What Does ‘Nappy Hair’ Mean in France?

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Photo: Brad Wilson

When I was 13, I begged my mother for a relaxer. My hairdresser, a woman who dispensed the treatment as often as she trimmed hair, agreed. After just one session, my hair would be smoother, easier to straighten, less nappy, she said. It was a selling point.

A word like nappy is a slippery specimen. Lobbed by a hairdresser, a friend, or a mother who understands, its significance is minimal. With few exceptions, when said by someone black like me, the word hardly turns heads. But when cast by someone who could never relate to having the kind of hair that curls and kinks and is the focus of centuries of derision, it hurts.

So when Elle France published a story this week with the headline “Nappy Hair : à vous les beaux cheveux afro naturels!” (roughly translated: “Nappy Hair: your beautiful natural Afro hair!”), featuring a photo of Solange Knowles, it stung. Even more, it made us mad — despite the article’s general crux, which was an unabashed celebration of black hair. Nappy as a term has a history rooted in the subordination of black beauty. For centuries it was spat with the same malevolence as the other N-word we know so well. And much like that other word, it was only the reclaiming of the term by blacks that made its use acceptable once more.

It’s easy to condemn Elle for their use of the word, but it’s also uninformed. The French relationship with nappy isn’t rooted in the same history that plagues the U.S. When I asked Fatou N’diaye, a French beauty blogger who is black about how the people in France view the term, she explained its benign origins. “We say nappy because we saw it on the internet years ago from American websites. The word nappy in France is a contraction of the word natural and happy. I myself have used this term in 2006 and for at least three years. I stopped using the word when I was told [by an American] that [in the U.S.] they stopped using this word because it’s bad and people prefer the term natural.”

Even a shallow dive into French publications suggests that nappy fails to carry the same derogative weight in France that it does in the U.S. The continental divide seems to have shielded the burn when, in 2007, shock-jock Don Imus described the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes” or when, this past year, a Louisiana principal asked elementary-school parents to trim their son’s “nappy, uncombed, unmaintained” hair.

So is an entire country bound to respect America’s cultural sensitivities? Of course not, but had the Elle writer done a modicum of research, she would easily have discovered nappy’s less-than-savory history.