My scalp burns when my hairdresser applies a foul-smelling, thick white cream to the roots of my hair. The roots of my hair are nappy. In other words, my hair is nappy. But the majority of my hair now is some weird hybrid of frizzy and straight. It’s also gravity-defying and brittle, because of the heat damage and years of chemical treatment. I look at myself in the mirror as my hairstylist, Lisa (who always wears a surgical mask when she is applying these chemicals, which worries me—should I have my nose and mouth covered too?), coats the roots. I don’t think about this covering up of my nappy roots as covering up my ancestry; I think of it as a way to make my hair easier to comb, style, and live with in a predominantly white environment.
When my hair is straightened, it can’t get wet. A single drop of water is enough to send me into a frenzy, as I worry that my hair will frizz to the point that I will not be able to tame it. Working up a sweat as I rush to class, or run up stairs, or take a rare trip to the gym, too, gives me anxiety, as the sweat will also create a problem in the middle of the day that I cannot solve. I frantically stuff my hair into a shower cap every time I shower before my dreaded wash day (the night I set aside to deal with washing and then straightening my hair, which takes hours) to avoid this chaos. Because once it gets bad, my hair styling skills are not enough to fix it, and every time I see myself I’m forced to glare at the poofy, gravity-defying mess on my head until the next time I’m able to see my hairstylist.
People who have seen my straightened hair probably think I’m exaggerating when I talk about this mess; perhaps they feel that my hair doesn’t look that bad. And maybe it doesn’t. However, what I’m trying to convey is that my hair restricts me. Some days, it literally keeps me from going outside (and into the humidity). It has kept me, countless times, from jumping in the pool with my friends. I cried once when I took a bath and accidentally leaned back too far into the water, ruining my recently straight hair. I was once so embarrassed about the way my hair looked for such a long period of time that I told my mother I was ashamed of the way I looked and felt that it was a burden for others to have to look at me.
All of this pain because I don’t want to let my hair go natural. I tell myself it’s because I don’t want to deal with the hassle, but that’s not it. I started getting my hair relaxer (straightening) treatments when I was in fourth grade. Back then, I could care less about the knots in my hair; I simply wore my hair in two braids and didn’t think about it. But I had told my mother repeatedly that I wanted straight hair (and apparently that I wanted to be blonde?), so she decided that a relaxing treatment was a solution to my discontentment. With straight hair, I always felt prettier and more refined, and I could finally look like the TV stars I watched on a nearly daily basis. When I was lucky enough to participate in a runway show as a child, I felt like Miley Cyrus when the hairstylists gave me the loose ringlets I had always seen her with on Hannah Montana.
It has taken a great deal of emotional maturing for me to be able to confront the fact that perhaps the reason why I struggle so much with the idea of flaunting my nappy curls is because I still haven’t accepted my blackness completely. While I totally identify with and am extremely proud to be a member of the Black community, being a Black woman in a predominantly white environment is not simply being Black. Often, it means being undesirable. In high school, I had the pleasant experience of hearing a boy say that he thought a Black girl’s natural hair looked nasty because it looked like she had pubes on her head. Additionally, I have been around many guys who have said they wouldn’t consider “getting with” a girl who wasn’t white, or at least not a Black girl. I have watched videos and read articles that claim that, on dating websites and apps, Black women are the least sought after. I have been told that I should be happy that I’m light skinned, because if I were dark, things would be even harder. I’ve heard (dark-skinned and not) Black men say that dark skin is not attractive on women, while they discuss white women like they are precious jewels.
When you take into account the ways in which Black women are often made to feel not only insufficient, but in fact, repulsive, not just due to our looks but because of our allegedly masculine behavior and aggressive attitudes, it is unsurprising that I might hold a bit of shame about my identity. I have never been surrounded by mostly Black people other than in family get-togethers, and thus I have always stood out. Given my upbringing and surroundings, in many ways, to have natural hair is to defy my world. It is to stand up against the many societal messages that are telling me I should not love my hair and, to a certain extent, I should not love myself. For a while, I did not love myself. Having hair that I had reshaped to become closer to an image of whiteness I could never fully obtain, with my “straight” hair, I felt that I was not fully myself and, being not my own self, I felt that I was no one. On top of that, a huge aspect of my identity—my interest in fashion and aesthetic—was being unfulfilled because I felt that my hair never adequately suited who I was, stylistically. This does not sound important, but style is one of the things that most matters to me in terms of what defines who I am. I am a lover of the visual arts, and how I present myself to the world as visual person is very important to me. When my hair made me feel totally other than myself, not only did I feel that I was suppressing my racial identity, but my personality as a whole felt compromised.
I don’t want to be cheesy and say, “Everything changed when …” but, many things did change when I finally decided to get braids. I have received countless supportive compliments about my decision to rock box braids from all kinds of people. I am able to style my braids in ways that make me feel much more like myself; for the first time, I see myself as who I want to be, and not an attempt at being someone I not only can’t be, but don’t actually want to be. Not to mention, now I can get my hair wet as much as I please, and my hair can be whatever length I want it to be, which is a plus.
I still haven’t totally come to grips with my identity, and when I get my braids out, I get keratin treatments which straighten it in the time between when my hair is out and when I next get braids again. I don’t know if I will be letting my hair go natural any time soon. However, my getting braids—a historically and culturally Black hairstyle—has been a big step for me in terms of my comfort with accepting who I am. (To be clear, I don’t want to make any black women ashamed to straighten their hair—I still straighten mine, and there are many reasons to straighten it that have nothing to do with ones relationship to her blackness.) I love my braids and I am so much happier with the way I present myself to the world now and, though looks aren’t everything, they do say a lot about who you are. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly be able to escape the years I spent wishing I was someone else, but I am making a huge effort to stop placing so much weight on what our society decides is conventional, which is always racially skewed. What I want you to take away from this is the fact that if I’m experiencing this, you should know that there are certainly other Black women and girls who feel the same way. Knowing how much my hair means to me, I make sure to tell Black girls with curly hair how great they look. If I had received more compliments on my hair as a young girl, I may have not spent so many years literally damaging a part of myself to change it.
Dara Swan ‘21