Beyoncé and the Politics of Stringy Hair

The world’s most powerful celebrity is gracing the cover of Vogue with her hair looking distinctly un-pretty. That’s a pretty great thing.


What is going on with that Beyoncé image in Vogue’s September issue? The cover’s background is not an actual background so much as, it would seem, Photoshop shade #858674; its cover line—“Just B,” with “Beyoncé” beneath it—seems both redundant and oxymoronic; and, worst of all, Beyoncé’s nose has been contoured into Michael Jacksonian proportions—a move that is sadly not new in fashion photography, but that is especially troubling given that Beyoncé is only the third black woman, after Naomi Campbell in 1989 and Halle Berry in 2010, to grace the cover of that biggest of Vogue issues.

There is, however, one other thing that is striking about the cover: Beyoncé’s hair. That hair! That decidedly non-fierce hair! Which is, here, a flat shade of brown, and plainly parted, and notably stringy—not yeah-I-just-got-back-from-a-dip-in-the-Mediterranean stringy, but yeah-I-haven’t-washed-my-hair-in-like-three-weeks stringy. “Drunk in Love” stringy. Beyoncé’s Hair—it has traditionally deserved its own category—has gone through many iterations over the years, featuring regular variations of color and cut and texture and even more regular experimentations with feathering and layering and extensioning and bobbing and beehiving and curling and crimping and flat-ironing and cornrowing and crown-bunning and top-knotting and, occasionally, simultaneous combinations of all of the above.

And here is that hair, that iconic and chameleon-like hair, looking notably, even aggressively ... un-done. Here is Beyoncé, trading in her normally buoyant locks for a look that, via salt water and/or olive oil and/or mousse and/or gel, is not so much #iwokeuplikethis as #iflattenedmyhairlikethis. Here is Vogue, in its September Issue—with its declaration that Beyoncé is one of THE RULE-BREAKERS DEFINING THE WAY WE DRESS NOW—suggesting that “the way we dress now” involves fabulous Marc Jacobs clothes and fabulously impeccable makeup and, finally, a fabulously un-fabulous hairdo. A hairdo that takes those complaints people sent to the FCC after last year’s Grammys—“Her hair was wet,” one viewer groused—and turns them into Fashion.

You could say on the one hand that, beauty trends being what they are, the Un-Done Hairdo is Vogue’s logical reaction—a correction, even—to the trends that the magazine itself, with its promises of accessible allure, helped to bring about. Hair that is done—whether the doneness involves bigness or braids or beachiness or curliness or stick-straightness, has become (somewhat) democratized. The rise of commercial outfits like DryBar and Blo—businesses that offer blowouts at, usually, $30 to $40 a pop, and that throwback to previous generations’ everyday reliance on beauty salons—have exacerbated the atavistic assumption that “done” hair is a symbol, like “done” makeup and manicured nails, of one’s status, emotionally and economically. Us Weekly and Pinterest and Kim Kardashian and The Bachelor have helped to do the same. They have, together, created an arid assumption that a woman’s hair should be, whatever else it is, purposeful. It should reflect effort. The Protestant ethic, only with Pantene.

It’s an assumption that I can say, being both a woman and a haver of hair, is fairly terrible. The makeup tax applies to one’s hair, too—the conditioning, the drying, the styling, the tools and time required of all those things. Whereas guys, even with a new emphasis on dude-focused styling products, pretty much wash and go. Add to that the fact that hair is racially fraught (see this great Collier Meyerson video directed at “white people” and tellingly titled “Stop Touching My Hair”), and hair becomes not just a beauty thing, but also a feminist thing and a class thing and a race thing—much more even than fashion and makeup and all the other elements that constitute a Vogue cover. Hair is, along with so much else, political.

And here is the most powerful female celebrity on the planet, on the cover of the biggest issue of what is arguably the world’s most important fashion magazine, seeming to push back against all that. Bey and Vogue are not necessarily recommending that the Normals of the world start rocking stringy hair. What they are doing, though, is what all high fashion will, in the end: They’re setting a new benchmark. They’re suggesting that unkempt hair, Cerulean sweater-style, can and maybe even should trickle down to the habits of Vogue’s readers and admirers and newsstand-passersby. They’re making a political statement disguised as an aesthetic one. Here is Beyoncé, whose brand is strong enough to withstand being photographed with stringy hair, suggesting that, for the rest of us, the best hairdos might be the ones that don’t require all the doing.