Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Chwalisz, Kathleen


AN ABSTRACT OF THE DISSERTATION OF CHRISTIAN H. GILLESPIE, for the Doctor of Philosophy degree in PSYCHOLOGY, presented on April 08, 2013, at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. TITLE: DOWN TO THE ROOTS: A QUALITATIVE ANAYSIS OF THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACTS OF MESSAGES BLACK WOMEN RECIEVE REGARDING THEIR HAIR MAJOR PROFESSOR: Kathleen Chwalisz, Ph.D. Typical Black features such as thick lips, dark skin, and kinky hair have historically been the subject of scrutiny, exploitation, and devaluation in America. Hair is an important aspect of the discourse about the pressure on all women to accommodate to mainstream beauty ideals. However, there are unique pressures that complicate this narrative for Black women, who have to combat both the pressures of racism and sexism. Many African American women have a naturally kinky hair texture that is distinctly different from their Euro-American counterparts, serving as a widely recognized racial identifier (Chapman, 2007). Although there is a growing body of anthologies, essays, documentaries and case studies exploring Black women's unique experiences regarding their hair, there is a dearth of empirical literature, particularly in the field of psychology, exploring the nuances of Black women's hair experiences and subsequent impacts of negative kinky-hair messages on their hair choices, esteem, personal and emotional functioning. Therefore, a Grounded Theory approach using semi-structured individual interviews was used in this qualitative investigation, designed to answer the following research questions: 1. What messages have Black women received about their naturally kinky hair? 2. What emotions or reactions are elicited for Black women regarding their hair? 3. How do Black women respond to and cope with the messages they've received and experiences they've had regarding their natural hair? Nine self-identified African American/Black women were interviewed for this study. During the interview process, participants described the various hair-related experiences they've had in diverse contexts, their emotional responses and reaction to their experiences, and subsequent means of responding and coping with the emotions elicited. A grounded theory approach was used to analyze the data. The grounded theory model that emerged from this study can be characterized as Defining and Being Defined: Black Women's Identity in a Colorist Society. This storyline is reflective of participants' strive toward self-definition (Caldwell, 2000; Tate, 2007), and simultaneous negotiation of the abuse they experienced and anti-Black aesthetic messages they were exposed to regarding their hair. Defining specifically refers to participants strive toward self-definition (i.e., development of a positive image and self concept), and Being Defined refers to their efforts to manage how others in society perceived them (e.g., their attractiveness, competence, femininity etc.) in relation to their hair. The participants' narratives reflected the marginalization, trauma, abuse, and rejection they experienced in relation to their hair and in their personal lives. The Black women also expressed an unyielding sense of optimism, resilience and hope regarding their future experiences.




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