women, the choice to “be natural” is simultaneously private and extremely political. It shouldn’t matter what black women do with their hair, but racism means that it matters a great deal. Deeply ingrained bias against black women’s natural, unstraightened hair has tangible effects on women’s lives. Lighter-skinned black women and black women with straighter hair are more likely to marry than other black women. Black women with natural hair have been subject to discrimination at work and in the military.

When black women bought SheaMoisture products, they were rejecting powerful stereotypes about black women’s hair as inherently unattractive. Unwittingly or not, SheaMoisture was part of a political project for black women, helping us resist harmful biases about our natural hair that circumscribe our choices and well-being.