Some of my earliest hair-related memories involve my mom washing my curls in the kitchen sink while I lay on my back on the counter. Water sloshed down my back and splashed my face. I remember the heat of the blow dryer and the burn of the hot comb on my ear.
Once, I asked to have my hair done in box braids with extensions. My best friend had her hair done that way and I liked it. My mom said it was too expensive. I had to settle for box braids without extensions. A style I perceived, at the time, as far inferior.
Although, I doubt getting those box braid extensions would have sent me on a different trajectory regarding my feelings towards my hair.
Disdain for my hair started with small observations: observations I made of other “normal” children.
Like many other little Black girls, my concern was that my hair wasn’t very long, and it didn’t move back and forth when I walked.
My siblings and I concocted a temporary resolution: wearing towels over our heads to pretend we had long, flowing tresses. Like the Disney princesses we were infatuated with.
As young children, we understood that long, straight hair was preferred and normal, even if we couldn’t verbalize this.
The only criticism my hair got was that it was THICK. I vaguely remember it taking 2 hours to blow dry straight from wet and natural.
I got my first relaxer when I was thirteen. My family moved from New York to North Carolina in the middle of the summer. A relaxer would make my hair “easier to deal with” in the intensely humid weather.
Living in NC was my first experience fully immersed in White society: where good ol’ white supremacy, white-as-the-norm, racism and colorism made me think of nothing but assimilating and looking less Black.
Obviously, our move to NC didn’t plant the seeds of my self-hate. Instead, it just reinforced and amplified them.
So at thirteen, I got that relaxer and hoped that I’d have long straight hair that moved when I walked. And while it made my hair easier to manage, it did nothing to make it look less Black and more Caucasian.
Instead of flowing, my hair stuck together as a thick mass. It didn’t bounce or move except when I shook my head. The curls wilted. My hair required copious amounts of oil to keep it from frizzing–something that further reduced movement. My hair was sub-par straight hair.
The relaxer failed.
My hair was my “Blackest” characteristic.
My family called my skin color “high yella.” I’d met Hispanics and Indians with my complexion and darker.
My eyes, nose, lips, and butt didn’t stand out in any way that screamed Black. Change my hair, I could be a different race entirely.
Why? Because being a Black person, even a light-skinned one, was no good. I started thinking, if only my hair was silky straight, I could look less Black.
I knew because I was fair-skinned enough, that if my hair looked straight enough, moved when I walked, etc, I could at least pass for a person of a non-black minority, or a person of mixed heritage–better than being Black, right?
I wanted to fit-in at my predominately White, middle/upper-middle class high school. I couldn’t.
Still, getting that relaxer started my quest to minimize my Blackness.
There were two girls, that I recall, from my high school, who actually were of mixed black and white heritage, and they seemed to (at least from my outsider perspective) assimilate well into White society. I envied them and their smooth-textured curly hair and their racial ambiguity.
But I didn’t latch onto the idea of racial ambiguity until I moved to Miami.
My little relaxer could not hold up in Miami weather when I went to college. So instead of re-straightening my hair between classes, I opted to style it in its wavy, relaxed form.
If couldn’t look less Black in NC, at the very least, I could pass for Latina in Miami. (At the time, I was not educated about the racial diversity of Latin American countries and their color politics). However, with my limited knowledge, I presumed passing for Latina was better than being Black.
Anyway, I’d get compliments from men saying, “You’re so pretty, what are you?” Uh… Human, not a three-headed giraffe. Then, “No, where are you from?” North Carolina. “Are you Dominican? Haitian? Cuban? Puerto Rican?” Nope, not at all.
This question simultaneously thrilled and annoyed me. First of all, I enjoyed the idea that I could NOT be Black American, descendant of slaves. That my image of myself wasn’t just my own.
Eventually, I always knew what they meant when they asked these questions, and I avoided telling them the truth for as long as possible.
Next came, “Where are you from, from?” The United States, I’d tell them. To which, they would ask about my parents.
And unless I wanted to play a never-ending game of small talk, I eventually gave up the goods. Told them I was African-American, thus ending their interest in me.
I was treated differently when people assumed I was something other than Black-American. I could have been one of them, not the hated African-American race.
In all, my heart wondered what was wrong with who I was? Why did it hurt so badly to admit this truth, when I thought it was obvious to begin with.
If my hair were bone straight, or thicker and coiled, no one would ask these questions, anymore. My hair, I determined was the cause. Nonetheless, for a time, I continued to relax my hair and wear it wavy.
Life was busy and stretches of time between relaxers increased until I could see more and more of my natural hair coming through. I was intrigued by the curls I’d long forgotten. But l left them as they were…
Until a break-up. I chopped off my hair in a dramatic quest for change. I went “natural.”
I did a half big chop. Long in the front, short in the back. I thought a TWA (teeny weeny afro) would make me look too Black.
At the end of the day, though, the cut made me look Blacker than I was comfortable with. Eventually, when I chopped off the rest of my scraggly relaxed ends, I looked even Blacker. I couldn’t pretend to exist in racial ambiguity anymore.
As my natural curls grew in, I noticed my hair wasn’t wavy curly. It was thick and tightly coiled. A very uncomfortable prospect.
Bring in the texturizer I used for about 3 or 4 years. I couldn’t say I had natural hair using a “mild,” and “kid’s” version of a texturizer. I was a fraud. And I wanted to stop using the creamy crack.
Even after I stopped texturizing, I still saw certain natural hairstyles as looking too Black: Cornrows, Afro-poofs. Protective styles. Too black. My curls had to be as defined and stretched as possible.
I was delusional.
Two decades of indoctrination in Eurocentric beauty standards made me hate my hair for looking too Black.
To be honest, I’m not sure how I came up for air. I think my boyfriend at the time (now husband) helped me accept my Blackness.
Also, following pro-Black and celebration of Black beauty pages on Instagram for a few years helped me undo my negative self-image. Seeing beautiful Black women, in their full Africana glory, helped me see Black as beautiful.
How did your hair affect your self-image? Let me know in the comments below.