“I like your hair better this way!”
At first glance, this might seem like a compliment and it’s probably meant to be. But behind my smile and polite “thank you,” I am not taking it that way. The times I’ve received this comment were always when I wore my hair straight or in very loose curls. So, when I hear this particular “compliment,” I actually hear that my natural hair is less appealing. It may sound kind, but it hurts.
When I’ve expressed feelings like this to people with straight hair, I’ve often been met with a familiar phrase: “Why are you so sensitive? It’s just hair.” But for many black women, hair can be a touchy subject because it seems that no matter what style we choose, someone always has an opinion about it. An afro is “political,” braids are “ghetto,” dreads are “dirty.” The list goes on, and the comments can be outrageous. I’ve worn braids and been compared to Medusa, and I guess I’m supposed to laugh that off. But it can be exhausting to live in a world where your hair can’t just be hair.
As a biracial black girl, I’ve often struggled feeling confident and beautiful in my own skin, or rather with my own hair. Though I had two loving parents who always encouraged me to love myself the way God made me, it's hard to block out the messages the world sends you at a young age.
Growing up in a primarily white town, it was rare to see anyone that looked like me in real life. And in the 2000s, on-screen representation was rare at best and overtly negative at worst. In the media, one of the easiest ways to tell an audience a woman is “ugly” is to give her big, frizzy, messy hair (sometimes they’ll even just throw an afro wig onto a white woman and play the laugh track). Advertisements for beauty products almost exclusively used women with long flowing hair. The love interests and popular girls were practically always white. And the few black girls that I might have seen in mainstream TV and movies wore their hair straight.
At thirteen, I stopped using relaxers in my hair after a hair stylist told me that my afro was cute and unique. It’s amazing how one genuine compliment from someone you don’t think is obligated to be nice to you (like your parents) can seriously boost your confidence. But even then, I felt pretty alone and weird, subconsciously convinced my hair was ugly and impossible to manage. I knew I didn’t want to relax or straighten my hair anymore, but I had no idea where to start.
Luckily, just around the time when I was feeling the most self-conscious about my appearance, there was a resurgence of the natural hair movement online. The movement, which started in the 60s, was coming back as black women began rejecting Eurocentric beauty standards and embracing the natural beauty of kinky and curly hair.
On the internet, I found a community of women that looked like me, a community that didn’t exist in my hometown. I watched YouTube videos about how to care for natural hair, taught myself how to do different hairstyles, and made Pinterest boards of styles I wanted to try. But even then, with a new sense of community and excitement for discovering new ways to express myself, I was running into problems. I’d wear a new style to school and get comments like “it’s kind of weird,” or “I liked it more yesterday,” or the dreaded “you should try straightening it.” Or I’d follow tutorials perfectly and my hair just wouldn’t come out the same. Eventually, I would learn about different hair textures and how that might change the way a style looks from one person to the next. But until then, I struggled with finding styles I truly liked and felt comfortable wearing, while my peers got compliments for their long straight hair.
Then, on winter break during my senior year of high school, something changed. I don’t know if I was just tired of trying so hard to keep up with my hair or if I had a sudden bout of confidence and, for a brief moment, no longer cared what others thought. Whatever it was, the same mysterious force that drives other girls to cut their own bangs compelled me to cut my hair down to a 2-inch afro. It was… cute. I probably wouldn’t do it again. But I’m glad I did it back then. Having less hair meant that it felt like less of a chore to keep up with it, and making such a big change forced me to be confident in my appearance. Some people didn’t like it, but I couldn’t change that. The hair was gone.
Cutting my hair short also served as a sort of reset for the health of my hair. Many women who go natural do a big chop so that they can start fresh. And while I was already wearing my hair naturally, I wasn’t taking care of it in a way that promotes healthy growth. As my hair started growing and I went into college, I began taking care of my hair in a way that worked for me. I slowly stopped trying to emulate the styles I saw on my favorite natural hair YouTubers because I was learning that my hair texture was different. Some things just won’t work for me, and that’s okay. I started taking the hair advice that I needed and leaving the rest.
When I left my hometown and started at an art school in the south, my hair journey continued. With a larger black population, I didn’t feel like such an anomaly. There were people all around me that wore their hair the way I wore mine. I could talk with people about hair and know that they genuinely understood my experience, instead of listening to white girls say “yeah, when it rains, I totally get an afro too!” But even amongst my non-black peers, experimenting with personal style and expression was encouraged and celebrated. I could try box braids and wigs without worrying that someone would make a backhanded comment about it. I was suddenly able to express myself through my hair in the way that I wanted to and discover for myself whether or not those styles were something I truly enjoyed.
My hair journey isn’t over yet, though. There are still days when I struggle with self-confidence, when I look in the mirror and wonder if I wouldn’t look better with straight hair. There are days when I’m lazy and don’t want to go through the process of braiding my hair before bed, when I sleep on my hair and wake up with a tangled mess. But there are more days now where I really do love my hair the way it grows out of my head.
I look forward to changing it up every few months. I’m less jealous of the girls with long flowy hair who can do styles that I can’t do. And sometimes I even enjoy the long process of wash day; deep conditioning, detangling, and sectioning it off. It sounds basic but it is self-care.
Through all the ups and downs, I’ve learned that my natural hair truly is cute and unique, whether I wear it in braids, an afro, flat twists, or whatever other styles I try. And I like it better this way.