Growing up, my white mother never knew how to do my hair. She had straight, fine and wispy blonde hair which was prone to being limp and greasy……the polar opposite of my hair!
She didn’t know how to care for my hair in its natural curly state. After every wash (once every 6 weeks), she’d smother it in pink lotion (mineral oil galore), blow it out and plait it into two chunky pigtail braids. I never saw my natural curl pattern, only the fuzzy blown out cotton ball which I thought was my texture.
I first got a relaxer at 10. My hair reached my tailbone and was thick……for about two months (until it started breaking!) Whenever my Gran and Mum used to take me out and about with them, people used to coo “Oooh is she Malaysian?” “Indonesian?” “Brazilian?” My white family took a lot of pride in the assumption that I was anything other than black.
Of course, this stuck with me; it was better to “pass” for anything other than what I was. I don’t think that this was helped by the colorism that I did experience growing up. After living in a rural all-white small town, we moved to a more ethnically diverse city, and for the first time since primary school…..I had black friends!
As a teenager, while not wanting to fully embrace my Nigerian roots and the beautiful natural hair that came with it, I still wanted to emulate “cool” black culture…..such as whining to a dancehall at the local hip hop club nights! Straight away, I was made aware that I WAS different and I was automatically treated with scepticism by some of my black classmates.
I regularly overheard how my hair was “crazy” and how I was a “stuck up slut” by people who had never had a single conversation with me and knew absolutely zilch about my non-existent sex life! Whilst I definitely think that my ignorance gave basis to some of the negativity I received, I definitely believe that as one of the few mixed race girls in college, my skin colour had automatically made me a target.
This of course made me insecure, which made me more determined to permanently rid my hair of the kinks which I had yet to understand and love! The relaxer broke my hair until it barely passed my chin. It didn’t matter though! After I ditched the relaxer, I continued flat ironing and clipping in cheap, nasty extensions…..hoping to still look “Brazilian”.
I Bleached My Hair Three Times In A Week….Then I Flat Ironed It…..
So, of course…..I wrecked my hair! I was faced with two choices: go bald….or go natural!
Natural scared me. I had been natural briefly for periods in my life as a kid, but I feared that my cute little blown out afro wouldn’t look appropriate for an adult. However, obviously as a 21 year old girl the prospect of bald scared me sh*tless.
Over time I reluctantly wore my curls. However, before every night out…it still needed straightening and extending. For every shift at work, the night before I’d still crispy fry my hair.
Until one day I had to question…..why am I doing this? Why do I feel beautiful ONLY when my hair is straight with extensions clipped in? Why do I feel like I HAVE to flat iron before every date/night out/job interview?
I hadn’t realised just HOW internalised and HOW ingrained European beauty standards were in my mind.
My hair was now natural…..but I had no clue just how big of a cultural significance that was to me. After I started questioning why I felt straight hair was more “acceptable”, I started asking myself…..why are my voluminous frizzy curls “unacceptable”? Why are they seen as mad and crazy and something that needs to be tied up and tamed?
Why do I stay out of the sun in the summer time? Why am I afraid of my skin tanning darker? Why was I so proud of the sexualisation of the black woman’s figure? – An obsession and fetish which has been prevalent since slavery.
Going natural was more to me than just embracing my curly hair…..it was unlocking Pandora’s box in my mind. It awakened a part of me that societal pressures had suppressed and kept dormant. I started to see my curls for what they were….a marker of my West African heritage. And in embracing this aspect of myself that I had tried to bury…..I started to finally develop a sense of black pride.
Before hand, I just had this understanding in my head that afro hair just wasn’t professional, surely if you wanted a good job and didn’t want to face discrimination, shouldn’t you make an effort to try and look white? Appalled by my previous opinions, I woke up to the fact that I had been racially oppressing myself; justifying discrimination instead of challenging it.
The idea of something as superficial as hair leading to political activism may seem far-fetched….however it appears quite evident that I am not the only woman-gone-natural to have experienced this!
To be continued…