Hair is often considered one of women’s most important physical attributes, its length, and texture being the subject of countless magazine articles and an entire industry’s worth of products. But the relationship between beauty and hair also offers cultural insights that are often overlooked in common discourse. The following essay about African American hair teases apart some of those cultural threads, showing how hair (or lack thereof) affects how women see themselves.
I got my first relaxer when I was four years old and grew up believing this was normal. Every four to six weeks for 16 years, I stripped my hair of its uniquely designed coil and softness for tame and straight hair. Most of the other little black girls in my schools underwent the same ritual at some point. For 16 years, I subscribed to the respectability politics of grooming African American hair, believing if I hid my blackness just enough, I would be acceptable.
Then I went to Howard University, one of the top historically black universities in the country. For the first time in a long time, I had to face my blackness as I experienced a different kind of diversity. The African diaspora was much broader and much more beautiful than society had taught me growing up. Everyone around me exuded black pride—something I didn’t know I had been searching for. Overnight, I became more aware than ever of who I was.
I slowly stripped away the mask I had used to cover my blackness, longing to embrace my natural curls. This was a huge decision—a decision I wanted to share with my mom before I made it, since I confided in her with just about everything. We had an eight-hour ride back to Dayton, Ohio ahead of us the day she and her boyfriend came to take me home for the summer after my freshman year, and I was eager to tell both of them about how socially aware I had become. Less than two hours into the ride, I told my mom I wanted to stop getting relaxers and grow my natural hair out. She was very open-minded, so I thought our conversation would be constructive. Wrong!
“No you’re not,” she told me as she whipped her head towards me with a look of disdain that she only gave me when I’d done something horribly wrong. I was shocked. Until that point, every insecurity I had about my hair had come from an outsider. The world’s view of natural hair as unkempt, undesirable and unclean had influenced my mom’s beliefs. She told me it wouldn’t be appealing. She told me I wouldn’t get a good job. She even told me I had lost my mind and needed to go to church (which confused me since we weren’t a very religious family). She reaffirmed what society had been whispering in my ear since I was born: “You’re not enough.”
Once again, I listened to that voice and got a relaxer. I felt guilty for backtracking on everything I had learned at Howard. I was afraid to be proud to be myself. I mustered up the courage to make this my last relaxer—for real this time. I kept my hair protected in braids while I transitioned to natural and didn’t let anyone sway me, not even my mom when she made snide comments. I was steadfast, and it paid off. In March 2012, I cut all of my processed hair out and became acquainted with my natural afro. It bounced, it defied gravity and it was magical.
Then something unexpected happened. My mom told me she was going natural, too. I’m not sure if it was because she saw that I had secured my first internship and finished my sophomore year with a high GPA, inadvertently proving to her that my success had nothing to do with my hair. We talked about hair-care products, styles and how hurtful her words were that day she picked me up after freshman year. I had carried a chip on my shoulder until we had that talk. This was the beginning of my natural hair journey. This was the moment that allowed me to liberate myself from destructive words and practices. My natural hair became a symbol of my black pride.