06/07/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

'Health, Hair And Heritage' At The Smithsonian

Eliot Elisofon Photo Archives/National Museum

Historically, popular culture's relationship with black women's hair ranges from indifferent to insulting to fetishized. But black women's relationship to what's growing out of their own heads has always proved especially tangled.

A frequent, clarifying shorthand contends hair is to black women what weight is to white women. But it's heavier than that. For white women, size rarely becomes a proxy for personhood, while black hair raises questions of beauty, authenticity and the politics of racial identity.