I’ve been so lazy with my hair over the past couple of years because I’ve not had reason to maintain a particular look. All of my preening has taken a nose dive to the point that I fear I may have forgotten how to put on makeup, walk in heels and do other ladylike activities. The other day I had to go out into the real world to meet people, and running late I walked down the street combing my afro before tying it up. A car stopped traffic to shout congratulations at me for having it natural and not in a weave. The bloke inside then shouted he wished he had more time as he’d love to take me for a drink, luckily the beeping horns made him move on.
Firstly, thank you for acknowledging my natural hair, but this is more important, don’t shout at people from your car. That is always creepy, and I believe it’s also illegal or should be! But it did get me thinking about how much we black women have to do to maintain our hairstyles, and that the simple act of keeping it natural is a cause for celebration, whilst inviting conversations about it, often unwanted attention because it’s so different to that of other races.
When I first came to the UK as a six-year-old, one of the first things I noticed was that my hair would never be like that of the other girls in my school. Firstly it was shaved, but as it grew into coarse tight curls, I realised it’d never cascade down my back like Rapunzels’ something that I desperately wanted to feel beautiful and to fit into my new world. Hair is such an important part of identity, and it represents something that we should have a say over as we present ourselves to the world. It’s so ingrained into what it means to be attractive and belong to particular subcultures that in the UK it is estimated to be a £1.29b industry or globally it’s worth $75.06b (USD) in 2020. To put a billion into perspective, a billion seconds is the equivalent of 31 years!
Hair is not only a form of expression, but covering it is a form of modesty that many Abrahamic religions advocate, whilst other religions such as Sikhism forbid it to be cut. Shaving one’s head is a renowned form of punishment to dehumanise and dominate. If anyone were to say hair is just hair, they are lying or ignoring the complexity of its standing and how it impacts each person. As an indicator of both professional and social order, it is no wonder that black people, especially women, are forced to go to great lengths to match the beauty standards of predominantly lighter-skinned races.
I didn’t hate my looks, hair or lack of hair until I learnt that being black was not only different but a source of contention. The simplicity in breaking people down by something so simple amazes and disgusts me now. But it’s never overt. It’s never, because you are black you are undeserving and are seen as a lesser being by all the lighter races. It’s the covert attack on what in essence is who we are. I’m not racist but “your hair looks like pubes”, “your hair looks like moss”, “how has your hair grown when yesterday the curls were so tight?”, “Can I touch it?” they say as their hands are already on my hair! As a child, I didn’t have agency and so I would have to accept random adults touching me because I was different. Teachers would scrunch my hair fascinated by the texture, something they never did to other children. However, the difference from our hair being exotic growing up, to when we enter the professional world, the reactions are staggering. Our natural styles that suit us are suddenly deemed unprofessional.
Why? Because black people are seen as lesser and thus anything that we naturally have needs to be changed. We are told that we are not good enough continually through microaggressions, and if we dare stand up to it, we are seen as the problem. It is up to the black person to adapt to fit into the world, something that white people will never understand. In our need to have acceptance, our hairstyles have adapted to fit into the white is better narrative. French braids are seen as cute whilst cornrows are ghetto despite them in essence being the same thing- plaits that run alongside the head. This narrative is so ingrained that I didn’t go to my first client meeting with my natural hair on display until I was in my thirties, simply because having black people hair is a statement of unprofessionalism. I know that appearances matter, but as a black woman in a professional corporate world trying to make your way up the ladder, you have to take extra steps to show you are not “that” black. By that, I mean that you are able to fit into what white people perceive as acceptable diversity, and hair doesn’t factor into that.
As a young teenager, my desperation to fit in and have what was forced upon me as desirable styles I had my hair chemically straightened. They left the solution in for so long that it burnt my scalp. What wasn’t explained to me or my white mother who’d taken me to London for the treatment was the right way to maintain and take care of it. I spent a few weeks looking like a troll doll as I wasn’t able to get my hair to follow gravity and sit on my shoulders. A few weeks later I went swimming, forgot my cap and the chlorine mixed in with the poison to straighten my hair meant that it all fell out. As a twelve-year-old, I went from looking like a troll doll to having to shave my hair because it was falling out in clumps. The only reason I’d gone through that was that I was faced with societal notions of beauty and that being me wasn’t good enough because I was black. I didn’t want to be special, I wanted to be “normal”, as most teenagers do. After that terrible experience, I decided extensions were the only way forward.
It was a conscious decision to have my hair natural, whilst those with fairer skin have to make a conscious decision to change their hair. Having my hair as is, is seen as a statement whilst for other races it’s seen as natural. The fact that some bloke felt that the best way to catcall me was to comment on me not having extensions shows the huge disparity and impact that hair has on people. In that misogynistic action, he as a black man, acknowledged the struggles black women face with our beautiful hair!
What I wish that young black people acknowledge is that our hair is a natural crown. Just as a peacock shouldn’t shed its feathers but show them off, so should we show off our differences with pride. As black people, regardless of struggles, we are born with natural crowns!