This week I went to SA’s Table-Talk, ingeniously named “Miley, What’s Good?” Good times included Chipotle and our shared experiences about what we find attractive, both physically and emotionally. The conversation eventually focused on hairstyles, how our hair determines how people will perceive us, and, ultimately, how we perceive ourselves. I was especially drawn to this event because unfortunately, my hair is a political issue. The dead keratin growing out of my scalp is an integral part of my identity and daily part of my experience as a black woman. The table-talk got me thinking about how my hair is a symbol of long-existing Eurocentric beauty standards, and how it influences the way my peers treat me.
Until I came to college, I never gave much thought to the role my hair plays in my black identity. My hair was long and coarse for most of my life, and I accepted it as a given that I would get perms every few months to tame it. Sure, perms burned my scalp with the intensity of the flames of hell, but dragging a comb through my hair daily would arguably be worse. Besides, my parents firmly believed that I would look uncouth, or “ghetto,” if you will, if my hair was anything but nicely braided or straightened. As deplorable as my parents’ self-hating ideals sound to me now, I don’t really hold it against them because that’s the psychological effect of white supremacy most of us grow up with. The closer your hair is to straight, the more respectable you are. As I got older, I wanted to experiment with my hair. While I received little overt disapproval from my parents, their passive-aggressive comments about my various hairstyles ignited a wildfire of self-consciousness in me. Suddenly my hair mattered more than it used to.
By the time I reached my sophomore year of high school, I was fed up with the high maintenance of long, thick hair. I took a stand, mostly for my poor, tender scalp, and made the decision to stop perming my hair. The easiest solution to maintaining unpermed hair in my inexperienced mind was to cut it off. I started off with a shoulder-length cut, then a bob, and by the time I graduated I had sported pixie cuts of various lengths and colors. I don’t mean to imply that short hair doesn’t have a struggle attached — I spent many a morning cursing over my burnt fingers (because there are these stubborn patches that deftly avoid the hot iron, colloquially known as “the kitchen” of your head). Despite the minor challenges, I enjoyed having shorter hair, because less maintenance, and most importantly … I looked cuter.
While I was feeling myself out with short, unpermed hair, my parents’ comments about me looking “wild” began to eat away at me. The first time I cut my mid-back-length hair, my father expressed a kind of calm outrage. I’d say he was incredulous. He told me that “people would kill” to have the kind of hair I had. I was no stranger to the idea that having long hair is a point of pride in the black community; there’s this racist, stigma-charged lie that black girls and women can’t grow long hair on their own, so they wear wigs or weaves to achieve this Eurocentric “look.” I was over it, but I wasn’t immune to the difference in treatment from people, including my parents, because I no longer had straight, long hair. I didn’t understand it — I am not any less me because of what my hair looks like. But because of the historical and socio-political objectification of black women’s bodies, other people interpret my hair in an entirely different context.
Everyone who goes to the College of William and Mary, and some people who don’t go here, knows that the humidity in Williamsburg is out of control. Since I left perms in the dust years ago, I made the logical decision to just forgo straightening my hair entirely and sport a natural ‘fro. I got some snark from my parents, of course, but the reception to what I initially thought was a minor change was overwhelmingly positive. At first. I had undergone a major culture shock upon coming to a predominantly white university, because I was used to being around black people and other minorities in D.C. So while I don’t think many people at home would have given much attention to my “natural transformation,” so to speak, the situation is a lot different when you’re surrounded by white people who act like they’ve never seen a black person with natural hair before. People’s amazement felt endearing when I was naïve enough to believe it wasn’t a product of objectification and exotification. White people, some who were my friends, would randomly stick their fingers in my hair and pet me because they were so obsessed with the stuff that grows out of my head in the exact way it grows out of their own heads. I felt like an exhibit. I felt like an animal at a petting zoo. I briefly considered straightening my hair again so people would stop touching me, but I eventually decided against it.
I still get pet on the head, although much less frequently now. But I’m constantly aware of the perceptions people have about me because of my hair (that I’m unkempt, unprofessional, less worthy of belonging in predominantly white spaces), as well as the toll it takes on my self-esteem. My unconscious decision to join the natural hair movement uncapped a proverbial can of worms. I am a walking history, a product of centuries of Eurocentric standards that dictate that black women are worthless and ugly.
Black hair is a political issue. It’s often a heavy burden to bear, impossible to ignore, but my path to self-love and acceptance includes appreciating all black women. Hair, as well as other aspects of physical appearance, is so personal. We wear our hair in different ways for different reasons, not even a fraction of which are related to patriarchy or white supremacy. It’s no one’s business why I or other black women choose to be natural or to have perms, weaves, tracks, etc. All that matters is that we love ourselves and respect our own choices, in an attempt to unlearn the self-hatred instilled in us and reinforced by society. It’s the basic minimum of what we deserve.