I am only 19 years old, but I was 15 when I realized my hair might be a problem. I grew up natural; I have never had a perm, and I had a weave once (not by choice!). Many people have asserted things like black women with perms and weaves are less confident or black women who aren’t natural have less knowledge of their people. Some people even go as far as stating they do not date black women with perms or they do not date black women with weaves (or both). However, I will go to my grave defending women who do choose to wear these hairstyles as the hairstyles themselves are not the actual problem.
All my life I have had to deal with being natural. No amount of critiquing and hypocritical words could change my mind, but it was not a walk in the park either. Throughout my childhood I was always told: “Stacy, you have nice hair! You should get a perm.” I was also told that I had “good hair.” Then for eighth grade graduation, my mother had me get a weave. All of a sudden, people who had known me for years were nicer to me and strangers were complimenting me in the streets. I had to go to summer orientation for my high school, and since my mother paid for the hairstyle, I wore it all summer. I knew that my new peers thought I was like them because of my hair, and that when I started school natural, that would change. I was right. Many of my “friends” stopped talking to me, and I heard that people were talking behind my back about my hair and how it was jacked up. From elementary school to high school I was critiqued for my hair. I never thought once about getting a perm, but in the tenth grade, when it hit me I was nearing adulthood, I started thinking twice about everything I was ever told and the things I had been led to believe. I realized then that the only adult natural black women I had ever seen were teachers or in professions where that was allowed. You can’t even get hired as a secretary with natural hair! This hit me; because, I refuse to pretend to be something I am not for anyone. If that’s the case then they can keep their money because I don’t want it. Like everyone in their youth, I saw myself accomplishing something big, not being the typical worker. However, to get that far in America you need to have the look, and black hair is still considered unprofessional.
Then the next year, all of a sudden it was cute to be natural. It emerged like a fad. When girls considered more attractive and popular started doing it all off a sudden it was okay. While I was slightly annoyed, I was happy to see more women embracing their hair, no matter what the reason. As more and more women embrace the natural look I see a change: I see a shift in attitudes slowly occurring in America. I was even forced to realize that what I had previously thought white people thought about black hair was untrue. Previously I had been told that “when black folks is nappy, white folks ain’t happy; when black folks look right, white people alright.” However, it seems to me that in person, they are very curious. Black hair is a mystery to many white people and they treat it as such. They are intrigued with the secret world of black hair, and many admire the looks we have crafted for ourselves. This just goes to show that while many people consider curls unbeautiful, many people also admire our natural looks. However, shift does not mean total transformation.
Black hair remains demonized and remains frowned upon by many people. However, before there wasn’t much we could do about it. Then Madam C. J. Walker changed the hair game when she invented the hot comb. This was a revolutionary invention and a highly contested one within the black community. Many people argued that it was ungodly for black people to straighten their hair, stating that if God wanted the negro to have straight hair then we would have straight hair. However, what her invention enabled black people to do was to appear more Eurocentric, and less threating to Eurocentric values and society. This invention was key to African American integration efforts. While in the early 1900’s the natural look was still common, by the 1950’s the typical black woman sported a straighter look. The straighter hairstyle opened up many opportunities for many women, but it was not without consequence. Years of being told we were inferior has led many black people to wholesale adopt Eurocentric beauty standards and measures of success. Now that we can physically look the part more so than in the past, many have opted to do so, not out of genuine love of the look or respect for another kind of self expression, but out of the genuine belief that straighter hair is better and more beautiful.
So let’s be clear. The problem does not lie with the hair itself. No one criticizes women of other races who sport dreads or braids of not knowing their roots or of disliking themself. Women of other races who sport traditionally black hairstyles do so out of genuine love and respect for our culture or of the chosen look. It’s not about them hating themselves; it is about them appreciating something else. Likewise, a dark skinned black women has it hard enough in our society, without having to deal with being natural too. On the race, class, and gender hierarchy black women tend to be the lowest on the totem pole. Our looks are devalued because we have traditionally been devalued. We did not make this society this way; we have only inherited the struggles of the past. So it is frustrating enough to have to deal with being passed up for promotions and opportunities in the work place because of our race and gender, and then be passed up for dates because of our hair. Black women are the least dated race of women, and the most likely to be unmarried at the age of 40. We are considered the least beautiful no matter what we do with our hair. As it stands, many natural women have to masquerade as not natural often to get jobs, and then later determine when the right time is to unveil their natural locks. But the different hairstyles we have adopted has not changed the truth. The hair struggle transcends how we view ourselves in the mirror; because, we do not live in our own private world. At the end of the day, the way one chooses to portray oneself has consequences. It limits who one will meet, what jobs one may get, and what people will think, no matter what.
So I will never say that all black women should sport natural looks, or that those who don’t are not self aware or do not love themselves or black people. That would be simplifying the issue. I will however say that we should not have to wear weaves or other straight hair looks to be able to advance in society. I will also say that if the only reason you do not go natural or straight is because you are worried about what other people have to say, then wear the style that makes you happy. People are going to talk no matter what you do. Just make sure that you wear a style because you genuinely like it, or because it is of some benefit to you and your life. You should not hate your natural hair or natural looks. All hair is beautiful, just in different ways. There is nothing wrong with white people wearing dreads or black people with straightened hair, as long as it’s dreaded or straightened for the right reason.