We talk a lot about a standard of beauty in America, but what is that standard and how does it affect the average person? Amber Starks deals with that question every day, as she works in an industry built to make people beautiful — hair.
Starks became known as “Portland’s Pioneer of Natural Hair Care” after she challenged a law that required a cosmetology license — requiring 1,700 hours of training — before she could volunteer her time braiding the hair of children in foster care. This license, designed around the skills needed to work in a Eurocentric hair salon — cutting, coloring, handling chemicals — did not address the realities of African-style braiding or natural hair care, Starks realized, yet it was seen as a requirement for her to do just that, as a volunteer.
At TEDxPortland, Starks explores the cultural particularities that create these sort of situations, where one type of “beauty” is considered normal, and the other, marginalized. In American culture, “a beautiful woman has Eurocentric features,” she says. “Fair skin, long, preferably blond hair, light eyes, is skinny and has a feminine frame and has long legs. She’s also cisgender, able-bodied and heterosexual.” This leaves a lot of people out, Stark explains, and in its wake, creates situations like that in which Starks found herself in, where one type of beauty is valued more over another, so much so that this flawed standard even slips into law.
Conceptions of beauty can be changed, however, Starks says, once one realizes that one has the power and the right to do so. She says that this is a matter of choice, hinging on realizing that none of us owe a particular kind of beauty to anyone. After being faced with years of feeling like she had to look different to be beautiful — like a blonde Disney princess — Stark chose to reject that pressure and embrace her own sort of beauty, she says.
And others have joined her. “Black women have changed our minds about how we feel about our hair, and using social media, we have told the world,” she says. “We decided that we are going to love our hair, and we are going to wear it the way it grows out of our heads.” Stark explains how the natural hair movement is about more than hair; it is about reclaiming centuries of Western beauty oppression, about educating other black women on healthy hair care, creating dolls with diverse hair textures and skin tones for black girls to play with, and much more. The standard of beauty can be challenged, changed and recreated.
When faced with having to obtain a license that would not focus on the work she would do with natural hair, Stark proposed an alternative — a cosmetology license built around the care of natural hair, the Oregon Natural Hair Care Training Module, a certification that Starks was the first Oregonian to receive.
“You can acknowledge that there is a standard, but also recognize that you have the power to change that standard,” Starks says. “I aspire to live in a tomorrow where we recognize that there is no standard of beauty, but in fact there is diversity in beauty; where no one type of person holds the monopoly on what is beautiful; where the industries that create and reinforce the ideas of beauty will celebrate diversity over homogeny,” she says.
Watch Starks’s whole talk below:
Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:
The speaker is a natural hair enthusiast and cosmetologist who uses education and styling to empower black women to embrace their curls, kinks and coils. In her talk, she not only highlights how the natural hair movement inspired black women to be aware of their intrinsic beauty; she encourages women of all shapes, sizes, colors, abilities and sexualities to redefine their versions of beauty and express this to the world.