From the Jheri curl to TikTok: Canada and the global business of Black beauty

April 4, 2023

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Every day we are bombarded by words and images telling us what we should find beautiful, and what we should aspire to look like. Black Canadians are subject to specific beauty ideals – but where do those expectations come from and how do they affect peoples’ lives? 

Miller is joined by Cheryl Thompson, Associate Professor in Performance at the Creative School of Toronto Metropolitan University and author of the book “Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture.” 


About the guest

Headshot of Cheryl Thompson

Cheryl Thompson is an Associate Professor in Performance at the Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University. She is also an author, freelance writer, public speaker and contributor to media outlets in Canada and the U.S.

Her research interests are blackface minstrelsy and theatre as community, Black beauty culture, commodity/advertising trademarks, race and confronting anti-Black racism. 

She is the author of “Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty” and “Beauty in a box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture” (the latter being an ASPP-funded book).




Cheryl Thompson in the news

  • Cheryl Thompson on writing Black history through the recovery of Canadian archives” - Toronto life 
  • The first Black Media Initiative Bridge Project: Audience Revenu Cohort - Editor and Publisher

[00:00:00] Gabriel Miller: Welcome to the Big Thinking Podcast, where we talk to leading researchers about their work on some of the most important and interesting questions of our time. I'm Gabriel Miller, and I'm the president and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Every day we're bombarded by words and images telling us what we should find beautiful and what we should aspire to look like.

[00:00:29] Black Canadians are subject to specific beauty ideals, but where do these expectations come from and how do they affect people's lives? Those are just some of the questions I discussed with today's guest, Cheryl Thompson. She's an Associate Professor and Performance at the Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University, and she's author of the book, Beauty in A Box: Detangling The Roots of Canada's Black Beauty Culture.

[00:00:57] So Canadian Black Beauty Culture, what is it? 

[00:01:01] Cheryl Thompson: Yes, first of all, I think it's important to say that it's not just about Black hair, it's about community. It's often a story of immigration and settlement or like resettlement in different places, and it's intimately tied to the global beauty market, like the Book Beauty in A Box, situates Canada, but it tries to put Canada in a conversation with the global beauty marketplace, which is one of those industries that is recession proof and keeps growing, never goes down and impacts every single geographic space in place in the world.

[00:01:39] Gabriel Miller: So your work doesn't fall into a single discipline, and I'm wondering how that has contributed to your ability to, uh, write a book like the one you've written about Canadian Black beauty culture.

[00:01:53] Cheryl Thompson: I think it is one of the leading factors, to be honest, because when you are trained in a, so myself, yes, I have a PhD in communication studies, but communication studies by nature is very interdisciplinary.

[00:02:10] No one, no two people in comms do the same work, right? And at the same time, I took some of my courses in women and gender studies, so they had an option in women and gender studies. And then I took some of my courses in art history. At the same time and a PhD. And so when I came out of that PhD, even though I had been in communications, I felt like I didn't belong to any discipline.

[00:02:34] And I think it's the reason why I've also ended up in very interdisciplinary schools as a professor. First creative industries now in the school of performance and so I believe if I had been trained in a discipline, say if I had been trained in history and then I ended up in a history department, just think my approach to the topic would not have been so overlapping and even the way I approach time in the book.

[00:03:03] I'm taking you on a journey through the past and the present and somewhere in the middle, and then we might bounce back to the past again. I have a non-linear approach to time and most historians are not trained to do that. I actually trained to take you to a time and explain it in full and then bring us back up.

[00:03:20] So I just think I'm trying to sell interdisciplinary work here because even though it's hard and often it means, and in my journey it what it has meant is often having to explain myself a lot to disciplinary people, who don't quite understand why you did a certain aspect of the book because they're looking at it always from their discipline.

[00:03:44] Even though I've had to deal with a lot of that, I think the richness of Beauty in a box and hopefully if people read some of my other books, is just that it's almost like, I'm not suspend, I'm suspended in air, is the best way to describe it, as opposed to being firmly planted in a discipline and taking you through the disciplinary norms.

[00:04:06] It has been a challenge because I think for a long time, especially after I got my PhD, until I was hired, so it was about three years, I don't think people really understood what I was and what I was trying to do. I just, I seemed like I was all over the place, which I, I wasn't by the way,

[00:04:26] but it took me to understand, stop trying to fit into a discipline that you've never fit in in the first place. And so I think that's the one thing I would say about my work, that being a non disciplined person has helped bring all those books to life. 

[00:04:43] Gabriel Miller: Part of what really jumped out at me the first time I looked at the book you wrote was the reference to Canadian Black beauty culture.

[00:04:54] And this idea of putting this in a global context, I'm wondering where does Canadian Black beauty culture come from?

[00:05:02] Cheryl Thompson: In the book that I really centered, the Black Canadian media that developed in the 1960s and seventies. It existed in the 1920s in a much smaller way, but it was really the sixties and seventies where these community newspapers essentially became this outlet for promotion for advertising, for just discussing things that would relate to Black people, especially Black women.

[00:05:31] So there would be feature articles about hair issues that you might be having, or a hair seminar that came to town. So the book was really, to be honest, it would not have been possible to write that book if the media had not existed.

[00:05:44] Because one of the things that I had to realize was that if you're gonna write a book about beauty culture, just in general, and I actually got this, I gleaned this from reading the African American canon on beauty culture, you actually are not writing about beauty culture, you're writing about Black community.

[00:06:01] So you have to figure out where to locate the community. And as we go back in time in Canada, it actually gets harder and harder to locate Black people in the dominant media structures. We just don't exist really until the 1990s. It's very hard to find us in the dominant media unless it's reporting on something extremely negative: violence, crime, and maybe a discussion about immigration.

[00:06:27] Before then, it's community newspapers who are basically telling our stories. They are the voices for the community. Mm-hmm. And they're not only telling stories about Black hair, they're telling political, they have political writers. They are talking about the economy, they're talking about immigration, but from a Black point of view.

[00:06:43] And so those newspapers, as soon as I discovered, and what I'm referring to is Contrast, Share Magazine, which is still in print today, imprinted online. They opened up this entire conversation that I actually had never, I didn't even know existed myself. I went on a discovery because I didn't even know, like I knew that they existed and they were part of my childhood, but I didn't know the contents.

[00:07:07] So I discovered them by going into the library archive in the database. 

[00:07:11] Gabriel Miller: This is in Toronto? 

[00:07:13] Cheryl Thompson: No. Funny enough, at the time I was still completing my PhD at McGill University in Montreal, so I was living in Montreal. I'd been going on a lot of internet searches and going through different libraries, and I realized that the public library in Toronto held the entire catalog of Contrast and Share.

[00:07:29] But then I realized the only way I could access them was that I had to come to town and look at them on microfilm. Pretty much every month I was taking the Via train into town, and I was spending days at the library going through, I went through the entire run of those newspapers, so about, it was about 60, 50 years that I just went through.

[00:07:52] And every visit every day I feel like I would go through about five years and then I'd come back the next day and I'd go through five years again and so on. 

[00:07:59] Gabriel Miller: So did you know at least that you were going there to find those publications, or was it just that you tripped across these in your research, in the archives? 

[00:08:12] Cheryl Thompson: No, like I started specifically searching with keywords like Black media or Black Canadian media, like I used like tags like you would use when you're searching the database.

[00:08:21] And I found them. Now, I didn't know what the contents were, right? Like I had no idea what I was gonna find, and that was my first exposure to being an archival researcher and taking the approach of going with an open mind and just time travel and history like that to me, that's what archive, archival research really is that it's like you're just going back into some time.

[00:08:43] You have a sense of what you hope to find, but you really don't know what it is you're gonna find. It's almost like the archeologist who goes on a dig. It's like they know what they're gonna find, but usually they find a whole bunch of things that they had no idea was hidden there.

[00:08:59] Honestly the archive, maybe that's why the two words sound so similar. Hmm. Because the archive is the same thing. I went in there and I was just shocked at how much, like I thought, to be honest, that I was just gonna find ads. Like I thought it was just gonna be a lot of advertising, which it was. There was a lot of advertising.

[00:09:16] It was the editorials that really shocked me, like how in depth the editorial pages were to describe, for example, when there were hair shows, there used to be a lot more hair and beauty shows. And before, before we had, I would say before Toronto's economy kind of became a bit more mature, which I think it is now in the 1960s and seventies, it really wasn't a lot of things we, we didn't have here.

[00:09:41] We still needed American companies to come to town and do demonstrations, and then they would sell it at one place, like it would only be available at the old Eatons or Simpsons or one of the department stores, that was the model. And so Black beauty culture in the sixties and seventies, and I didn't know this because I wasn’t born in the seventies, so it was not, I wouldn't have known any of this as a kid growing up in the eighties.

[00:10:05] That they would come, Black beauty products would come to town and they would have demonstrations at the department stores and the local Black media would be the only media there covering it. And then they would write about it and they would tell you everything that happened, and then they would list all the companies that were there.

[00:10:23] Gabriel Miller: Now there was a period in those two decades, if I understand it, when these products were labeled as ethnic products. Is that right? 

[00:10:32] Cheryl Thompson: That's the labeling today. So today there actually is no Black beauty product. It doesn't really exist. They're called ethnic products. They use the word ethnic, not Black.

[00:10:42] Even though the messaging on the product is obviously they have Black faces and it's, the product is typically for people with textured hair and the vast majority of Black people have textured hair. But back then it, they were, the truth is they didn't really have any categorization for them in terms of the, on the business side, it's just the fact that these products would always be in a separate section on the aisle.

[00:11:07] So you would have, so over time, colloquially you had the Black section, so it like people would go into the store and say, where's the Black section? And then they would take you to the section where all the products were just for Black people. It's funny because in the States they were debating this in the early 1970s, is this how we should sell these products?

[00:11:24] Does it segregate people in a negative way? And I think that in many ways that's still being debated because there today, if you go into, say, some of the big box stores, you will see a Black beauty product section.

[00:11:37] Gabriel Miller: Mm-hmm

[00:11:38] Cheryl Thompson: In some regions it will be segregated. In other places, it'll be integrated. So you see both methods of selling still, still in retail today. 

[00:11:48] Gabriel Miller: Interesting. You said that there's a lot more to Black beauty culture than hair, but also it seems clear that hair is definitely at the center or a major component of Black beauty culture. And a few years ago you did an interview where you were quoted as saying “Black hair really is complicated”. And I want to ask you what makes it so complicated?

[00:12:15] Cheryl Thompson: Yeah, I mean that, that word complicated it's a double entendre because it's complicated, it literally is complicated by its texture, so it has a complicated texture. No two Black women in the same family will have the same hair texture, so that means we, we actually have a [...], like you can't even share products necessarily with your family.

[00:12:35] So everybody has a different thing. They have to figure out over their lifetime, they figure it out, and then it's complicated by the industry. Because you have a Black hair industry that is predominantly owned by non-Black people who are selling products to Black people and the most lucrative of those products are sold for you to alter the natural texture of your hair.

[00:13:03] That's where the money is in Black hair. It's not in you rocking your Afro or doing your twists. That's not where the money is. The money is you wearing a lace, front wig or a weave. And Black people don't own those industries. Those industries are primarily owned by companies in Asia. The hair often is sourced in South Asia.

[00:13:26] There's European distributors, and then it comes to the North American marketplace where we buy at retail often by stores that are owned by either Korean or European store owners. So Black people are the patrons of the industry, but we are not the owners or the distributors in the industry anymore, so that's why it's complicated because is the Black hair, it's a, is the Black hair care industry really a Black industry because it's not owned and controlled by Black people, even though we are essentially the customers.  

[00:14:07] Gabriel Miller: A famous example of, I think what you're talking about is the Jheri Curl. If I understand the history here, I was just rewatching the movie Coming to America a couple weeks ago and saw, I think, what is one of the all time great Jheri Curls in modern popular culture.

[00:14:27] What I wanna ask you is, first of all, it hadn't occurred to me that Jheri Curl was a major part of women's fashion. It was. 

[00:14:37] Cheryl Thompson: Oh yeah. Major. 

[00:14:38] Gabriel Miller: Can you just tell us a little bit about how that specifically came about and when it was, uh, widespread in, in popular culture? 

[00:14:47] Cheryl Thompson: Yeah. I talk about the Jheri Curl in the book because I think that movie Coming to America made it a joke.

[00:14:52] Like it made it, like when most people think of a Jheri Curl, now they laugh because of that movie, but you really shouldn't because the Jheri Curl came at a certain time in the late seventies coming out of, coming out of the late 60 into the early seventies most Black people around the Western world, including the continent of Africa, wore their hair naturally.

[00:15:13] So it was an Afro, it was braids, it was cornrows, cane rolls, whatever it was. It was some kind of natural hairstyle. By the end of the 1970s, the industry basically said, okay, we've had enough of this now, we want people to go back to using products again like they used to. The chemical relaxer came on the scene really hard, but there were a lot of people who felt like it was too harsh for their hair.

[00:15:39] So the Jheri Curl was marketed as a softer product, right? Like it was not gonna be as harsh as a chemical relaxer. And at the same time, they also marketed it as being less maintenance. So it was a carefree, maintenance-free product. So they said to everyone.

[00:16:01] And so it really took off when Black celebrities started to wear Jheri Curl, especially the Jacksons. So the Jacksons were still very popular in the late seventies and they all started wearing a Jheri Curl, especially Michael. Everyone remembers like they all had a Jheri Curl even go back in time, Debbie Allen had a Jheri Curl. Like you could go through every, almost most Black celebrities still alive today, probably had a Jheri Curl in the early eight 1980s.

[00:16:24] But what the industry did was it told probably one of the biggest lies about that product because it was not carefree. It was extremely product dependent. In fact, the joke in coming to America is all that Jheri Curl juices like staining up the couch. Yeah. You had to apply an activator spray to the hair every single day, and that spray was not cheap.

[00:16:47] Every week you were essentially buying a product every single week. So that's why that style was so lucrative and so popular. And then in 1984, in the infamous Pepsi commercial, when Michael Jackson suffered those third degree burns because he basically had lighter fluid, the activator created a lighter fluid situation.

[00:17:08] So all it took was a spark from that video to set his hair on fire, and that's when the Jheri Curl went out of style. So the reason it's funny in 1988 in “Coming to America” is because nobody's wearing a Jheri Curl anymore, its time has passed, and also it's dangerous, like the truth of it is that Michael Jackson suffered those third degree burns that we only found out when he died he’d never healed from.

[00:17:35] So he had suffered through chronic pain from that moment, and that led to all the drugs and all the stuff that he ended up taking. 

[00:17:44] Gabriel Miller: Mm-hmm.

[00:17:44] Cheryl Thompson: It's because of that incident. So in a way it's like his hairstyle ultimately killed him, even though we thought it was all these other things.

[00:17:53] And so part of what my work is also trying to say is that Black hair has not been taken as seriously as it should be, even from a health standpoint that we, it just gets joked away when it really should be taken very seriously. 

[00:18:07] Gabriel Miller: So when you grow up to write a book called “Beauty in a Box, Detangling the roots of Canada's Black beauty culture” feels like there's a pretty personal connection to that topic.

[00:18:22] Do you remember what made you wanna write the book? 

[00:18:26] Cheryl Thompson: Yeah, it was personal. I know academics were supposed to say no, no, no it was a distant, it was this distanced objective. It was not objective at all. It was personal. I was on a mission. I was driven by my own sense of wanting to figure things out. I had been, by that point participant, a participant in an industry spending tens of thousands of dollars

[00:18:49] for 15 solid years in an industry that I didn't fully understand, right. So my, the impetus for the book was to take it away from me trying to understand, like Black women like me, right? Like having the conversation, why do you relax your hair? Or how do you feel? I wanted to take it out of feelings to literally understand the inner workings of an industry that I had been essentially participating in.

[00:19:18] Gabriel Miller: And I want to ask you, what do you think is the most important message for a reader in that book? What would you hope that, for instance, a young Black woman would take from reading that book?

[00:19:33] Cheryl Thompson: To read that book, I think is to really understand or have a deeper understanding of what it means to be outside of the dominant culture.

[00:19:47] And I mean that in every sense of the word: economically symbolically, in terms of media, in terms of just who decides what is “normal” and what isn't. That's air quotes. I realize I need to say that. Yeah. That's really what I hope they get from it, because the Black beauty culture industry from its roots started because there was an entire section of people who were removed from entering the dominant economy and the dominant culture, unless they did a series of things.

[00:20:25] It's the reason why today I always push back when people are really critical of the African American entrepreneur, Madam C.J. Walker and others like her who were beauty culturalists as they called them in the early 20th century.

[00:20:40] Who, whose whole product line was basically to help Black women straighten their hair, people criticize her and say, oh, they, they were encouraging Black women to be white and that's the beginning of us thinking that we shouldn't work with our natural texture. And it's easy to make that comment when you live at a time where the boundaries between who is in and out is not clear. 

[00:21:10] In the late, in the 19th century and early 20th century and before. It was very clear who was the dominant culture and who wasn't, right? And so at that time, if you can imagine being a Black person, if you want to “succeed” in life again, air quotes, you have to assume a public image that will allow you to enter the dominant culture. And that image has to be an image that is, that aligns with the dominant culture, right?

[00:21:36] It's not about self-hate, it's about social mobility, which is what everybody even today wants. We just live in a world today where those boundaries, it's not as clear cut as they as it was in what would've been known as, quote unquote, the “Jim Crow era of segregation”, and we have that era in Canada.

[00:22:01] So for me, you read that book, you understand what it's like I hope to be outside of something and then as time has gone on and things changed, what it means to now be a part of something and the different challenges that actually comes with diversity and inclusion, because that's really what the end chapter in the book is trying to get at. It's like you think being more diverse and being included solves all those historical problems, but they just create new problems.

[00:22:29] Gabriel Miller: A big part of your research for the book was looking at advertisements and editorials in Canadian Black newspapers. Today, most of us are being targeted by advertisers on TikTok and Instagram and Facebook, and we're probably getting our news in large part online as well. When you look at this environment we're living in, what do you observe in the way that Black beauty culture is being communicated and absorbed, particularly by younger people?

[00:23:10] Cheryl Thompson: Well, I mean, I think today it's just not as much about community today. It's more about the individual person who selects their content really. The Black beauty culture industry mirrors the media industry of today. We live in a highly saturated, vertically integrated media industry, and it's also an industry that is, everything is about niche demographics.

[00:23:35] Like in media talk, they would call it narrow cast media, right? Everything is about you picking and choosing. The whole streaming system is built that way: pick and choose what you want the algorithm is gonna keep feeding you what you keep picking and choosing. In many ways, Black beauty culture as it's migrated onto into the digital space is like that.

[00:23:55] There's a lot of good things about that. For example, if I wanna try out a new product, I can go on YouTube and of course somebody's done a video that's gonna tell me all about the product and whether they like it or not, they're gonna do a demonstration right there in front of me. 

[00:24:11] Now, let's go back to 1985, and that would've been at the Western Harbor Castle Hotel here in Toronto, cause they had a lot of them there. And there would've been hundreds of maybe thousands of people there. There would've been a lunch, there would've been a show. You would've had a chance to mingle and meet. They probably would've had a mixer event afterwards.

[00:24:29] So it's not just about hair, it's about community, building friendships, building networks. That's what the hair experience would've been like. So today you have all these abilities to self-direct and almost like self-learn, right? Because you can learn so much about various products and hairstyles. Every time I go on Facebook, somebody's showing me some other foundation, right?

[00:24:51] Some amazing foundation, and they're gonna show you how it works. It's pretty much all over our social media advertising now. Not just hair products, but cosmetics too, it’s everywhere. But I'm not getting to talk to anyone to actually make a connection, and I think to be honest, that's the reason I make the political choice to still support the sole proprietor who owns a Black beauty supply store.

[00:25:17] Even some hair salons that sell Black owned products, I, I just make that choice so I don't buy my anything off of anything at a big box store. And unfortunately, because sometimes wearing your hair in a natural hairstyle, it's actually hard to find a product in the local place where you live that works.

[00:25:38] So I do buy products online, but I again made the political choice to source out a Black owned product maker out of Gainesville, Florida. This is real, where I buy my product. So in the contemporary, the flip side of everything I just said is you can make political choices now that better suit you as a person.

[00:26:02] You're not at the whim of an industry that's just deciding for you. Here's what are, here's your options, basically. So if I live in Monkton, New Brunswick, for example, what are my options? As a Black person, you might not have many in the local vicinity, but here comes the global marketplace of the internet and so it's allowed people, especially Black people who want to leave cities.

[00:26:27] One of the reasons why Black people in North America especially have always lived in cities, it's not, it's of course safety and numbers, so it's nice to be around other Black people and, and build a community, but it's also about just basic amenities like where am I going to eat my, get my food? Where am I going to get my hair care products?

[00:26:47] How am I gonna connect with this person or that music culture, whatever it is. So now that you have this amazing marketplace called the internet, it kind of has allowed Black people to leave the urban centre, if that's not really where they want to live. I think you see a lot more Black people living in more remote places of the country and it, and not worrying as much about hair products or any kind of cultural products because they could just order everything now.

[00:27:15] It has allowed for the byproduct of the internet that probably most people 30 years ago didn't think about was that it has allowed for a kind of mobility. For especially Black and racialized people that really they probably might not have considered 30 years ago.

[00:27:40] Gabriel Miller: Thank you for listening to the Big Thinking Podcast and to our guest, Cheryl Thompson, author, freelance writer, public speaker, and Associate Professor in Performance at the Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University. I also want to thank our friends at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council whose support helps make this podcast possible.

[00:28:02] Finally, I want to thank CitedMedia for their support in producing the Big Thinking Podcast. Follow us for more episodes on Spotify Apple Podcast, and Google Podcast, à la prochaine!

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