“Make sure you look smart”. That is what my mother said as my sister started her first day at a law firm. By smart, she meant the typical black blazer and trousers accompanied by a scarlet blouse. Much to my mother’s dismay, my sisters appearance was hindered by the fact that her hair was resuming its natural texture having not been chemically relaxed for a few months. My mother deemed it “messy”, “unprofessional” and this struck me as an insult. Having decided to grow my hair naturally a few years back, I wondered how my mother felt about my unruly thick mop of hair. Perhaps she thought it went beyond the realms of messy to unsalvageable.
We were brought up with regular straightening schedules and as a result I was able to run a comb through my hair without any resistance. My sisters and I ran around gleefully now that our hair could sway from side to side. However, when I decided to “go natural” I quickly realised that things were not going to be so easy. My hair was tough, nappy and thick (and not at all one of those cool fluffy afros). It hurt each time a comb crossed its sight and made people cringe from the hissing sound it produced each time I attempted to brush it. An unsettling realisation dawned upon me that in my 16 or so years of life (at the time of cutting my hair) I didn’t know how to take care of it.
This made me wonder, why does our definition of professionalism and beauty seem to be antithetical to our natural hair textures. That our hair is regarded as something to be brushed underneath wigs, extensions (although useful as protective styles) and warranting chemical straightening. Is the thickness of our locks and its defiance against gravity something to be ashamed of? Something that needs treatment as if it were some kind of illness? There’s something about the act of “straightening” ones hair that denotes a more sinister objective. Like to straighten something crooked, iron out the creases, make it more refined, sightly, palatable to the eye (both the white and black eye).
We are often quick to point out the discrimination against natural black hair by other racial groups but rarely do we call this prejudice out within our own community. I asked my mother why she straightened our hair growing up. She said to “make it more manageable” . She tells me of how growing up in The Gambia (our country of origin), the concept of straightening ones hair to make it more “manageable” was prevalent even before the popularisation of chemical relaxers. They used to stretch their hair by heating a comb over a fire risking being burnt all in the name of beauty. Why? I asked. She says it stems back to colonisation. Adopting the attributes of the white makes one beautiful and increases ones status in the world. But this affirms a hierarchy which places whites at the top and ourselves below. My mother calls it “mental colonisation”. The systematic reinforcement of this hierarchy has produced an inferiority complex which still ricochets in our collective mentality. From our obsession with straight long hair to the evermore prevalent use of skin lightening creams. We want the hallmark of beauty which happens to be white.
I can see how this notion of long hair being equivalent to beauty has been ingrained into the minds of black girls. My 4 year old niece thinks that beauty is demarcated by the length of one’s hair. She wants hairstyles like Disney princesses the majority of whom are white with long hair hence her preference for styles that make her hair swing. When I asked whether Rapunzel from tangled was still pretty after she cut her hair, she replied no. It seems that her beauty was left behind with her golden trail of locks. A black child looking up to white princesses and then wanting to be like them can at times lead to an incongruence in their self-concept. Our hair cannot naturally metamorphize into long blonde manes. This unattainable ideal plants a seed of inadequacy which flowers into the resolve to fulfil this childhood desire to finally become a white princess.
Over the years, I have learnt to appreciate my thick mop of hair and its resilience against any force that tries to change its stature. Many others have too with the explosive force of the natural hair movement traversing across continents. However, a bias still exists. For our natural hair texture to be regarded as a nuisance which needs to be tamed through chemical intervention is saddening. It is as if we are rejecting a part of ourselves deeming it as an unfit representation of who we are as black women. However, I would argue that our hair defines who we are as much as the colour of our skin. Its difficulty of maintenance, strength and resilience to conform are attributes that we ourselves must adopt in our mentality for we are too ready to alienate a part of ourselves in order to fit into a society which dictates that having straight long hair is the ideal standard of beauty. But lest I remind you, beauty is not relative, so let us make our own definition.