Many young Black girls face bullying – teasing and unwanted touching of their natural hair by other youngsters

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Teasing and unwanted hair touching are just some of the negative experiences Black girls go through because of their hair, according to a new study.

Research from the Arizona State University Department of Psychology shows how prevalent it is for young Black girls to have negative experiences related to their hair. The study, which is the first to examine hair satisfaction in young Black girls, was published in the journal Body Image.

“Negative experiences related to hair are normative for young Black girls. Even girls as young as 10 years old reported negative experiences because of their hair,” said Marisol Perez, associate professor of psychology at ASU and senior author on the paper.

“These experiences are a form of stereotyping that can occur among youth related to hair, however, there is very little existing literature documenting the hair-related experiences of Black youth. We are trying to make sure their voices are heard.”

This study was motivated by recent examples of Black youth being suspended from school, threatened with punishment or not permitted to participate in extracurricular activities because of their hair.

These situations and other examples of regulating people, including adults, based on the appearance of their hair has inspired advocacy from nongovernmental organizations and corporations alike to expand protection against discrimination in schools and the workplace to include hair differences.

“Hair is such an integral part of who we are: it serves as an extension of our identities and how we present ourselves to the world. Being told that how you express yourself is wrong or having to fit that expression into limited standards of what is deemed appropriate can come with shame and can lead to internal conflicts such as depression or low self-esteem,” said Layla Ismael, an undergraduate student at ASU and a co-author on the paper. 

‘Good hair’

The research team worked with community organizations to recruit participants. In total, the study included 105 girls aged 10–15 years old who identified as Black or African American. The girls answered a series of open-ended questions about satisfaction with their natural hair, social comparisons of hair, bullying or teasing because of their hair and pressure to wear their hair a certain way. 

When the girls were asked to define “good hair,” the most common answers included descriptions like “long,” “flowy,” “wavy,” “soft” and “straight.” “Bad hair” was described as “short,” “nappy” and “hard to comb through.”

The most common response to the question about where the criteria for good or bad hair comes from was how the media portrays Black models and celebrities with hair that has been chemically altered to be straight or wavy. The second most common response was receiving negative feedback about natural Black hair at school.

“Employees in school settings play an important role in how Black girls perceive their hair. The girls were impacted both by negative comments and by the absence of positive statements. For example, if a girl chemically straightens her hair, she might get positive comments, but nothing is said when she wears her hair naturally,” Perez said.

“The absence of positive statements contributed to the negative reinforcing messages.”

Verbal teasing, unwanted hair touching

Between 14–54% of the girls reported verbal teasing or bullying because of their hair, starting in preschool or kindergarten. 

The prevalence of verbal teasing or bullying was dwarfed by touching girls’ hair without permission. Touching of hair without permission was reported by 78% of 10-year-olds, 50% of 11-year-olds, 81% of 12-year-olds, 65% of 13-year-olds and 70% of 14-year-olds. 

“Having an understanding of what Black kids go through is important, even for something that might seem trivial like hair,” said Mel Holman, an ASU graduate student and a co-author on the paper.

“This study shows different types of discrimination and microaggressions that young kids might go through that are not recognized by others because people think it’s just hair.”

Time to do better

The research team also asked the girls what they do when they have a negative experience because of their hair. The answers included thinking positive thoughts, such as how they love themselves and their natural hair, and relying on their family for support.

“Parents can teach their children to love themselves for who they are and encourage them to wear their hair out naturally or in braids,” Holman said.

“Parents can tell their kids it is not OK when other people want to touch your hair without your permission, it is not OK when people say things about your hair that makes you uncomfortable. Parents can tell their kids it is OK to say, ‘It makes me uncomfortable.’”

Perez added that parents can also role model wearing natural hair and complimenting it. Parents reinforcing natural hair in themselves and in their kids is a powerful message for youth that can increase their body confidence.

Though the girls demonstrated resilience with their answers about thinking positive thoughts after negative hair-related experiences, Perez said that is not enough.

“These girls should not have to be resilient. We all need to do a better job celebrating natural hair—in the media, in school settings and in the beauty industry, which financially benefits from girls and women thinking they need to alter their hair.” 


School is a developmental context for adolescents where they have the opportunity to interact and join a peer group (Salmivalli, 2010; Eccles and Roeser, 2011). In recent decades, the school population has been more and more culturally diverse due to globalization and the increase in migratory flows (Hull and Hellmich, 2018; Kastoryano, 2018). This makes that peer relationships are also relationships between different cultural groups (Marks et al., 2014; Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al., 2018).

In the last decades, the phenomenon of interpersonal violence known as bullying has been the major concern in schools. This phenomenon is characterized by a perverse dynamic in which the roles of bully and victim emerge (Hong and Espelage, 2012; Beltrán-Catalán et al., 2018). The victim is subdued by the bully or bullies in terms of intentional physical and/or psychological damage, repeatedly over time and in an asymmetrical power relation (Olweus, 2013).

This abuse is an immoral behavior that breaks the most basic rules of peer reciprocity (Ortega-Ruiz et al., 2012) and makes the victim feel more and more vulnerable and unable to protect him/herself (Sentse et al., 2017). Bullying victimization has serious consequences. For example, at an academic level, a lower performance, the desire of not attending school or even a school dropout could be observed, whereas at a healthy level, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, self-harm, suicide attempts or even suicide could appear (Wolke and Lereya, 2015).

Bullies and bullying bystanders also suffer the negative effects of this violent phenomenon since they take the risk of internalizing and consolidating aggressive, immoral and little empathic interrelational patterns as well as suffering social imbalances throughout their development (Vanderbilt and Augustyn, 2010; Ortega-Ruiz et al., 2012). Some studies have revealed that there is an overlap between aggression and victimization in bullying; in fact, they even show that they seem to intertwine (e.g., Mishna, 2003; Del Rey et al., 2012).

Insofar as cultural diversity is present in schools, educational centers are concerned about the ethnic-cultural discrimination that threatens and harms the health and development of students from cultural minorities (e.g., Priest et al., 2014; Cooper and Sánchez, 2016; Brüggemann and D’Arcy, 2017).

Ethnic-cultural aggressions predict the psychological imbalance of those who suffer them (Benner and Graham, 2013) and act as an educational barrier (Baysu et al., 2016). The co-occurrence of bullying victimization and ethnic-cultural discriminatory victimization makes more predictable the emergence of suicidal ideation than when these phenomena occur separately (Garnett et al., 2014).

In order to prevent and palliate bullying among students, more and more researchers have stated that their predictors and associated factors should be studied in different cultural contexts and within different ethnic-cultural groups (e.g., Garnett et al., 2014; Vera et al., 2017). Several transnational studies on ways of violence in minors have shown consistency in some predictors and inconsistency in others, allowing us to propose strategies adapted to every country (e.g., Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al., 2018).

Comparing transnational knowledge may help to fit prevention and intervention to every single context (e.g., Arenas et al., 2015; Mucci et al., 2016; Bartoll et al., 2019). In order to foresee the emergence and consolidation of the dynamics of bullying, it is necessary to know more about the characteristics of personality and the types of interpersonal behaviors that allow us to predict this phenomenon.

Hereunder, there is a review about some of the potential bullying predictive factors in adolescents from culturally diverse schools: (1) personal, such as self-esteem, empathy, social skills and gender; (2) and interpersonal, like personal victimization and personal aggression (bullying), or ethnic-cultural victimization and ethnic-cultural aggression (discrimination).

There is a negative association between the levels of victimization and self-esteem in adolescents (Blood et al., 2011; Chen and Wei, 2011; Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al., 2015). Additionally, victimization is negatively linked to social adjustment and to the number of friends in school (Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al., 2014).

Those adolescents who suffer bullying victimization take a greater risk of internalizing problems like having a low global self-esteem (Mishna et al., 2016). On the other hand, it has been observed that self-esteem acts as an internal element influencing on the overcoming of victimization experiences (Sapouna and Wolke, 2013), so it can be considered as a protective factor. It seems that there is a cause-effect relation between victimization and self-esteem (Fredstrom et al., 2011).

Tsaousis’ review and meta-analysis (2016) reveal that the existing negative association between aggression and self-esteem is weaker than the one between victimization and self-esteem (Tsaousis, 2016). This researcher underscores that the results from different studies regarding this subject support two hypotheses: low self-esteem acts as a precursor of aggression toward peers; and in adolescents with high self-esteem, they develop aggressive behaviors toward their peers when their self-esteem is threatened by them.

Part of the studies on cognitive empathy and involvement in bullying has found a link between both (e.g., Caravita et al., 2009; Dini et al., 2016; Rieffe and Camodeca, 2016), while another part has not found any relation between them (van Noorden et al., 2015).

However, within the studies that have evidenced such connection, the results are inconsistent. In some studies, it is said that cognitive empathy is positively associated with a violent behavior in both genders (Caravita et al., 2009; Rieffe and Camodeca, 2016).

However, other studies conclude that cognitive empathy is negatively associated with levels of aggression in bullying (Mitsopoulou and Giovazolias, 2015; Dini et al., 2016). One of the few existing longitudinal studies has revealed that cognitive empathy does not predict involvement as a bully or the other way around (Stavrinides et al., 2010). Nevertheless, there are studies stating that low cognitive empathy and gender—being male—are predictors of an aggressive behavior (Kokkinos and Kipritsi, 2012).

Affective empathy is negatively associated with aggression in bullying (Mitsopoulou and Giovazolias, 2015; van Noorden et al., 2015; Rieffe and Camodeca, 2016), especially more in boys than girls (Caravita et al., 2009). It has been seen that a low affective empathy is a predictor of the involvement as a bully and the other way around (Stavrinides et al., 2010). However, other studies do not show any association between affective empathy and involvement in bullying (Dini et al., 2016).

A negative correlation has been observed between the levels of victimization and cognitive and affective empathy (Kokkinos and Kipritsi, 2012). van Noorden et al.’s systematic review (2015) concludes that victimization is not usually associated with affective empathy, but it is usually negatively associated with cognitive empathy: the victims experience what others feel but they do not understand what they feel.

Adolescents’ assertive responses to different situations in the school context are considered as more effective by peers and teachers, so they are more adaptive (Dirks et al., 2009, 2014). Girls give more assertive responses in comparison to boys when facing challenging situations between peers (Rose and Rudolph, 2006). In adolescents, educational training in assertiveness is seen as a solution for bullying (Boket et al., 2016), since it can improve the coping of social situations, modify the aggressive behavior, improve social skills, and balance the emotional status (Keliat et al., 2015).

Several recent studies have revealed that the educational intervention to promote assertive behaviors has a positive effect in: (1) the reduction of victimization (Keliat et al., 2015; Avşar and Ayaz-Alkaya, 2017), and (2) the reduction of aggressive behaviors toward peers in bullying (Ttofi and Farrington, 2011; Schroeder et al., 2012; Keliat et al., 2015; Avşar and Ayaz-Alkaya, 2017).

Despite the fact that many existing educational programs for the prevention of bullying in schools try to promote the development of conflict-resolution skills, a very little percentage of adolescents has shown to have used these skills to deal with bullying situations (Didaskalou et al., 2017). It has been seen that cooperative resolution skills negatively correlate with the emission of aggressive behaviors and the justification and acceptance of a violent behavior; however, these skills positively correlate with empathy toward bullying victims (Garaigordobil, 2012, 2017).

The high belief about their skills to communicate, resolve conflicts, and handle emotions with friends is related to low levels of victimization in adolescents (Fitzpatrick and Bussey, 2014). Bullying victims show less communicative and conflict-resolution skills (Haynie et al., 2001; Kochel et al., 2015). On the other hand, bullies show less communicative skills associated with a successful performance in collaborative tasks than defenders; bullies give less useful explanations and less guidance instructions to their peers than defenders (Murphy and Faulkner, 2011).

In the last two decades, attention has increasingly been paid in studies to the weight of cultural diversity regarding coexistence and violence phenomena among peers. Some studies reveal that the higher the presence of ethnic-cultural diversity is among students, the higher the bullying prevalence will be (Vervoort et al., 2010; Jansen et al., 2016).

In those adolescents who belong to cultural minorities, the content of the suffered intimidation is often based on the differences of origin, ethnic group, language or migratory status (Maynard et al., 2016; Brietzke and Perreira, 2017). It has been observed that the minority status within each school is related both to the general or personal victimization and to the particularly racist victimization (Fisher et al., 2015).

Being a victim of physical, verbal or relational bullying shows a strong association with being a victim of ethnic-cultural discrimination (Monks et al., 2008; Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al., 2014, 2015; Cardoso et al., 2017). Additionally, it has been seen that being a victim of discrimination between adolescents from different ethnic groups is positively related to being a victim of discrimination between peers from the same ethnic group (Benner and Wang, 2017). Nevertheless, there is a research gap regarding the connection between personal aggression in bullying and ethnic-cultural discriminatory aggression.

In view of the increasing study of bullying concerning ethnic-cultural diversity in the last years, some educational projects addressing discrimination among peers (Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al., 2017; Earnshaw et al., 2018) are being developed. However, it is necessary to have a greater body of knowledge about the nature of the relations between bullying and ethnic-cultural discrimination so that these educational proposals are more effective.

reference link : https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01383/full


Original Research: Closed access.
Examination of hair experiences among girls with Black/African American identities” by Taryn Henning et al. Body Image

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