"Well my hair is nicer than yours!" my 16-year-old self retorted when a black friend and I got into a stupid teenage argument. As the words fell out of my mouth, I wished I could swallow them back up. She winced and in that moment, I knew she hated me.
What made my comment so cutting was the fact that natural, afro hair was not celebrated when I was growing up. Tyra, Naomi, Iman and the like weren’t wearing their hair au naturel. Black women, especially in the UK, rarely saw themselves in mainstream media, and as someone of mixed heritage, I almost never saw women like me in print or on TV. From very early on, strangers – both black and white – made me aware that I was 'lucky' when it came to my hair. My ringlets blow-dried easily, and when straight, my hair had movement unlike relaxed and hot-combed, coarser afro hair types. Plus it had a natural shine – no serum necessary. In my late teens I began using relaxer to loosen my curls so my hair remained smooth no matter the temperature, and the more I wore it straight, the more I was complimented – and the better strangers treated me.
My experience mirrors the results of the "Good Hair" study conducted by the Perception Institute in the US. Examining attitudes toward black women's hair, figures showed that white men and women displayed the strongest levels of implicit bias (embedded negative stereotypes that our brains automatically associate with a particular group of people, which are often inconsistent with our conscious beliefs) against textured hair. The study found that white women have the strongest explicit attitudes (negative views and beliefs about a racial group, formed on a conscious level), rating textured hair less beautiful, less attractive and less professional than smooth hair.
This attitude didn’t escape me during my formative years. I understood that in Western society, white hair equalled good hair and the closer your aesthetic resembled society’s beauty ideals – lighter skin, straighter hair, a slim physique – the more privilege you were afforded. I saw it in the way teachers at my private all girls' school treated me, compared to the other two black girls in my year. The difference in the way sales assistants would serve me in stores, and how boys would pay me more attention when my hair was straight. Later, when I got a weekend job working for a luxury beauty brand, I was told by a male boss that my hair "looked more professional" when it was straight and was encouraged not to wear it in its natural state. Then, when I started working as a beauty journalist, I was usually the only woman of colour at press events (which has not changed much, 15 years later) and it was made abundantly clear that one overriding aesthetic was preferred.
I changed all the photos on my dating apps to me with curly hair and quickly noticed a decline in matches.
For just shy of 20 years, I’ve watered down my blackness by straightening my hair in order to present myself in a more favourable light to the predominately white society in which I live and work. But just over a year ago, inspired by the natural hair movement, I decided to make a major change and said goodbye to relaxer. What followed were 52 eye-opening and often uncomfortable weeks.
Admittedly, the main reason for this change was vanity. Worried about how fragile my hair had become after years of chemical exposure, I knew I needed to give it a rest. Many 'bad hair days' followed, and I was tempted to reach for the relaxer countless times. However, when I finally figured out how to stretch out my regrowth so that it matched my looser relaxed curls (one dollop of Living Proof Curl Defining Styling Cream, £25, on damp clean hair, left in a plait overnight), I began to embrace my natural texture. All the while I felt encouraged by the natural hair movement – this collective shunning of outdated beauty ideals that have made black women feel unattractive, unworthy and unaccepted spurred me on, and gave me a sense of pride.
"Representation is a key part of self-acceptance," shares psychologist and author of the "Psychology of Black Hair" study, Johanna Lukate. "By using social media, WOC have been able to showcase a plethora of kinky hair textures and skin tones that have been missing in traditional media. This has sparked a global conversation about afro textured hair and created positive representations of WOC for everyone to be exposed to." This spike in representation gave me the courage to express how proud I am of my heritage, without fear of prejudice from others.
I changed all the photos on my dating apps to me with curly hair and quickly noticed a decline in matches. I was even asked by someone I’d matched with before the photo swap if I "had naturally curly hair?" I said yes and asked him what he preferred. "Straight" he answered with no hesitation. When I asked why, he said he’d never really thought about it but that it "seems neater, and smarter somehow". Make what you will of this response, but few people know that looking after textured hair is more time-consuming and considered than looking after straight hair.
I've not only had to contend with a lack of matches on Tinder but with fewer likes and followers on Instagram, and with a shift in the way strangers treat me. Case in point: the manager at a popular new London nail salon who behaved disdainfully towards me while smiling sweetly at everyone else. Is it my hair or the colour of my skin? I can’t say, but it’s clear to me that my straight hair gets a better reception. As a teen, I would not have been able to handle experiences like these but as an adult, rather than conform, I’m driven to be more myself than ever. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a blow-dry every few months, but it does mean I won’t straighten my hair to make others more comfortable with my presence.
If turning my back on white hair privilege results in me having a harder time finding a partner or enduring more blatant discrimination, so be it. I have a responsibility to myself to accept and love all the things that make me who I am – textured curly hair included. I hope that in doing so, I can be an example to other women of colour, especially those with mixed heritage, who struggle to see themselves as beautiful when much of the world tells them they are not.