Growing up, I have heard so many phrases that would spotlight one part of my body in order to “help” me take better care of it. “A lady’s beauty is in her smile,” or, “Your skin should be your priority,” and similar statements were thrown my way from “concerned” individuals be it family, friends, or strangers on the street. Comments about my hair, however, are particularly interesting to me; not because they have merit but because of the instances that instigated them. I would usually get suggestions to do this or that to my hair whenever I wore it in its most natural form.
Conformity will be the death of us.
Like every other one of my peers, I thought soft, straight, long hair was the only type of hair that was beautiful. Sadly for teenage me, my mom did not approve of me or my sisters going to the salon to get our hair done. For the most part, my older sister took care of my hair. She washed, combed and braided my hair; all the while forming a bond between us that most African girls are familiar with. When she went to university, I was faced with two options: (A) Let my mom put my hair in two ponytails even though I was no longer 6 years old or (B) Learn to do my hair myself. I chose option B for the sake of my reputation and self-esteem.
But then, it happened! My mom finally let me get my hair straightened and my, oh my! Did I get massive attention?! My hair was occupying its full length, full in volume—I felt invincible. I wanted my hair to be like that all the time. So when I grew older and got some form of say in what I do with my hair, I got it straightened, or at the very least, heat styled. I spent an hour or more under the dryer, my skin burning with the heat but swallowing the pain so my hair would look “good.” After the dryer came the hot metal plates that would make sure my hair was as straight as could be. Then I had to worry about not getting it wet, not being in the sun too much so sweat wouldn’t ruin it…the list goes on.
My mind had already decided I did not have naturally beautiful hair so I did not think twice about damaging it further. So when I had complete autonomy about my hair, I moved on to dying it. I bleached my hair multiple times and dyed it the colors blue, green, and honey-blond on separate occasions. By the time I was done ruining my hair, it was already too damaged to recover on its own. Yup, I went for the big chop. All the heat styling and changing colors in order to conform to the universally-held standard of good hair resulted in the death of my natural hair.
The natural hair movement
The natural hair movement started in USA in 1960s and saw a rise and fall throughout the years. Having natural hair was (and still is) frowned upon in workplaces and formal settings, casual life required conformity in order to fit in, the pressure was just too much for women and men with coily, kinky, curly hair to get by. Sometimes, things were more offensive with negative words like “nappy hair” being used to describe certain types of African hair.
While in college, there were moments when I was so busy that I could not get my hair done, but that did not mean I loved it or any part of how I looked when I did not have heat-styled hair. Sadly, this is not a personal reality but rather the bleak reality of most people of African decent. Not until my final year in university did I embrace my natural hair.
Let us be honest—going natural is not easy. Our hair generally requires large amounts of moisturizer, takes a lot of time to detangle and style; maintaining natural hair is more energy-utilizing than simply going to the salon and getting it straightened. What made the journey harder in the past was the lack of products that were made specifically for African hair. Not to mention the lack of general information on how best to take care of black hair. But now, thanks to social media, all you need to do is a bit of research about your hair type and you will find thousands of YouTube videos showing you how you can care for your hair. And, with the number of women worldwide going natural, more and more products are popping up that are made specifically for African Hair. So the journey is a bit less draining than it had been in the past.
My hair and I have had a complicated relationship. We have gone through neglect, abandonment, manipulation and abuse through the years but lucky for me, my hair decided to stay. I did not go natural as a political statement. I went natural to save my hair from dying. I understand I am not perceived the same when I do presentations with braids vs. when I did it with straight hair. But that is something the world has to deal with. As for me, my hair and I, we have finally found what works—authenticity.
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