“A go-choc is a woman who sways her shoulders! As she walks by, men turn their heads. At bars, she drinks champagne and only accepts the company of powerful men. Penniless young men dream of the day when they are older and can afford a go-choc,” explains Émilie Régnier. When Régnier embarked on her project in the Ivory Coast, she had set her sights on the culture of skin bleaching among Ivorian women. However, upon visiting the vibrant salons of Abidjan, a large French-speaking port city, and others along the coast, she found that it was the hairstyles that really commanded attention.
Beauty, sex appeal, power – the significance of their tresses is evident in the way women strive towards finding the perfect style. Flipping through hairstyle books in the salons is a window into a lucrative world. An entire culture has grown around the styles, not just a wealth of successful salons, but the birth of hair photography. Digital cameras are expensive to buy, so Ivorian photographers traverse the city to document the wide range of hairdos, shooting the new trends and trading them into salons to display in their stylebooks for around $1 an image. And beyond the prompts from the books, when asked who inspires their myriad of unique and colourful looks the answers are always the same: Rihanna or Beyoncé – and sometimes both at once.
From Mobutu to Beyoncé rebels against the policing of black hairstyles, purposefully remaining apolitical on the hot topic. Given that much has been said about assimilation and the pervasive nature of western ideals of beauty manifesting itself in the beauty practices of black women, you may think this go-choc culture is yet another way of fitting into an exclusive trend. However, Regnier disagrees. “I don’t know any western women who wear their hair the way the women do in Ivory Coast. To me they are much more drawn into their own aesthetics,” she says. When a woman sits in the chair of Dieudonné, a hairdresser in a Marcoury salon, she’ll say: “Tell me who you are and I will tell you what hairstyle to wear.” In this way each style is a fusion of a distinctly African interpretation of African American superstars and individual taste and flair. She adds: “The influence comes from the Western society through artists, but the way women in the Ivory Coast interpret Rihanna and Beyoncé’s hair is to me very linked to their own culture.”
And go-choc’s are not skimping on their hair. “They could spend easily between $10 to 40 for a haircut or for extensions. This represents a lot of money as the income per person is still pretty low around $100 per month,” Regnier explains. But the allure of the status is worth it, to be beautiful by their own beauty standards. “In the western world, we often make our beauty and fashion choices to fit in our cultural, economic or social group. I felt that in Ivory Coast, the women I photographed might not be rich but, most of them are working class or middle class – some were students, hairdressers, shop workers and such, but they made their choice in order to stand out and be noticed. I myself have spent more than I should for shoes, clothes or a haircut, maybe you have too, so why should Ivorian women be held to a strict budget?”
From Mobutu to Beyoncé by Émilie Régnier is available to see at the Bronx Documentary Center from April 15 to June 4
Follow Kemi Alemoru on Twitter here @kemioliviax