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Hair and identity

MIT senior Sefa Yakpo explores the politics of beauty among Francophone African women.
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MIT senior Sefa Yakpo
MIT senior Sefa Yakpo
Photo: Joseph Borkowski

Sefa Yakpo has always been interested in the question of the beauty standards that shape the lives of women of African descent. Growing up in Ghana, Yakpo recalls going with her mother every Sunday to the salon to watch her mother have her hair done. The posters and pictures in hair product commercials showed women and girls with straightened hair, hair that didn’t resemble Yakpo's own.

Yakpo begged her mother to let her have her hair straightened. It seemed to her a coming-of-age rite. She wanted to have the sleek, shiny, hair of the girl on the box for the “Beautiful Beginnings” hair products. But in the intervening years, she has pondered whether such rejection of the natural texture and look of her hair was somehow an adaptation to “colonial” or “European” standards of beauty. Yakpo wondered whether her own complicated relationship to her hair might be a microcosm of the broader social and cultural questions facing African women.

A graduating senior majoring in French and management science, Yakpo decided to take up the challenge of doing a senior thesis in French, and to use this opportunity to explore the politics of beauty among Francophone African women. Working with her thesis advisor, Professor M. Amah Edoh, Yakpo decided to investigate criteria of beauty for Black Francophone African women now and in a historical perspective. What informs ideals of beauty? What kind of social, cultural, and economic factors lead to the situation that for women of African descent, a simple matter of hair styling becomes imbued with bigger issues?

Yakpo’s research consisted in the analysis of two bodies of primary sources, AWA: la revue de la femme noire, a French-language independent magazine produced in Dakar, Senegal, by a network of African women between 1964 and 1973, and videos from a very popular YouTube channel on black hair created by a young Franco-Senegalese woman. To interpret the findings from her analysis of these primary sources, Yakpo delved into existing academic scholarship on the politics of black hair, drawing from the work of Cameroonian, French, and American scholars such as anthropologist Francis B. Nyamnjoh, sociologist Juliette Sméralda, and media studies scholar Dilip Gaonkar, among others. The resulting thesis, which was written entirely in French, weaved passages describing Sefa’s personal relationship to and trajectory with her hair over the course of the year when she worked on the thesis, with discussion and analysis of her research data.

One book in particular had a lot of impact on Yakpo’s thinking on her research subject: critical race and gender studies scholar Shirley Anne Tate’s book, "Black Beauty: Aesthetics, Stylization, Politics." This book explores the multiple heterogeneous and complex ways in which black women negotiate their relation to social conventions of beauty, or black beauty. The book suggests that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach to understanding how individual women navigate these questions. Yakpo was struck by the author’s conclusion that a particular style of hair doesn’t imbue the wearer with any inherent meanings. By virtue of being on a black body, any hair style is “black.”

Yakpo concluded that meanings behind hair are flexible and reflect a mix of influences that change over time and geography. Africa’s colonial past can't be ignored; certainly, for some women, straightening hair can be a conscious or unconscious rejection of their natural hair type. But today many young Francophone African women want the option to play with their hair styles and to alternate between hair textures. To say that there is only one acceptable hair style for women who are proud and self-loving steals their autonomy, Yakpo argues in her thesis.

At a well-attended meeting on Dec. 4, Yakpo presented her findings from her project, titled “Kinks and Identity: Unravelling Francophone African Women’s Attitudes to and Perspectives on their hair” [“Cheveux crépus et identité: Démêler les attitudes des femmes d’origine africaine vis-à-vis de leurs cheveux”]. Edoh introduced the presentation by saying that we see in news and popular culture today how the black body, the female body, and the black female body in particular, are routinely politicized. She pointed to the media portrayal of U.S. former first lady, Michelle Obama, or in France, to that of the former Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, and the fact that both women’s physical appearance has been the focus of political attacks. Indeed, the ways that Obama and her daughters wore their hair became a political issue during U.S. presidential elections, for instance. Yakpo’s research on the ideals of beauty for black women, in relation to their hair particularly, Edoh said, thus speaks to a topic of both enduring concern and great political importance. Edoh remarked that with her thesis, Yakpo has realized educators’ greatest wish for their students: that they leverage their academic work and their personal experience to mutually elucidate each other and the world around them.

Yakpo’s other achievements during her undergraduate career at MIT include internships in France and Belgium, participating in the January Scholars in France IAP program, and winning second place in the 2017 Isabelle de Courtivron Writing Prize for creative or expository student writing about immigrant, diaspora, bicultural, bilingual and/or mixed-race experiences. She was also honored as a Burchard Scholar in 2017. Prior to coming to MIT, Yakpo was winner of the 2014 Math Olympiad in Ghana.

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