Detangling the Root: A Photo Series Celebrating Black Hair

By Shawntol Drakes

By now, most of us have seen, or at least heard of the infamous Shea Moisture video and their cringe-worthy follow up apology. The video, which is part of a rebrand for the Black-owned hair care company, features three women (one biracial and two white) talking about their battles with “hair hate” which they claim was combatted by the use of Shea Moisture hair products.

The video was met with much backlash from Black women who felt like they were not represented in the ad despite them being the brand’s largest customer base. The ex brand loyalists, came out in droves online accusing the company of pushing out their core audience in order to appeal to a wider (read, White) audience.

For centuries, Black hair has been a topic of controversy, oppression and pain. There has often been a lack of resources and products catered to Black hair in the mainstream market and for countless Black folks, Shea Moisture products seemed like a miracle sent from the hair gods — products for Afro hair that actually worked and were heavily cosigned in YouTube tutorials by Black women around the globe. Many people feel that Shea Moisture is erasing that history by “selling out” and compromising the quality and integrity of products that were initially created to suit the needs of Black hair in order to attract a White customer base.

The key theme of the video is the idea that “hair hate” is a universal experience. And while this may be true on a surface level, it is unfair to reduce the complexities and turmoil of the Black woman’s hair experience as simply hair hatred. While the white women in the commercial described their hair hate experiences as wishing they were a blonde instead of a redhead or struggles with limp, oily hair, Black women’s “hair hatred” is often rooted in racism, systemic white supremacy and misogyny.

As Black women, our hair hatred looks like wishing we could trade our Blackness for Whiteness in order to have long, straight hair like the girls in magazines.

It’s processing our hair with toxic chemicals every six weeks in order to obtain a look that is acceptable for Eurocentric beauty standards.

It’s being denied jobs because our hair is seen as unprofessional or unkempt.

And it’s unsuccessfully searching for products to use in your curly Afro hair in a market that sells to straight hair by default.


My project, titled “Detangling the Root” is a documentary photo series that chronicles the hair stories of Black women of all hair types, and gives them a platform to reflect on their individual relationships with their hair. In the interviews, I ask Black women to share memories and experiences with their hair, as well as the political implications of their hair choices. Many of the women interviewed spoke candidly about relaxing or perming their hair due to pressures of conforming to white beauty standards, their struggles finding products that worked with their hair textures and the journey to self-love and acceptance. They also spoke of the joy and affirmation they found in brands like Shea Moisture.

If the Shea Moisture debacle teaches us anything, it’s that Black women need to reclaim our narratives now more than ever. Too often do we see our struggles being co-opted by other cultures, as has been the case with #BlackLivesMatter being reduced to #AllLivesMatter and now the natural hair movement. By speaking out on the erasure of Black women from the Shea Moisture brand, we are amplifying our voices and asserting our existence. As the proverb goes, “Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story”.

A portrait of Cailyn wearing loc extentions. Image by Shawntol Drakes.
A portrait of Khadijah wearing her natural afro. Image by Shawntol Drakes.
A portrait of Lu wearing her natural hair in ombre blue locs. Image by Shawntol Drakes
A portrait of Alannah wearing a natural teased afro. Image by Shawntol Drakes.