‘Society teaches us that our hair is not beautiful, that we are not beautiful’
Ten years ago, I started school in the United States. With dark skin, a thick Zambian accent and elaborate hair, I was a pariah amongst the white faces of my Pittsburgh classroom.
So 10 years ago, I began feeling ashamed, embarrassed and self-conscious about my appearance. Unlike the little black Muppet in following video, I didn’t love my natural hair.
When I first saw this video, featuring a black muppet singing about loving her hair, I was taken back to those good ol’ elementary school days, when my mother would spend hours styling my intricate 4c curls. I then flashed forward to middle school, where I often shed tears on the long (and much too early) bus rides to school, weary of what people would say about my larger than life cornrows.
Sitting at the back of the classroom, I would gaze at my peers’ black, blonde and brunette strands, all of which seemed to befriend earth’s gravitational pull and fall effortlessly towards the floor. I wished mine could do the same…
From a young age, we black girls are taught to admire the smooth silkiness of every other girl’s strands, and depreciate the unique aspects of our own. Society teaches us that our hair is not beautiful – that we are not beautiful. And whether we sport a weave, perm our hair, or do it natural, we are shamed for our appearance. It seems like there’s no way to win.
Popular media constantly portrays our voluminous afro-like natural hair as being “less beautiful” than European hair, but black women are equally criticized for styling their hair by “unnatural” means.
Take weave for example. I discovered weave my freshman year of high school, and excited about this new look (and the prospect of not having to sit through weekly hair sessions), I wore sewn-in extensions most of the year.
It didn’t take long for me to learn about the disdainful attitude people had towards weave. Apparently, if you were black and wore weave, you either didn’t have hair or were trying to “be white.” Um, how about “none of the above?”
People had and still have this crazy idea that black girls wear weaves to hide their so-called “ugliness,” because their natural hair is not “naturally” as pretty as other girls’ hair. Ridiculous, right?
Unfortunately, racism’s deeply ingrained presence in our society means people do actually say and think these things. Weaves offer beautiful means to change up a look, rock a protective style, or take a break from the day-to-day challenges natural hair can bring. But people have found a way to undermine dark-skinned beauty by disparaging black women who choose to take on this form of expression.
The misconception thrust upon black women, that “weave equals no hair,” is seemingly not forced upon white, Asian, or Hispanic women who wear weave. So why are black women singled out and made to feel inadequate for sporting a fashion that is also used widely amongst other groups?
The answer clearly stems from history. Society’s lashing out at black women’s appearances is nothing new. Black women have always been criticized for their kinky curls, especially considering that lustrous straight hair has been held at the pinnacle of Western/European beauty standards for decades.
In the past, black women were basically shamed into assimilating to white standards of beauty by getting perms or straightening their hair, because they were otherwise perceived as unprofessional, unkempt, or simply unattractive.
A 90s ad promoting Raveen hair relaxer portrayed a beaming black woman with permed hair talking on the phone. The slogan, “was it her resume…or Raveen?” suggested the woman was hired because of her sleek, straight hair.
Such undermining of black beauty has progressed for centuries, and the twisted idea that we are “unattractive” and our hair is “inadequate” is a ludicrous conviction that, unfortunately, continues to plague the minds of young dark-skinned girls.
Still today, there is a beaming light of negativity cast on black women who embrace their natural hair. When I was in high school, it seemed like everyone had something to say about everyone else’s hair. People threw around words like “nappy.” Nappy is simply a word used to describe very tightly coiled curls, but seeing that nappy hair is more prevalent amongst African Americans, society has forced a negative connotation on the word so much that hair described as being “nappy” is perceived as “gross” or “unpleasant.”
The worst part is, I often hear black girls derisively describing other black girls as having nappy hair, as if it is something to be ashamed of. We of all people should understand our own history and not fall into the trap of ridiculing each other for the unique aspects of ourselves we choose to embrace. At the same time, we shouldn’t shame those who choose to embrace the versatility of their hair by wearing extensions, or getting a perm.
I’ve met people who argue that black women shouldn’t wear wigs, perms or extensions – that they should empower themselves to embrace their “au natural” because, isn’t that what the 1960s Black Power Movement was all about: saying “I’m black and I’m proud?”
I’m all for empowering women to embrace their natural selves, but we need to stop assuming that every black woman who perms her hair or gets extensions is in need of a “love yourself” lecture. Yes, black women shouldn’t have to wear weaves or get perms, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them choosing to do so.
At the same time, black women with weaves or straight hair shouldn’t be viewed as people shying away from their natural selves or trying to conform to “white standards” of beauty.
Yes, silky hair is glorified in Western culture, but it is not copyrighted. Nobody owns straight hair. In fact, some black women have hair that is naturally smooth, and yes, straight. Our hair comes in various shapes, forms and textures, so not every black girl has curly or kinky hair.
Whatever the case, our hair can be styled and shaped in so many different ways, and people may simply prefer one way or another, for various reasons. I am getting a perm because I prefer my hair straight. I wear braided extensions because I simply don’t have time to groom my hair’s flamboyant character. It’s not that I’m ashamed of my natural self, and it’s certainly not that I’m “trying to look white.”
People either say, “You should straighten your hair, it looks so much better that way!” or “Don’t straighten your hair, be proud of yourself and your natural curls!”
Stop telling me what to do with my hair. My hair shouldn’t be kinky simply because I’m black. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with a little (or a lot of) kink. I should have the freedom to perm my hair without being perceived as trying to adhere to a certain standard, and I should be able to rock my ‘fro with pride.
My hair has awesome shape-shifting powers that allow me to feel beautiful in so many different ways, so stop trying to undermine that. My hair is exactly that: mine.