In a perfect world, there would be no “bad hair days.” But if the world were actually a perfect place, many more things would also be banished. A few: racism, beauty hierarchies and cluelessness that parades as trendy, fashionable cool.
Sadly, all of those imperfect things collided in an astonishing, abysmal four minutes on NBC’s “Today” this week. And any Black viewer trying to enjoy her oatmeal and coffee over a beauty segment was soon recoiling in horror as she watched “60 Second Summer Hairstyles,” which was posted online yesterday (August 3).
This segment wanted to show off that the producers had learned a key beauty buzzword, “inclusion,” so they gathered an assortment of women: one Asian and straight haired, one Black and “curly” (a natural-haired woman with a twist out) one White and blonde. None of these women looked better after falling under the hands of beauty expert Deepica Mutyala. But only one looked like she had been the victim of a beauty drive by: Malia, who host Savannah Guthrie insisted on calling “Miss Malylia.” Malyia’s smile started out wide, but it got smaller, more forced and more deer-in-the-headlights as crimes were enacted upon her head.
Mutyala perkily stressed that perfect hair is not “in.” She then told viewers that side ponytails and bangs were “so ’90s” and also, so in. So she grabbed Malyia’s hair and manhandled it into a high, side ponytail that looked nothing like the ’90s. She did this without the tender touch you’d expect an expert to use when handling another person’s hair—especially on live television.
“Really play with the textures of her hair and embrace it,” Mutyala says as she roughly rakes her fingers through Malyia’s bangs to fluff them, effectively turning the front of her hair into a mess that rivals only her ponytail for sheer awfulness. It was aesthetic violence committed in the name of big hair.
If you watch the entire segment with all three models, one thing is immediately clear: Mutyala is not the best hairstylist for a program with the sizable budget of America’s (often) top-rated morning show. The looks were a sloppy mess, from Asian to Black to White. But only the Black woman had her hair yanked around. And only the Black women had hands touching her bangs in a way that made it obvious the stylist had never dealt with her hair texture before.
Malyia kept smiling as the rest of Black America winced, then blasted “Today” on Facebook. One woman asked in the comments for the post: “What in the Wocka Flocka Flaming hell did she do to the Black womans hair???” More requested that the show put everyone out of their misery and take down the video. Few, if any, saw the inclusion of a multi-racial group as making up for the treatment of the Black woman, because casting a Black woman is not enough if you play into centuries-old racist stereotypes about the unmanageability of her hair. It is not enough if you touch a Black woman’s hair as if it is undesirable and something you would rather not have between your fingers.
It is only enough if you are able to pretend that there is not a near daily assault on Black beauty—because failing to recognize the attacks on our beauty is the only way to not see this segment as incredulously offensive. If the show’s host had asked Maylia what she thought about the mess that had been made of her hair, she might have explained that she’d prefer that our beauty not appear on “Today”—or any show—if it is only going to be treated with racially charged negligence. Or, she might have just told her what the rest of us were thinking: “Do better. There is no excuse for this in 2016.”