UNT graduate researches African American women and their hair – and hopes to use that information for an app

Terresa Hardaway
University of North Texas MFA graduate in design research Terresa Hardaway with her work "Project Naptural. Photograph taken on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016 in Denton. (Gary Payne/UNT Photo)
Thursday, February 25, 2016 - 13:57

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- Terresa Hardaway, a graduate in the design research MFA program at the University of North Texas, took on a thesis project that affected her personally and other African American women personally – her hair.

Hardaway conducted interviews with more than 100 African American women over the course of roughly two years about the social and cultural significance of their hair as more of them to choose to stop chemically relaxing their hair and go natural. The result is "Project Naptual (nappy + natural)," which she wants to turn into a mobile app that will focus on African American women's hair.

"Now we're seeing these women as objects of beauty," she said. "My app is designed to connect women, to empower them and to educate them."

It's a personal hair journey that Hardaway has gone through since 2012, when she decided to go natural just a year before she began to work on her thesis. Students in the design research program identify social, technological, economic and public policy problems and then set out to collect data from a variety of sources that might help yield solutions to these.

She found many African American women may have questions about the processes in which to go natural and didn't know any beauty shops that could take care of their natural hair. With 144 differing textures, caring for natural hair requires time and resources that aren't always readily available.

Hardaway wants women with natural hair to be able to log onto the app and create their natural hair profile to catalog and receive recommendations for styles, products and even local natural hair salons for their hair texture and lifestyle. She hopes to expand it to offer a myriad of support options to women. To make the app a reality, Hardaway is seeking funding to complete the coding and programming.

Her research – conducted under the guidance of Michael Gibson and Keith Owens, both associate professors of communication design in the College of Visual Arts and Design's Design Research Center – is already drawing attention.

Her findings were part of a recent exhibition titled "Project Naptural: #napnetwork 1.0" at the University Union Art Gallery, which included illustrations she created demonstrating a wide variety of natural hair styles accompanied with anecdotes and qualitative date from women she interviewed. The exhibit also included "graffiti walls" that visitors utilized to anonymously express their feelings and views on African American natural hair by answering questions posed to them on a large blank wall.

Hardaway is also working as a core team member of the Natural Hair @ Work Initiative Natural Hair Network on its research, planning and media design for its Natural Hair @ Work Day slated for July 29.

The issue has gained attention in mainstream media, but can be a divisive issue in the African American community with some women declaring that natural hair is more reflective of their race compared to those who choose to relax their hair.

One woman told Hardaway, "There's a fine line between looking fashionable and looking homeless (with natural hair)."

Hardaway conducted two focus groups involving 67 women over the course of her research, individual interviews with 15 women and a graffiti wall consisting of 188 opinions from African American natural haired women. She asked them to describe their first childhood hair experience. The response was almost 100 percent negative.

"You knew as a child you were going to get your scalp burned," Hardaway said.

Oftentimes, before the age when one is ready to get their first chemical relaxer (about 7 or 8 years old), African American children will have to get a hot comb run through their hair that has been sitting on a burner of the stove. Their hair would be parted, scalp greased in small tedious sections before the hot comb was run through to temporarily straighten hair.

"No other culture understands what's going on," Hardaway said.

Hardaway earned a master's of fine arts in design research with a minor in anthropology in December 2015 and a bachelor's of fine arts in fashion design with minor in African-American studies in 2008. She is currently applying to doctoral programs to continue studying culture and how design can positively change problems in the real world.

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