By: Rashida Ashley
Growing up, we’ve all had some struggle with how we look. Whether we were uncomfortable with the way our shoulders drooped, how our eyes were a little too wide, and even more so, how our hair couldn’t contort in the way we’ve always dreamt of, there’s always been this longing for something different; something a little more with the feeling of normality to it.
“The scary thing about it is when I was their age, the girls now who are like 12, 13, I felt the same way. I remember waking up and wanting to be someone else, change my body, changed my eye color, my hair texture, the shape of my body, the color of my skin. But I didn’t have photo retouching, I didn’t have filters or anything like that. So that feeling was already there, and it scares me to think that now there is a tool that actually cashes in on that insecurity.”Lizzo
When I was younger, I remember days where I would wake up to straighten my hair and on some of these occasions, not realizing it was raining outside until I had to step out of the door to catch the bus. Being that I was short on time and could not hop back in the shower to change my hairstyle, I had to deal with how my hair would react in this type of weather. So, I would spend my day ignoring the smell of burnt hair and humidity. By the time I reached middle school, I had straightened my hair so much that it lost its curl pattern. My father would shake his head in hesitancy as he shaved my hair off after I begged him to. After that I started to wear the wigs my older sister made for practice because of her studies in cosmetology.
“It was no choice for me. It was literal survival. I was like, if I’m going to continue to live in this body and survive in this body and be happy and actually enjoy life, I need to find a way to like myself.”lizzo
As my hair grew beneath the cap and I reached high school, I decided that I wanted to get in touch with my natural hair and be a little more comfortable in my own skin. I got to know my natural hair by religiously performing wash-n-goes, well into the winter. By that time, I didn’t understand that it was best to have my natural hair in a protective style to keep it safe from the weather. I remember one extremely cold winter morning I got up early to do a wash-n-go and got on the school bus. As I found my seat after climbing through the aisles of hyper classmates, I did my routine hair check-up. I was shocked to find that every hair follicle was frozen solid because my hair was still in the process of drying. Needless to say, lesson learned.
Taking a break from wash-n-goes, I wore my hair in my signature puff. My friends could spot me a mile away in the hallways of school and this granted me the nickname ‘Poof Poof.’ It was a cute little joke, to say the least. That is until a classmate couldn’t see the board from behind me. Fortunately, I was not asked to change my hair but I was asked to lower my head so he could see. I spent the school year lowering my head for those behind me.
“It’s not a political statement. It’s just my body. When you see it, keep it pushing. Keep that same energy that you keep with all the other bodies you see. That’s what body normative really means to me, it’s just being like, ‘I’m here, don’t say anything. Just keep it pushing.’ It’s not a statement, it’s my body.”lizzo
As I continued my studies in college, I decided to keep my hair in braids for mainly two reasons. My hectic schedule didn’t allow me the time to get up and do my hair, let alone fix it if it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. The second reason was because it was easy for the eyes of those around me. I felt as if I was being seen for the first time; the fact that I had lost weight helped with this too.
I tell the story of my hair because mine is as good as yours, and even the person next to you. Learning about how to take care of your hair as a young black woman can be a very frustrating process, especially if you’re the first in your family to embark on a natural hair journey. The confidence I developed to wear my natural hair out was a very slow and grueling process, and honestly, it is something I will continue to develop for the rest of my life. Inherently, I know it was worth every mishap. However, what I didn’t understand, until recently, was why our hair is so important.
Every day on social media, we see black women depicted in a negative light for wearing any hair style of their choosing. Not only do people outside of our communities view us negatively but we view ourselves negatively as well. The question is why? In the book Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture, author Emma Dabiri quotes Ulli Beier who states, “To Yoruba kings, praise singers and storytellers… ‘history’ is a means of explaining and justifying the present, rather than enlightening the past.” Could it be that our self-worth and confidence to wear our hair proudly without any care for the conflicting thought of the next person beside us, as well as the innermost thoughts of those outside of our communities who strain their eyes with resistance to our tresses, stems from the fact that we not only as a community but as a complete society view black hair and the many ways we wear it as something to be modified to fit the European standards, because we simply have not learned about black history?
It is safe to say that at the most basic level, we remember from our history classes that African people became enslaved, were forced to move from their homeland to another part of the world to labor for their captors, then as time went on Martin Luther King Jr. led the Civil Rights movement. However, this basic knowledge is simply not enough. We must do better to educate any person on the foundations of America’s history whether they are white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Indigenous, etc.
Hair is such a vital part of our culture, whether it’s within the black community or outside of it. If we were to simply become curious as to why and embark on the journey of answering such a valid question, we would begin to see a solid understanding and comradery across all cultures. Even more so, we’d see and understand the exponential confidence in the young black woman who wishes to wear her hair in any style she deems suited to her. It starts with you.
Growing up, I didn’t know what my ethnic background was. It wasn’t until last year that I found out. It was this discovery that further sparked my curiosity and led me to grow my confidence as a black woman by unpacking my history one follicle at a time. I learned that wigs were once viewed as regal and were worn by the wealthy. I learned that braids were worn to symbolize one’s marital status, age, religion, and even war for men.
Out of everything that I am in the process of learning, the most striking is that cornrows were used to secretly display the agriculture around the individual who wore them. The cornrows are one of the many important aspects of our culture that paved the way for freedom. This knowledge is what solidified my confidence to wear my natural hair. For how can you hate the very thing that saved you? If I had learned this information at a younger age in my history classes, I would’ve been more inclined to radiate confidence when sporting my natural poof. Even more so, I believe that even my fellow classmates would’ve understood the gravity of the importance of wearing my own hair; and instead of the feeling of animosity I felt in those hallways, and even within myself, I would’ve felt respect.
In 2019 Dove and The Crown Coalition created the Crown Act, a movement that ensures protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools. This act is the catalyst we need to embark on a future that is brighter than the past from which we came. However, for this movement to have the effect that we deserve, we all need to play our part. It is not enough to sign this petition, although it is crucial. We all must know and understand our history to truly see our present and effectively change our futures.
Dabiri, Emma. Twisted: the Tangled History of Black Hair Culture. Harper Perennial, 2020.
Horne, Madison. (2018, February 28). A visual history of iconic black hairstyles. History.com, A&E Television Networks. www.history.com/news/black-hairstyles-visual-history-in-photos.