by Kelley Reardon
As part of the Wednesdays at the Center series, the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies welcomed Bibi Gnagno, J.D. for a conversation on her new documentary project, “Is That All Your Hair?”
The John Hope Franklin Center and the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS) sponsored this event, which discussed beauty in the context of identity, belonging, and power for African and African-American women. Bibi Gnagno is a graduate of Smith College with an M.A. in French Language and Civilization from New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science in Paris and a J.D. from North Carolina Central University. She is the founder and owner of a company called OMG I Love Your Hair and is now working on a documentary film focused on her experiences in western Africa, specifically Côte d’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast.
Gnagno was born in California, but she spent about twelve years of her life growing up on the Ivory Coast before her parents moved back to the U.S. When she returned to the Ivory Coast for a policy fellowship, she had mixed feelings about her identity. Would she be considered an insider or an outsider by the local people? Gnagno expected that more women would wear their hair natural in Ivory Coast, but in fact, she observed the opposite—most women there did not wear their hair natural. Instead, the local women followed trends that were “imported” from places like the United States and consumed media highlighting African-American women with straight hair.
Gnagno wanted to explore the power of beauty, especially hair, and how it related to women’s lives and access to resources in Ivory Coast. Since West Africa is run by a patriarchal system, Gnagno noticed that women there felt pressure to look good for men. In both the U.S. and the Ivory Coast, Gnagno observed women who felt they had to look a certain way to advance their career or gain acceptance from others. Gnagno also realized that capitalism played an important role in beauty standards. She noticed that this culture of commodity was built on a sense of losing one’s identity, urging people to buy products in order to look a certain way and feel a sense of belonging.
The idea that women could not be confident, comfortable, and accepting of themselves in their natural state bothered Gnagno. When she wore her hair natural on the Ivory Coast, women were constantly asking her, “is that all your hair?” They wanted to know how she styled it so well. Gnagno brought together groups of women and taught them how to style their natural hair with healthy products that were local to the Ivory Coast like shea and cocoa butter. Unfortunately, these products were hard to come by because so many were being exported to other countries. Yet, health was another major motivation for Gnagno—many women end up damaging their hair and scalps with products like hair relaxer, which is a chemical formula that can burn the skin if not used properly.
Gnagno’s definition of beauty has evolved, and she says that “beauty, for me, is character. As I’ve gotten older, looks fade… beauty is what’s on the inside, but a lot of times we don’t encounter that first.” Gnagno realizes that changing society’s perception of hair and beauty is a massive project, but that doesn’t stop her. She praises women in positions of high power who have chosen to make a statement by wearing their hair natural. Gnagno hopes to return to the Ivory Coast in the near future to create more content for her documentary so that she can share her film, “Is That All Your Hair?” with the world.