Mariah Paige Barksdale, 23, Durham, NC

This year, as part of our Take Back The Beach program, we are asking YOU to tell us about your experiences with body talk and self-perception. Below, one reader's story.

"Is Your Hair Even Real?"

This is the question (usually said as a statement) I got asked a lot growing up in my small, suburban Texas town.
When I was younger, I didn't have a lot of friends who looked like me, which is perfectly fine. My parents really encouraged diversity in the people that my sister and I hung out with and dated. However, it was unfortunately an issue when I would go to a friend's house to swim in her pool or go with a group to a water park or beach. Every time, I would get looks of confusion from my friends and their mothers at the massive duffel bag I had to bring with me, which was filled with my special, smelly (this was not your average Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine) keratin shampoo, coconut oil, leave-in conditioner and head wrap. I had to monitor how long I could stay in the water before immediately rushing into the shower to wash out all of the chlorine or sand from my chemically-treated hair. At the time, I internalized my differences as defects and looked at myself in the worst way.
As a young girl, I had anxiety at every pool party, since all of my friends had straight hair, lightly tanned skin, and thin frames adorned in Limited Too bikinis. Meanwhile, my large, dark hips and breasts (puberty hit me at the ripe age of 8) were awkwardly strapped into an ill-fitting Speedo; and I had a “nappy” scalp that I'd inherited from my dad and insanely thick, curly hair from my mom. It got to a point where I preferred not do anything outdoors in the summer because, Who knew how dark my skin would get with too much sun exposure? I also couldn't risk getting my hair wet after my mom had spent so much time and money getting it relaxed. Summer vacation was supposed to be a warm, care-free part of my childhood, but I quickly began to resent it.
I don't write this to say my adolescent insecurities have been magically fixed. As a society, we are at this weirdly freeing time when natural hair, darker skin, and different body types are considered “trendy” and are just now being celebrated (sigh). I love this notion, but I'm still conflicted, especially when “progressive” people still ask whether or not I "actually need" to wear sunscreen or if they can touch my hair (to which I point them to Phoebe Robinson's incredible book). Because of this, it's taken me years to fully embrace my hair and body in all of life's elements. However, I am grateful to be growing up in a time when aspiring women like Michelle Obama, Lizzo, and Issa Rae can create and thrive as their true selves. It's a process, but I'm able to finally, and fully, love myself in all of my nappy, brown, curly glory. Now, my favorite place to be my natural self is lying on the beach, tanning my brown skin, and sipping rosé in the middle of the summer.
#TakeBackTheBeach essays are meant to reflect individual women's experiences. They have only been lightly edited (if at all) by Refinery29 and do not necessarily reflect the company's point of view. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behavior.
Have a story of body image and self-perception that you want to share? Submit your essay to our Take Back The Beach contest here.

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