What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of curly or natural hair? Curly hair is: crazy, unmanageable, unprofessional, black, different, ratchet, complicated. This is just a sampling of things I’ve heard natural hair called. Nowhere on this list do you see the word beautiful. That’s because it took a while for me to see it too.
For women of color, hair is an integral part of black culture. Natural hair is a symbol of strength, of solidarity. It’s a beacon of pride, a link to ancient ancestry, a potential source of confidence or insecurity. I know what you must be thinking: calm down, it’s just hair. But it’s more than that.
It took a long time for me to feel comfortable, let alone confident, wearing my hair down. Years of buns and ponytails were my best bet to try to make my hair a non-issue. I clung to these hairstyles in the hopes that they would safeguard me from teasing and let my frizzy mess of hair go unnoticed. I would gaze longingly at my friends’ glossy straight hair with jealousy. I’d go home and spend five to six hours struggling with a flat iron, praying for the same straight shiny results. My feeble attempts to assimilate into the society of heads of pin-straight hair were often met with more teasing. The photos of my tall, fluffy tresses and the lunch table catchphrase “Is that a cat on your shoulder?” attest to my flat iron failures.
Personal shortcomings aside, I’ve come to notice that I’m not the only curly-headed kid to deal with this kind of insensitivity. In Orlando, Florida, 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke was threatened with expulsion from her school if she did not do something to change her natural hair. This little girl, though, is a boss. She loves her “puffy” hair, as she likes to call it, because it makes her unique, even though she’s had to endure bullying because of it.
The school’s administrators don’t agree though; her fiercely natural hair is cited as a “distraction” and a violation of the school’s dress code. This is the message the world is sending out about natural hair. Instead of supporting Vanessa and her right to wear her hair the way she wants, the principal of Faith Christian Academy joined the group of bullies targeting her and told a young girl that it’s not okay for her to be herself. She’ll be punished if she doesn’t abandon her individuality and fit the cookie-cutter mold. According to her mother though, she will not let Vanessa be backed into a corner of conformity, because she’s “beautiful the way she is.”
It’s hard these days to find a role model in the media, a celebrity bold and brave enough to stay committed to her curls. Beyonce wears a weave to hide her new natural pixie cut and Taylor Swift dumped her trademark curls for straight locks and sleek bangs. So who should we look to? Who hasn’t given up on staying natural? Who should women of color see as a proper symbol of hair culture?
A few nights ago, Rihanna made hair history at the American Music Awards. She attended the awards show and accepted an award with her hair in a doobie wrap. For anyone who’s confused: a doobie wrap is a common ritual for black women where we wrap our hair around our heads and use an unholy amount of bobby pins to secure the hair in a desperate attempt to preserve our straight and sleek hair overnight. Sound easy? It’s not. Sound cute? It’s not even close. A doobie wrap isn’t a hairstyle, it’s a pre-style. You wrap your hair in a doobie, and it isn’t pretty, but it’s practical, so you go to sleep and hope for the best in the morning. The only one who should be seeing you with your hair wrapped is your pillow.
So when Rihanna accepts an award with her hair wrapped and secured to her head with bejeweled bobby pins, someone in the back of the room coughs and mutters “ratchet” under his breath. But in a time when typically black dominated genres of music are being increasingly commandeered by white artists, Rihanna’s style choice was a statement of black empowerment. She showed that she is not only grounded to black culture, but also proud of all aspects of it—even the less glamorous hair routines. This component of culture is so important to hair—natural hair has roots that run deeper than the ones on your head, and it’s necessary to respect them.
I’ve spent many a night crying over impenetrable tangles, broken brushes, and empty bottles of Luster’s Pink moisturizing hair lotion. The personal journey towards accepting and loving natural hair is hard enough without pressure and harassment from other people. I still catch myself zoning out in class sometimes; I’ve been staring at a classmate’s perfectly polished hair. I think back to the fight I had with my own hair in the shower that morning. I move on.
I have finally learned to stop feeling self-conscious and insecure about my hair; I’ve learned to flaunt the frizz and flyaways. I’ve learned to tune out the teasing and hear the jealousy behind all the jokes. So this is the last time I will ever apologize for my hair. I’m sorry. I’m sorry if my hair has a bigger personality than you do. I’m sorry I’m not sorry that my hair is curly, is natural, is black, is insubordinate to a straightener. And I’m sorry that while your hair is stuck perfectly in place, my curls will be defying gravity.
-Sonia Okolie, Slant Editor