Looking back on it, I can’t quite remember when I began to grow disquieted in my own skin. It was never the entirety of my body; I had never been subjected to the kind of conditioning which predisposes one to complete self-revulsion. It was just small parts. The parts that made me just that little bit different.
I could not yet read, and I wanted my hair to be straight. When I took my baths, I’d tug at my curls, extending the tendrils to their full length. “See how long they are?” I’d say. When they sprung back, as they inevitably did, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment.
I won’t blame everything on Disney; such a deep-rooted discomfort that I felt could not have come from just one source so much as an entire society. And yet, had I not idolized those princesses, with their white skin and fair hair, I can’t help but think that things might have been different for me.
What else could you expect? A little black girl, isolated from anyone who looks like her, begins to hate herself. It’s a story that’s repeated itself, will repeat itself, hundreds of thousands of times. We can’t stop it if we don’t address its roots.
My mother always straightened her hair. I can remember perhaps one time in my life when I saw her natural hair; I was small, sitting outside of the bathroom in my parent’s room as she emerged, her short afro a halo around her head. That all the black women I knew straightened their hair or wore wigs did not help that I thought straightening my hair was the only course of action for me. For this, I do not assign them any blame, however. My mother’s natural hair, so much curlier than mine, was never an option for her to wear. At best, it would be considered unprofessional.
Regardless, young girls look to their mothers, and I was no exception. And I did not see a woman with natural hair, I saw a woman with hair like a white woman. And I accepted it as normal.
There is something deeply disturbing about the fact that even black barbie dolls have straight hair. On the surface, we as a society have grudgingly accepted dark skin. We make room for the black best friend. Black models, though still underrepresented, are there. Heck, we have a black president! We are inclusive, diverse, progressive, not at all racist. The truth is, however, toleration of black people only extends so far as they are able to jump through the hoops white people set for them. Make sure that you talk with proper grammar, or else you’re ghetto. Don’t show your anger, or else you’re a thug. And for Christ’s sake, straighten your hair.
Our hair is a symbol which cannot be ignored; it proudly proclaims our heritage before people even see our skin. It is an unapologetic statement of blackness. It is deeply telling that everywhere you turn, black women’s hair is policed, regulated, and ignored. It brings to mind images of Pretoria Girl’s High, where in a country of predominately black people, young girls were already being told that their hair was inappropriate.
When I wore my hair straight, very few people commented on it. When I began to wear my hair curly once again, those same people treated it like I was trying to make a fashion statement. Black hair is consistently treated as abnormal- but how can something be abnormal when it naturally grows out of our heads? It is not unnatural for a little girl to want to be able to wear her hair just as it is- what is unnatural is that we accept it when they want to divorce themselves from it.
So, while I never disliked the color of my skin, my own discomfort with my hair betrayed the racism which I had internalized. I wanted to make myself acceptable, and in the process I had convinced myself that there was something wrong with who I was. In reality, it was the opposite.
I straightened my hair every week for three and half years before making the transition back to natural. I was in middle school, and my hair was just one of a long list of things that I hated about my body. Maybe my intense desire to straighten my hair was magnified by some of that, maybe the catalyst was how people would stare and remark on my hair when I did wear it natural.
I emerged from that period with my hair severely damaged, but with some part of my soul cleansed. I had told myself for those years that the reason I was straightening my hair was because my curly hair was too hard to manage- I don’t think I ever fully believed that, but it was easier for me that way. In learning how to take care of my hair instead of ignoring it, I began to nourish a part of myself which when I found it, was starving. Slowly, I found an identity which I didn’t know I had, and begun to embrace it as an old friend.