Alyscia Cunningham on the Politics of Hair and Body Image

by Terry Taplin | March 28, 2019

Students, faculty, staff, and other members of the Saint Mary’s College community were treated to a talk by author, photographer, and filmmaker Alyscia Cunningham on Wednesday, March 20, as part of Women’s History Month. “The Politics of Hair, Body Image, Race, Gender, and Media” brought together members of the BSU, Gender Justice Leaders, and allies for a presentation in the Intercultural Center and a meet and greet in the Center for Women and Gender Equity (CWGE).

CWGE Director Sharon Sobotta opened the event: “Alyscia got in touch with me a few years ago about her interest in visiting the center. While we have a modest budget and lots of issues to tackle, I knew the topics Alyscia addressed—positive body image, self-love, self-acceptance, acceptance of hair and our whole selves—are topics that students, as well as even many faculty and staff, crave to explore.”

Cunningham, who is of Trinidadian descent, asked attendees to define the ways that they see beauty. Beauty “is a feeling or an essence,” Intercultural Center Director Desirée Anderson answered while acknowledging the difficulty of maintaining a sense of feeling beautiful given messages from our society that indicate otherwise. Attendees noted thinness, lighter skin complexions, youth, and other factors as common beauty standards promoted by media. Professor of Music Lino Rivera pointed out that each culture “has its own standards of beauty,” forming a perfect segue into Cunningham’s discussion on the varieties of beauty valued by several global cultures.

The group discussed the ways that the media promotes Eurocentric and body-negative standards of beauty through digital image editing practices such as skin lightening, manipulation of body composition, and the removal of wrinkles and gray hair. Cunningham pointed out the hypersexualization of women’s bodies in sports and fashion media while illustrating the historical precedents of these practices as well as their continued societal implications.

Recent change makers who have led actions that confront negative messages of beauty were also highlighted. These included Mirusha and Yanusha Yogarajah’s #unfairandlovely campaign, and Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body Is Not an Apology movement aimed at creating a platform for inclusive self-love for all persons.

Cunningham asked audience members to consider how they receive these ideas of beauty through television and film, family, and peers, highlighting the role of media conglomerates in monopolizing the images and messages we see, hear, and receive.

Cunningham mentioned that she became interested in photography during the early photoshop craze and that she was disheartened at the pervasiveness of the manipulation—and fighting back. “I love capturing women,” she told the crowd as she introduced her process of writing her book, I Am More Than My Hair. When sharing her work with a noted photographer, she said, she was shocked to hear that she should “never show a pregnant client a picture of her stomach with stretchmarks” because “stretchmarks are ugly.” This experience didn’t stop her passion for capturing the natural beauty of women, and her commitment to uplifting her subjects and the wider society.

Cunningham emphasized the role of family influence. “Lane Cobb, the coach I hired, helped me to connect the dots to my story from childhood.” She told us how her father “never went a day without telling me I was beautiful” and how his own mother criticized his looks. Family messages, she said, play an immense role in how we internalize concepts of our self-work and externalize that onto others.

The afternoon focused on how images of women’s hair, bodies, and age are controlled and manipulated, but the discussion was extended to people of all genders and ethnicities. When asked how role models factor into the equation, students mentioned the positive impact of admiring athletic heroes and the importance of having aspirational and affirming media content. “I always want to be the images I see,” senior art practice student Desiree Harris said. Harris also commented that “campus does a good job of affirming self-worth in students.”

Saint Mary’s collaborative and inclusive nature, enhanced through the extensive network of organizational partnerships, nurtures principles of social justice and equity, for “self-hatred is not just systemic and endemic,” said Assistant Professor of Politics Zahra Ahmed during the meet and greet talk facilitated by Cunningham and Gender Justice Leader Sihin Tsegay.

Cunningham outlined how she has advocated for her children and other young students of color, dealing with institutional and social racism in the school system in Baltimore. Tsegay shared her experiences navigating the complexity of Eurocentric beauty standards absorbed in East Africa through Italian colonization. She led an exercise listening to India Arie’s classic song “I Am Not My Hair,” and the audience shared its reflections on the lyrics.

Tsegay’s exercise complemented Cunningham’s at the conclusion of her talk, when she invited audience members to imagine a place in the world that they find most beautiful then transfer the appreciation of the places’ beauty onto themselves.

Tsegay expressed how organizing these kinds of cultural dialogue events on behalf of the campus is enriching: “Leadership is about serving your community, and for me, it has been about making spaces for the most marginalized on our campus. Without my leadership roles, I would not have gotten nearly as much out of Saint Mary’s. I truly believe it is not the classes that have made me who I am today but the power I have come to realize we all have to make a difference when we notice injustice,” Tsegay said, reflecting on the event.

Bringing Cunningham’s work to campus is part of CWGE’s efforts to promote a climate of inclusivity. “The fact that Alyscia brings her lens as a woman of color to this work and challenges people to have a more inclusive definition of beauty than that which the mainstream brings forth is revolutionary, and in my humble opinion, a cornerstone to the radical act of self-acceptance,” Sobotta said. “Much of the work is about creating intentional spaces for women and people of all gender identities to share their experiences navigating issues, spaces, learning to advocate, building sustainable paths to fulfilling careers/lives from the perspective of intersectional identities, and finding the courage to effectively use our voices to both empower ourselves, our peers, and our communities.”

Cunningham’s work is being turned into a documentary. To find out more, visit