What We Can Learn From Viola's Natural Hair Oscar Moment

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Viola Davis has never really been considered a fashionista in Hollywood, but this awards season as all eyes were on her for her nomination for Best Actress for “The Help,” Davis hit the red carpet in a parade of fresh and trendy designer dresses. In a cover shoot for LA Times Magazine Davis was particularly striking. The actress channeled her inner model showing off fabulous Marchesa, Jason Wu and Costume National gowns. And she rocked it all with her short natural hair; a move that particularly highlighted her beauty and complimented the shoot’s high-fashion edge much more than the lace fronts she’d made appearances in before.

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During Oscar Week, Davis admitted to Essence Magazine that she’d never worn her natural hair  on the red carpet before. “There hasn’t been any occasion that I felt brave enough to do it,” she said.  With the encouragement of her husband who she said urged her to “step into who [she] was,” Davis found herself feeling “powerful” with the new hairstyle. “I feel more powerful every day, more secure in who I am, and I’ve waited so long for that…. It feels so divine,” she said.

Then Sunday night, Viola wore her tightly coiled crown and glory atop her Vera Wang gown to the 84th Annual Academy Awards. “My hair’s by Alice Davis, my momma!” she said on the red carpet where she also wore a giddy smile that probably had just as much to do with her feeling comfortable in her own skin as it did with having the night’s “Best Actress” nod. Before the night was out, broadcasters, major fashion magazines and bloggers alike championed the star for “daring” to wear her natural hair, with rave reviews on the “transformation.” But on Twitter, many didn’t see what all the hoopla was about “Is Viola Davis wearing natural hair really that big an Oscar story?” someone chirped. “Come on Black people it’s 2012, I thought we were more advanced than that?”

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To be fair, many Black women have been getting back to their roots, which is especially evident by the various online communities of natural hair beauties who swap tips, styles, product recommendations and encouragement for those who are just starting the process of stripping away weaves and perms to rediscover their God-given hair. But Viola’s comments about just now getting comfortable with her own hair echo a larger concern about “natural” Black hair being accepted in the eyes of the mainstream beauty industry.

Reading all the commentary made me realized that even though my own hair has been natural for about seven years, I’ve only recently started to wear it un-straightened.  It took a few months of cutting off bone straight ends that were heat damaged from excessive flat-ironing, several failed twist outs and other styles that left me looking like Fredrick Douglass’ twin sister caught in the rain and sifting through countless products on the market for me to find flattering styles I’d actually wear outside.  The first time I ever wore my natural hair to a red carpet reporting assignment was an accident. I was running late with just enough time to get to the black tie affair, but no time to straighten my hair. Adamantly I panicked. A “baby ‘Fro” at a black tie affair? I wasn’t sure it was polished enough, even though my boyfriend told me to go with it because it looked “beautiful.”  While I do remember one off-color comment from a White male colleague that night (something about sticking a bone in it and taking a trip to the jungle…um, yeah) most of my colleagues applauded the “new look” with the same compliments they’d give if I dyed my hair or got a haircut. The “natural” aspect of it really wasn’t that big of a deal, but it was…to me.

Of course not everyone has those hang-ups and on that note, Viola really didn’t do anything revolutionary at the Oscars. Many celebs have rocked daring natural looks or super short cuts on red carpets recently, but even though these examples abound, unveiling natural hair is still a big deal for some Black women. Viola’s personal narrative was an important story to add to the discussion and struck a chord with my personal journey.  She’s just one more source of encouragement for women who are still struggling with feeling “brave” enough to wear their hair out, a reminder that Black hair—especially short black hair that’s not “curly”— can be glamorous and regal.

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Natural hair may not be the style for everyone (the Oscars definitely had a curious Black hair moment when Gabourey Sidibe arrived in a mess of matted curls) but it was most beautiful to see Viola realize—and remind the masses—that Black beauty just as it is, is more than worthy to be celebrated on the day-to-day and for special occasions alike.

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