I think I can speak to the sentiments of Black women everywhere when I say loving and caring for your own natural hair is an uphill battle. The unpredictability, dryness, frizziness, and pain that comes with the realization that you can never get your hair to lay down the way it did the day before is bound to make us harbour some (well deserved) resentment. I don’t think I can explain the heartbreak of spending hours putting your hair into 20 individual bantu knots only to wake up the next morning and look like something like the Cynthia dolls from Rugrats. Just as there are diverse hair types, the journey Black women go through is just as diverse.
Funnily enough, these struggles only begin to scratch the surface of the struggles Black women face every day. What everyone fails to acknowledge is that while Black women battle their hair — and, in my case, lose — they are also battling microaggressions, ignorance, and the impact that lack of representation has on their self image and self-esteem.
In my experience, I am the only one in my family, extended included, who has natural 4c hair. Everyone else’s hair has been permed straight since childhood, their natural texture not even known to them. Growing up, nobody in my family knew how to handle my thick, coily, and hard to manage hair. This resulted in a decade of painful Sunday’s, sitting on the floor in between my mom’s legs while she combed my hair until her back hurt and hand cramped.
I remember crying, flinching in pain, and wondering, why me? Why am I burdened with this pain, with this hair? Why couldn’t my hair just be straight? It was so easy for my non-black friends, and they never had to worry. I think back to these moments and feel sympathy, not only to my younger self but to all the little Black girls, and even Black women, who have felt this way about a part of their identity that should be celebrated. In that moment, nothing mattered. So, at age 9, I began straightening my hair, every single week.
Smoky air, and the smell of burnt hair was the norm. Flinching away from the heat of the flat iron became second nature. But hey, at least I fit in now. Sure I’d have burn marks on my scalp and ears but at least my hair was straight! I easily and willingly gave up healthy hair for manageability, and to be just like everyone else. I never looked back.
Until my hair started falling out.
After 4 years, my hair began to break at the middle of the hair shaft, and was noticeably thinning out. Sad thing is, I kept straightening my hair because I could not fathom dealing with my natural hair myself. My mom would blow dry it for an hour, and I would straighten it for two. It was a perfect system. At age 13, I had never had to manage my natural hair on my own. I didn’t want to. I didn’t think I could. How could I when I had no one around me going through what I was experiencing? The lack of representation in my immediate circle played a large role in how I saw myself and my hair.
Representation is so important, and, luckily for me, social media was a gold mine filled with women who looked like me spearheading the reiteration of the natural hair movement. Seeing beautiful women in the media rocking their curls inspired me to embrace my own. So, in 8th grade, at age the age of 13. for the first time ever, I came to school with a twist out.
I remember feeling anxious, I remember hoping everyone would ignore me and the day would continue as normal. Evidently, that did not happen. If there’s one thing about Black hair it’s that it draws attention in any form. My hair drew people in like a moth to a flame and the reactions I received were unexpected. My peers loved my natural hair and it felt as if a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I never even realized how much I was holding myself back. That validation gave me the confidence I needed to embrace my natural hair and to realize, there was no right or wrong way to wear my hair.
Then tragedy struck. As soon as my fears melted away, they quickly built back up. Not only would people touch my hair without consent and put pencils in my hair to see if it would stay, a male classmate claimed that I “looked like a swiffer duster mop”. Was it a joke? Sure. Was it rooted in ignorance and reeked of microaggressions? Undoubtedly. Saying my hair looks like a mop is not the joke you think it is. A dark core memory formed that day and a grey cloud followed me around to rain on my parade. I was absolutely devastated. I didn’t even care about who said it, it was the fact that I let myself be open and vulnerable in showing my natural hair and one of my worst fears came true.
The following week I wore my hair straight.
The biggest lesson I learned about my hair did not come until years later at the age of 18. Thanks to lockdown, for the first time in years, I went an entire year without straightening my hair. In the past 365 days, I have spent the most time I ever have taking care of my curls, getting rid of a decade’s worth of heat damage, and I even cut off a few inches. Throughout all of quarantine, I took the time to love my hair and I finally understood that my hair isn’t unmanageable or a chore – I simply never made time for it. I wrote my hair off without giving it a chance. Plainly put, when you’re kind to your hair, it’s kind back.
This experience truly felt like a form of self actualization. I realized a new beauty in myself and within my hair. I fell in love with my curl pattern, I began to romanticize my tight ringlets, I adored the way my curls framed my face.
While Black hair, in any form, is viewed as an aesthetic choice, it is most often treated as a political battleground. Hair for Black people, especially Black women, has always been a symbol of pride, identity, and empowerment. The simple action of a Black woman leaving her hair natural, wearing box braids, or a simple afro is an act of rebellion against societal norms. An act of rebellion against non-black people who refuse to accept the palatability of Black hair. An act of rebellion against those who seek to oppress us. Yes, even in today’s society.
Straightening, perming, weaving, and any other form of hair manipulation is deemed almost necessary if a Black woman wants to be deemed “beautiful” or look “presentable” to non-Black people and even Black men. Read that again. Imagine being told that in order to be appreciated or respected in society, you have to try your hardest to not look like yourself – in this case, Black. Imagine shrinking a core part of your identity in order to fit into what society can easily digest. There are schools around the world that force Black kids to cut off their dreads or face elimination from sports, and force them to ‘tame’ their afro because they look unkempt. What does that tell Black children? That their hair — a core part of their identity, their Blackness– is not tolerated anywhere. It’s not respectable. It’s not acceptable.
The reiteration of the natural hair movement is positive but due to colourism and misogynoir, it still fails Black women. The movement glamourizes loose hair patterns over tight ones and favours the journey of Black women with long hair while ignoring those with short hair. Even within the Black community, hair is still a polarizing phenomenon judged by everyone. The realization that I, and girls who look like me, cannot even fit into our own community was a harsh reality to come to terms with, but this realization enabled me to spark a necessary conversation. To understand the shortcoming of the movement is to understand that more needs to be done to include all Black women in the normalization of natural texture. It allows us to question why type 3 hair is accepted and type 4 hair is ridiculed –hint, it’s intergenerational internalized racism. The reason why so many Black girls are at a loss of what to do to their natural hair stems from the fact that their mothers were never give the space to be accepted for their natural hair. Neither were their mother’s mother, or their aunts, or great aunts. I truly believe that this generation of Black girls will successfully` break out from this cycle, and this starts with having an open conversation about the realities of Black hair.
Despite the 5 hour long wash days, the cramped arms from doing protective braids, and the accidental burns from the flat iron, I would never trade my kinky, gravity defying hair for the world. Black hair in any form, box braids, straightened, permed, or natural, is a symbol of acceptance, identity and pride. The way it’s chosen to be worn extends past the possibility of right or wrong. Black hair is Black hair no matter how it’s worn. No matter what stage you’re at in the journey of loving your own hair, just remember Black girls, Black hair is beautiful.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: https://www.ebony.com/style/illustrator-black-hair/