Hair is just hair, right? Not if you are talking to a woman of color. Your — mostly tense — relationship with hair starts from the minute you are born. Aunties and friends will rejoice: “Oh, she’s got good hair!” Mom will be proud and beam with joy. There will be barrettes, bows and bubble ties.
Somewhere though, something shifts. That good hair may have morphed into something else. Curlier. Kinky. Coarse. Now it requires to be done and dealt with. It needs relaxing and chemicals. It’s a source of grimaces and unpleasant memories of tugs and pulls. Memories that will last a lifetime.
Growing up, I had one hair goal: for it to be able to move effortlessly as it shows in the commercials and on the heads of my classmates at school. I knew my skin was different, but it wasn’t until my hair was in the stiff fluffy ponytails that I became aware of the racial difference.
Historically for black women, hair has been intricately tied to how we were defined as people. The afro of the ’70s was just as much about rebelling from societal standards of beauty as it was a political statement on the status of black bodies.
The hairstyles may have changed, but much has stayed the same: the feelings of self-doubt, the need to fit in and the in-group definitions of beauty. It would be impossible to go to a black salon and start this conversation and leave without heated and passionate debates.
The judgments don’t end there. Society at large has determined what the standard of beauty is and will vilify you for not conforming. From attacks on Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy, to humiliating TSA tactics, to offensive red carpet commentary, black women aren’t given the room to let hair just be hair. To even declare ourselves as beautiful and magical proves to be a fight.
It’s hard to see this all and not have it affect you. I’ve gone through a variety of styles as women of all nationalities do. Despite the recent movement towards natural hairstyles, I leaned heavily on extensions and weaves to give me the carefree curls I coveted as a child. The memories of fighting the tangled web still remained.
My hair became permanently cemented as the determining factor of my self-esteem. I only felt attractive with hair like the models that men coveted. As a plus-sized person, I felt I couldn’t be fat with helmet hair. I needed to feel like one part of me was seen as conventionally attractive — even if it wasn’t truly me.
The world at large won’t ever be the first to tell black women that we are all beautiful — in all shades, shapes and styles — so the work to rebuild a positive relationship with the curls that grow from my scalp begins with a single step.
Like Viola Davis’s character in How to Get Away with Murder, I will slowly peel off the wig to reveal the real me who lives beneath.
Hopefully, there is love under there and hair can finally just be hair.