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In pictures: Black women rewrite the trauma of school picture day

Dove’s new campaign is helping women with afro or textured hair who faced discrimination at school reclaim their school pictures

What are your memories of school picture day? Was it a day that inspired excitement? A keenly anticipated chance to dress up nice and express your identity? Or was it a day of dread, a source of anxiety? For many Black and mixed-race women, the apprehension was so strong they missed it altogether; almost one-third – 28 per cent – of women with afro or textured hair skipped school picture day because of the anxiousness around race-based hair discrimination.

The data comes from new research by Dove, who polled over 1,000 Black and mixed-race women in the UK to find out their experiences around their hair while at school. The results were overwhelmingly negative: nearly half (42 per cent) said they have experienced race-based discrimination at school and over half (57 per cent) said this left long-lasting trauma.

Meanwhile, 84 per cent of the women felt the need to alter their natural hair to fit in at school. While unrealistic beauty standards put immense pressure on everyone, Black women and girls in particular face discrimination when it comes to their hair texture and styles. “Growing up in Ireland as a woman of African descent, I was often reminded that I did not ‘fit’ in,” says Emma Dabiri, author, academic, and broadcaster. “At school, my hair was a point of contention and sometimes the reason I got into trouble.”

Not much has changed since then. In 2020, student Ruby Williams was awarded an £8,500 settlement in compensation for being repeatedly sent home from the Urswick School over the course of two years because of her afro hair. In 2019, five-year-old Josiah Sharpe was excluded from playtime and then banned from school because of his “extreme” fade hairstyle, while Tyrese Francis was banned from lessons and put in isolation at Mossbourne Victoria Park Academy because his fade was deemed inappropriate.

Chikayzea Flanders was told on his first day at Fulham Boys School that his dreadlocks had to be cut off or he would face suspension. Just yesterday, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), with contributions from the founder of World Afro Day, Michelle De Leon, put out new guidelines to prevent afro-hair discrimination in UK schools. These include resources that will help school leaders ensure hair policies are not unlawfully discriminatory.

“When I was younger, my head of school forced everyone to shave their afros off because they deemed them unkempt, unruly and not smart-looking,” says author and influencer Stephanie Yeboah. Feeling pressure to fit in with Eurocentric beauty ideals, she used to chemically straighten her hair and it's taken her years to embrace her afro unapologetically. 

In an effort to put a stop to incidents like this, Dove has been working with women like Dabiri and Yeboah to raise awareness of race-based hair discrimination in schools. Part of this is a new campaign from the body care brand launched this month called Reclaiming School Picture Day, where eight women who missed having their school picture taken or felt the need to change their natural hair, were given the chance to have a new picture taken with their hair as they had chosen, reflecting their most authentic selves.

“It’s a staple in the school calendar – the kids are told about it weeks in advance, and there’s all the fuss about having them look their best, they might want to get a haircut, have their uniform freshly ironed,” says Dabiri about why picture day holds such a prominent place in our school day memories. “Ultimately, it’s a day based on appearance in many ways and who wouldn’t want to look and feel their best? But when aspects of your appearance are stigmatised because of racist norms, it can turn into another source of worry and stress for young people.”

Neither Dabiri nor Yeboah were surprised by the data from Dove’s survey, with Dabiri only surprised that it wasn’t higher. “I’ve truly lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with friends, family, and colleagues on the negative encounters we’ve had,” she says. Yeboah agrees, “Nearly everyone I know has experienced some form of race-based hair discrimination, from having our hair pulled and touched without our consent, to being told that our hair is unprofessional and mess, and being sent home,” says Yeboah.

Alongside the recreated school pictures themselves, the campaign also includes a film of the women sharing their stories of discrimination during their formative years and the long-lasting impact it has had on their lives. It also captures each woman sitting down to have their new picture taken, and the emotional moment they see it for the first time. 

“I felt beautiful! It was a full circle moment for me, especially thinking back to my previous school photo with my shaved head, feeling full of shame,” says Yeboah. “It felt right, I hold such a deep sense of pride and freedom in being able to wear my hair in all its curls and coils. It makes a statement and embodies everything I love about my Blackness.”

For Dabiri the picture was a moment to reflect on how far she has come regarding how she feels about her natural hair. “It’s really been a journey, and what helps is knowing I’ve not been alone in it. This photo is a real visual representation of how much I’ve grown into myself, and how proud I feel to be living in this world with this head of hair.”

To help put an end to race-based hair discrimination, you can sign Emma Dabiri and Zina Alfa’s petitions to make hair discrimination illegal under the UK Equality Act here.