Photo: Courtesy of Jasmine Rose-Olesco.
“Your hair is your beauty,” my late great-grandmother frequently reminded me. Her hair — thick, long, and easy to manage — was a stark contrast to my own. Since I have natural coils once described by my peers as “kinky” or “nappy,” I doubted my hair could ever be considered beautiful. I hated the way my hair grew from its roots: thick, scrunched, and crunchy to the touch.
What I disliked most was that combing through crunchy hair sounded like someone biting an apple. It wasn’t smooth, and it proved to be a painful and time-consuming process. I longed to wake up one day with hair that would be celebrated by the world: blonde, long, and straight. “If given a choice, who would want hair like mine?” I often wondered.
Early years found me sporting an Afro, since I disliked sitting at the hands of my mother while she — armed with a wide-toothed comb, hair grease, and bobbles — attempted to tame my tresses with plaits, adorning them with bobbles that click-clacked with movement. The process of washing my textured hair was a long one, as it was difficult to have it lather with soap due to its curliness and thickness and thus took several more washes than average to make it completely clean.
To my mother’s credit, she mastered the art of patience in styling hair like mine, even if she accused me of being “tender-headed,” a term often used in the black community for those who are easily pained by the wear and tear of combing through our textured manes. I graduated from my occasional Afro and plaits to patterned cornrows adorned with sashaying beads, styled for me by hairdressers at the local hair salon predominately frequented by other African-Americans. It was among black women in hair salons where I learned of the diversity of black hair. From weaves, plaits, braids, press and curls, relaxers, twist-outs, Afros, box braids, and more, there wasn’t a hairstyle that I couldn’t wait to don.
However, during my preteen and teenage years, I succumbed to the pressure to look like the black women I saw in magazines and on my television by getting a press and curl, accomplished by using a curling iron and a relaxer, used to make naturally curly hair straight. Both hair regimens can have damaging effects on one’s locks because of the heat and chemicals, but accomplishing straight hair through these processes brings black women that much closer to possessing what some have referred to as “good hair.”
Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
And, while I tried my best to fit in, I couldn’t escape the misconceptions raised about my hair from white classmates at my predominately white, all-girls, private middle and high school. Some peers, uninvited, ran their fingers through my hair, remarking with looks of disdain over how “kinky” it felt (during times when my press and curl wore out). During an overnight class retreat, I struggled to find the words to explain why I wrapped my hair with a silk scarf at night. It actually took me a minute to figure out why my cabin mates were warily eyeing me, until one asked, “Why are you wearing that…thing on your head,” gesturing to her own. I offered the best explanation I could think of: “It keeps my hair straight.”
Questions like this found their way back to me when I was asked why I flat-ironed my hair every day or how my hair grew to such long lengths after a short period of time. The truth is: I didn’t flat-iron my hair every day — my hair was chemically relaxed, or what most in my community call “permed.” I washed my hair once every two weeks, making sure to treat it with conditioner as well, as textured hair can be damaged if it is washed as often as one washes straight hair. And, the magical growing of my hair in a short period of time can be attributed to having hair extensions added. Plus, having straight hair was considered selling out, and I was accused of damaging my hair.
Not washing my hair every day, even though I explained why, was considered “nasty,” and I was warned that I would soon grow dreads. When my PE class called for swimming lessons, I dreaded the day that surely came when, even though I protected my mane as best I could under a swimming cap, it would be affected by the water and chlorine and would appear unruly. Lately, I’ve chosen to not chemically straighten my hair and have had sewn-in hair extensions used as a protective style for my natural curls underneath.
The misconceptions, awkwardness, and stigma steeped in the ways society regards textured hair can be rectified with conversation and, instead of acceptance, celebration of hair like my own. When I see Melissa Harris-Perry rocking micro braids on her nationally broadcasted Melissa Harris-Perry show, I realize the ways we can revolutionize against actions like school boards banning young black girls from wearing their hair in Afro-puffs, the equivalent to a young white girl wearing a ponytail.
When Lupita Nyong'o slays red carpets showcasing her short, cropped hair, defying de facto rules about perceptions of beauty, I become steadfast in being unapologetic about my hair and my declaration of my own beauty. Also, it is imperative that representatives of the media realize their responsibility in getting the narrative right on hairstyles originating from black ideals of beauty.
The knots Miley Cyrus showcased during the Video Music Awards, often called Bantu knots, have a history steeped in African-American culture. When media outlets sensationalize her image, referring to acts like wearing these knots to such an event as edgy, they take credit away from the black girls who styled their hair this way before it was displayed on television, which is already ruled by white girls and women with straight locks.
Esteemed magazine Marie Claire took power away from little black girls by calling Kendall Jenner’s cornrowed braids “bold,” when cornrows originated in Africa. Apology statement aside, there is a duty to do research in order to get the story right when running a piece in a media outlet. Acknowledging this history is a first step toward engaging in a much-needed conversation on the politics and fashion of black women and their hair.
In the meantime, I continue to reiterate the often-stated adage “my black is beautiful” and be inspired by its versatility.
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