So many things boil down to perception. My hang-ups come when I try to dissect how others perceive me, rather than focusing on how I feel about myself.
For example, when my hair is straight, the world feels more welcoming, and I tend to feel less self-conscious. Instead of fielding a steady stream of hair-related comments, those comments disappear. When it’s straight, my hair is no longer the first thing people see when they look at me – it’s me.
When my hair is natural, I feel like people project onto me. They ask about my ‘fro,’ and comment regularly. I love my hair natural, I think it looks like a halo or a crown around my head. But it’s still new for me – I didn’t grow up with that feeling – in fact, I’ve really only become well-acquainted with its natural texture in the past two years. I got my first ‘Just For Me’ relaxer when I was six, and had some variation of a flat iron press or Brazilian blowout for 20 years after.
My mom straightened my hair when I was young, because that’s what most black people in the shadow of white supremacy do. It is what’s deemed ‘professional,’ or ‘put together,’ or ‘polished.’ All my mom wanted was for me to find acceptance, and more importantly, success.
When I went home for Thanksgiving last November with my hair natural and much shorter than usual, I inadvertently started a debate among my relatives about the acceptable ways for a black woman to wear her hair. My mom made the argument that it’s almost impossible to get a job with a fro, as I sat in earshot pretending not to listen.
I thought about piping in, but I couldn’t find the energy. Fortunately, my cousin, who is my age, looked at my mom and said, “It’s 2018, aint nobody not gonna hire you because your hair is natural.” That said enough, and although my ego was slightly bruised, that comment gave everyone a much needed taste of a growing new reality.
Still, I behave differently when my hair is straight – I touch it less out of self-consciousness, and I think about it less. I also think my natural hair is a repellant to some people, and while I have no desire to attract people who would be deterred by my natural hair, it does make me feel like I become alienated from parts of the population.
I never want to be a sellout. While I love swinging my hair around like a Victoria Secret model when it’s straight, I like the idea even more of bringing that confidence into the body I was given, in its natural state. I truly love my natural hair, I think it makes me look sexy and unique. But when I get out of the context of myself and into the context of the world, I am susceptible to absorbing its toxic opinions.
The other component of all of this is freedom. In the midst of summer, it’s especially convenient not to worry about straight hair. So many women, including myself, forego strenuous exercise to avoid sweating out a blow out. And it’s not just black women – a lot of women avoid athletics to avoid a.) messing up their hair and/or b.) messing up their makeup.
I love being outside, I love to play and run around, I love to sweat and get the toxins out. I love swimming and will do it at the drop of a dime. Obviously, worrying about my hair is not the way to be my true self.
I am a wild being – the best version of me sweats and swims, so how can I live fully when I’m worried about sweating out my hair?
Still, straightening my hair does serve as a portal into the majority – it’s a physical way I can ebb, flow, and play with my whiteness as a biracial woman. When I talk about being a sellout, this is where the boundaries blur. Straight hair signals a closer proximity to whiteness, and I wonder, is that playing the game, or is it selling out? I suspect it comes down to how I use it and how I internalize it. If I know who I am, and that I am just playing with dead follicles on top of my head, am I selling out? I don’t know the answer.
But then there’s the reality that ‘the game’ is a rigged product of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism – none of which I align with, and all of which have tentacles in women’s hair.
White supremacy taught the world that straight hair is ideal – that beautiful women have plenty of long, straight (maybe wavy, but don’t get too crazy), locks. Patriarchy taught the world that women should be uniquely concerned with attaining those standards to attract men. Capitalism taught the world that any part of the body that doesn’t fit into those standards can be ‘fixed’ with a purchase.
I believe none of that – but when I straighten my hair, am I implementing it? This is a question I don’t know the answer to. One side of me believes about this what I believe about makeup – that it’s a powerful tool when the user isn’t controlled by it — when she or he feels comfortable using it or not, spending money on it or not.
I’m definitely not a slave to makeup — I buy all of it at the drugstore or get it for free, but I definitely appreciate the ability (and power) to cover up a breakout. It makes me feel less self-conscious when I know people are seeing what I want them to see.
I’d like to think that’s how it is with my hair, but for whatever reason, I’m not quite there. I don’t know if straightening my hair is a game I sometimes play, or if it’s an oppressive exercise that I deploy to cover up insecurities inherited from a toxic culture. Either way, it feels like I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t, but at least the pendulum is swinging in favor of loving my natural self.