Blog Home Inspiration How We Search It: Black Hair

To truly represent Black hair, creators must showcase more than sleek, straight styles.

Trendy and Professional Woman in Yellow Blazer
Image by Victoria Chudinova.

I’ve had many hairstyles in my twenty-something years: As a kid, I got my hair professionally straightened every month. As a teen, I turned to extensions. In college, I went with box braids. Each look was different—and each represented “Black hair.”

To be familiar with Black hair, an umbrella term that encompasses a stunning variety of styles and applies to people of African descent, is to be familiar with cornrows and afro puffs, locs and buns; it’s to understand hair-care practices and textures from 1A to 4C. But to really know Black hair is to have grappled with the stigma attached to it. For centuries, Black hair has been marveled at, criticized, and deemed unruly.

Stylish Haircut
The umbrella term “Black hair” carries with it a history few people outside of the global Black community can relate to. Image by Serhii Bobyk.

While the resurgence of the natural-hair movement, bolstered by social media, has resulted in better representation of Black hair, the bias attached to Black hair persists. Research from Michigan State and Duke University, for instance, shows that Black women are still penalized in the workplace for not submitting to European beauty standards. 

One way creators can help push back on this bias is to better represent the full breadth of Black hair in images and footage, thus embracing and normalizing all types of Black hair. Here are tips to do just that.

Happy Young Woman
Black hairstyles have only recently gone through a renaissance in mainstream culture. Image by mimagephotography.

Tip #1: Get Specific 

First, some basics: If you search “Black hair,” you’ll pull up photos of people with black-colored hair, regardless of race. To limit your selections to include primarily include Black subjects, go to Shutterstock’s left-hand search bar and adjust your “ethnicity” settings to “Black,” “African,” and “African American.” (You can try the same thing with blonde hair and red hair.) Another option is to search “African American hair” or “African hair” right out of the gate.

Fashionable Hairstyle
Representing Black hair in its many forms erases the “other” narrative and lets Black people just be. Image by AS photostudio.

With traditional Black hairstyles being as unique as they are, it also helps to search proper or related style names: Type in “natural hair,” “dreadlocks,” or “box braids,” for example, and you’ll discover images that reflect the diversity of Black hair (complete with shots from the salon).

Colorful Dreadlocks
Image by AS photostudio.
Dreadlocks Styling
Image by Anna Tamila.

Despite the natural-hair resurgence of the past decade, protective styles utilizing wigs and weaves are still popular; and chemical relaxers remain a go-to staple for many (even with sales falling significantly in recent years). Which means long, straight styles are of course an appropriate representation of Black hair (they just shouldn’t be the only or ideal representation). To search those looks, try specific phrases like “long hair” or “wavy hair,” and limit your results by ethnicity.

Fashionable Woman
Image by Felix Mizioznikov.

Tip #2: Show Dark-Skinned Black People 

Smiling Young Woman
Specific terms like “African American hair” or “African hair” will pull up the desired results. Image by Standret.

Here’s a lesson for creators who are unfamiliar with Black hair: Texture is sometimes—but not always—related to a person’s skin tone. Black people with lighter skin often have looser, wavier curls; Black people with darker skin often have tighter, less defined curls. Because social media campaigns and print and digital photoshoots typically feature lighter-skinned Black people—an example of colorism—“natural” Black hair is disproportionately associated with looser, more defined curls. 

But the reality is that hair texture varies from person to person, and no one texture is reserved for any one skin tone. Creators who respect that Black people are not a monolith will seek out a variety of subjects and, by default, showcase a greater variety of hair textures.

Curly-Haired Woman
Image by Jacob Lund.
Smiling Woman
Image by Rido.
Curly-Haired Man
Image by mimagephotography.

Tip #3: Take the Focus Off Hair 

Not every image that features Black hair needs to be about Black hair. On the contrary, it’s important to think about how, say, natural hair or dreadlocks can be showcased in everyday images: a Black man working out on a sunny day, for example, or a happy couple vacationing. 

Three Students Working Together
Image by Daniel M Ernst.

That’s not to say that Black hair shouldn’t be overtly celebrated—it should be. But by representing Black hair in its many forms across a variety of settings, creators can help erase the “other” narrative around Black hair, allowing Black people to just be.

For further inspiration, check out Shutterstock’s Black Hair and Portraits of Diversity collections; then jump over to Offset’s Black Hair collection.

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Top image by Andrii Kobryn.