Updated: Sep 5, 2018
Black women's hair is a topic that never goes uncovered. In personal and professional settings alike, Black women's hair is subject to criticism and condemnation. Regardless of how it is styled, Black women are often met with strong opinions and judgments from people that do not fully understand our hair. Whether your hair is relaxed or natural, sewed in or braided, curly or kinky, this post is for you.
For this post, I decided to have an open and honest conversation with four young women about the relationship they have with their hair. Before getting to the dialogue, I'd like to introduce you all to the four young women that were kind enough to share their stories with us.
NEZY HAIR NATASHA
When deciding upon how to start a dialogue about this sensitive topic, one question came to mind. So many young girls are exposed to strong, hair altering chemical substances from a young age. For many, this is their first subtle indication that their natural hair, the way it comes from their scalp, is not fully acceptable. Here are the ladies' experiences.
UHN: "Have you ever had a perm? If so, what age did it begin and what was the reason behind you receiving one?"
Janel: "Yes at 5. My mama put it on my head because my hair was too thick."
Nezy Hair: "Yes. I have had several perms as a young child because it was considered the right thing to do to a child's hair at the time."
Kai: "I have had a perm before, I don't recall since what age, but [it was] since I was young. Because I have thick, course hair (think of Oprah), my mom would put it in my head without any of my input. She thought that perms are good for hair and that it's longer when it's permed and straightened. I believe that we unconsciously learn to define beauty by what society instills in us at a very young age. We were also taught by society at a young age that our hair has to be straight in order to be pretty. Now I've learned to unlearn all of that and I've grown from that."
Natasha: "Yes. My hair was permed at 3. I didn't have a choice."
Unfortunately, the answers the ladies gave me were not very appalling. Their stories are not unlike the stories of so many other black women. Although I did not receive perms while growing up, I too was subject to regular straightening of my hair. By the age of 10, I was very familiar with the metal end of a pressing comb. As an adult, I have realized that despite what people may have believed, our need to straighten our hair wasn't a battle on texture, but one on length, pressure from society, and manageability.
This is an example of shrinkage. Hair that is curly or kinky in texture has a tendency to shrink, which drastically alters its length. The only way to combat shrinkage and expose the hair's true length is through straightening methods. Heat, chemicals, or stretching methods are the only ways to achieve this.
For my next question, I wanted to grasp the way these ladies felt about natural hair. Make no mistake, having a relaxer or keeping your hair blown-out, pressed, or flat ironed is nothing to be ashamed of. However, more often than not, natural hair has been something society has compelled us to be ashamed of. For that reason, I felt it necessary to explore their thoughts and opinions on natural hair.
UHN: "How do you feel in general about natural hair?"
Nezy Hair: "I love natural hair! As a stylist I have learned that each natural is different. It challenges me to fix that natural's specific problem[s]. It's like solving a mystery."
Natasha: "I think natural hair is wonderful. I love being my true authentic self, and wearing my hair naturally helps me do that."
UHN: "Are you currently natural (chemical free)? If so, what motivated the decision, and how long have you been natural?"
Kai: "I am currently natural, and honestly, it was the best decision ever. My hair is longer, thicker, and healthier. What motivated me was the love I have for myself and my blackness. At a point in time, I didn't like my thick, coarse hair, and I wanted straight hair instead. Growing up, and learning more about my blackness, I strayed away from that thought and never turned back. I love my baby hair and afros, word to Bey. I have been natural for about 3 or 4 years now."
Janel: "Yes I've been natural for almost 2 years. I went natural so I can start dying my hair, since I couldn't do it with a perm."
Pictured above are three women that are considered Black Hollywood Royalty. Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, and Diahann Carroll are each regarded and revered as timeless beauties. Their groundwork set a precedent, and laid a foundation for so many African-American women who would follow in their footsteps as entertainers. Yes these women are talented and gorgeous, but what else is noticeable about their appearances? You guessed it, their hair! The American standard of beauty shifts and changes with every generation, but one thing was made clear from early on. As a Black woman, if you intend to be lauded for your beauty, your beauty must be indistinguishable from the standards set forth by the majority in this country.
UHN: "Do you feel as a black woman, that people treat you differently depending upon how your hair is styled?"
Kai: "I believe so. I noticed when I have braids in my hair, or [when wearing] my natural hair, I always get looks from people... as if it offends them. Conversely, when I have my weave and/or wig in/on... people gravitate towards me."
Janel: "Yes they do, but I am a different woman with each style. Your hairstyle promotes an attitude. I'm already the baddest, but when I have my braids long and to my butt... I'm an African goddess. With the fro I'm a queen, period. I don't wear bundles often, but when I do I''m a diva. Hair is your greatest attribute."
Nezy Hair: "Of course, I feel taken more seriously when my hair is natural. When my hair is in braids, which is my go to protective style, I am either treated as a child or [as] a ratchet. When I wear my wig, people view me as a different person, [so much so], to the point where their compliments feel like insults."
Since the beginning of the recent natural hair movement, there has been a mixture of positive and negative public response. Many naturals claim that the decision to go chemical free is only respected when the woman's natural curl pattern is loose and strongly defined. Meanwhile, women with kinkier less defined hair still struggle to gain acceptance inside and outside of the natural hair community. Even companies that sell products targeted to Black women with natural hair tend to be very strategic in their selection of models. The argument has been made that this type of advertising only reinforces the negative feelings some people may have about textured kinky natural hair.
UHN: "How do you think the world views natural hair?"
Nezy Hair: "I believe the world has two extreme views when it comes to natural hair. One being they are either mesmerized by our hair, or two being they are disgusted by it."
Janel: "The world will never understand our natural hair, but it's not meant for them to understand. It's our own little black code."
Kai: "The world only accepts a certain type of natural hair, you know, the natural hair that's cute, curly, and manageable. But us 4c girls? We're labeled as nappy and [told] we need to straighten our hair. On another note, when we wear wigs, weaves, or even braids, people think we hate ourselves, which never made sense to me."
Pam Grier, Phylicia Rashad, and Beyonce Knowles are three beautiful Black women that are all icons in their own respects. These women are perfect examples of the transition that most black women make over the course of their lives and careers. In my opinion, they represent balance. You can fire up a pressing comb, or get busy with a needle and some bundles, and still be connected with your roots. The way in which Black women wear their hair has so long been politicized that each style, and each strand, is subject to deep analysis. These three women, and countless others, show us that there is more than one way to be a Black woman.
UHN: "Black women are often ridiculed for our hair. Regardless of if it is natural, braided, sewn in, straightened, or freshly picked into a fro. What would you say to all our critics?"
Janel: "*Cues India Arie 'I Am Not My Hair'*."
Kai: "I would say, don't have a comment on something you aren't familiar with."
Nezy Hair: "What I would really want to say is not acceptable by society's standards. So I'll keep it cute by saying, 'oh really that's crazy', and move on. Nothing at this point can hurt my confidence in my hair, no matter how it is styled."
My intent with this discussion was to spark a conversation inside and outside of our community about Black women's hair. Far too often, Black women are critiqued and ridiculed by people who are unaware of the realities of our struggles. As a Black woman or girl, wearing your natural hair can mean the end of your professional or academic career. Each year there are countless stories and reports of Black women and girls being removed from jobs and schools due to their desire to wear natural styles. Conversely, there's an enormous amount of backlash unleashed on Black women that choose to wear styles that are in alignment with society's standards. Whether you rock an afro or a weave, there's a strong chance that someone, somewhere, at some point has offered up an unsolicited comment or opinion on your hair. When asked about whether or not they'd relax their daughters' hair, Natasha and Nezy Hair both made compelling statements.
Natasha: "No [I wouldn't]. It's her choice how she wants to wear her hair."
Nezy Hair: "Absolutely not. I have learned to love my hair, therefore I will not have that specific insecurity to pass on to my child, as my elders passed on to me."
I was touched by both of these statement, mainly due to the wisdom and the growth behind their words. Both of these women were at the will of the adults in their lives when it came down to making decisions about their hair. Today, as adults, they're able to say that they are willing to allow their future daughters the power to choose. To grow to a space where you have unlearned all of the unpleasant ideals surrounding you, and consciously deciding not to pass any unfavorable traits to the next generation is something to be applauded. To all of the Black women reading this... relaxed or natural, kinks or curls, wigs or weaves, you are beautiful. You are NOT your hair.
I want to send out a special thank you to my four participants. All of you have helped shape the direction of this discussion, and I want to dedicate this post to you all.