Being a black girl in a white hair world

Almost a year ago, I cut my hair. I had been chemically straightening(relaxing) it religiously, since I was about 7 (for more than 12 years). My biggest beauty fear was having short hair. The path to being beautiful was simple: relax it and plait it constantly, so that it gets as long as possible. To me (and I would suspect many others), having long, straight hair as a black woman was/is a sign that you are beautiful.

It doesn’t matter that I grew in Africa. I grew up watching L’oreal, Pantene, Body On Tap etc adverts, which glorified white women’s hair all the time. It was long and luxurious. It moved in the wind and you could flip it dramatically.  I knew I’d never get there but the closer I got, the better. If it wasn’t those adverts, it was the Dark and Lovely ones. They depicted girls the same age as me with relaxed hair so long that you could have a curly ponytail. That was the (impossible) standard of beauty I was trying to live up to.

Me with my relaxed hair and a side-swept fringe-nyana. It probably didn’t get much longer than this.

Of course, I hated relaxing my hair. I didn’t know what chemicals were in the hair relaxers but the process was *really* painful. Many times, I emerged with some burns on my scalp but it was never a big deal. For the longest time, I endured the pain, accepting it as my cross to bear as a black woman. Even when I learned that the chemicals used were extremely harmful,  I still did it.

On the flip side of my hair inferiority complex, I also grew up with negative views about my hair’s natural texture. My hair is extremely coily and before I knew what to do with it, it was painful to comb. It was a nightmare for me if I hadn’t relaxed it in a few months. Having relaxed hair was easier because I already had a routine for it. I didn’t think I’d be able to handle  combing my hair without having chemicals in it.

When I cut my hair, I did it because I wanted to get over my fear of having short hair (and a bean-shaped head 😀 ). I was so paralysed by this fear that I couldn’t bear having my split ends trimmed. I hated feeling like that. I also resolved to cut my hair because my relaxed hair didn’t feel like it was a part of me. It was limp and thin. It was just there on my head, but I had no connection to it.

When I first started considering the big chop, a friend said to me that they couldn’t see me with an afro. At the time, I couldn’t imagine myself with natural hair either. However, when I looked in the mirror after cutting my hair that January day, I was surprised by how much I looked and felt like myself. Everything I had always believed about natural, black hair was wrong. It’s only difficult to manage if you have spent your whole life fighting its natural texture. It’s only ugly if you (understandably) were influenced by the beauty ideals that are glorified by African media and came to view these dominant images as superior.

I now appreciate my hair as a part of me. I feel more removed from the white beauty standards imposed on me by the media. I am always playing with my hair because the texture is lovely 🙂 Also, I should just make it clear now that I am not always going to comb it. The idea that uncombed or dreadlocked black hair is ‘unkempt’ is one I have come to reject. When I started questioning the messages I had internalised about beauty, I realised how strict the standards are for black people to look ‘acceptable’, in accordance with Eurocentric standards. It’s the reason the black natural hair movement is so significant;  it asserts itself as a valid alternative to whiteness.


Apart from that, another big takeaway…and this is so cliche 😦 … was that I am not my hair. Cutting my hair re-emphasised  that what I look like/wear is does not change who I am. So, don’t be surprised if I’m weaving it up in a few weeks or I relax it again in a few months. I’m still all about choice and I’m over people judging black women for their hair choices. If you hadn’t noticed, we do what we want 🙂

Seriously, look at all that textured greatness 😀 Photo by Zama Mncube

I wish I could bottle the joy and freedom that my natural hair has given me and send it to everyone on Earth 😀