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Redefining My Image of “Pretty” and Opening My Eyes to the Beauty of Black Hair

By: Sia

Once a month I have an epiphany. I completely reassess the way I have been living my life as of that moment and decide, against the glow of my computer screen that a change is necessary. With the words “box braid” typed and entered into the Google search bar, I stare in awe at the new wave of beauty that’s entered my life.

The likes of Keke Palmer, Solange and Beyoncé sprawled across the screen in all their natural beauty, in their long wonderfully braided tresses, completely captivating. I pull back a lock of my own relaxed hair behind my ear and envision myself, a natural beauty.

With these moments of review, my phone consists of endless screenshots and saved “hair goals” of black women in braid outs, Senegalese twists, Marley braids, and faux locs; a galore of natural hairstyles, woven in between selfies and the occasional meme.

For the time it lasts, these impulsions see me discuss the topic of hair for hours on end with family and friends, letting them know in advance that a “new me” is set to enter their lives. As strong as these desires are in the beginning, they’re ultimately never seen through to the end and alas, I’m left behind whilst the Internet gets on board with the movement. For me, it’s easier said than done to swap my relaxed hair for its once kinky roots.

Growing up, the pressure of hair was never a weight on my shoulders and the decision of what to do with it was never under my control, a thankful position to be in. My mom was the decision maker, my hair consultant, and the one with the final say on what do with my Afro tresses. I sat crossed legged on the floor of our living room, my head in her lap as she cornrowed from left to right.

Despite all the wincing and squirming, the tears and exhaustion, all that hair combing, grease and endless hair bobbles, my locks were always healthy and taken care of, and that was my mother’s main concern. I won’t pretend that in growing up, this idea of “healthy hair” did not fall down in my own list of priorities, and soon the bombarding images of Eurocentric beauty took hold of my young impressionable mind.

At 13, I had established my image of beauty to fit under an umbrella term easily identified as “white”. Beauty was long, flowing hair that fell past your shoulders. It was hair that could be picked up by a passing wind, the type of hair showcased in television adverts for up-and-coming shampoos and conditioners, that sashayed as you walked in and out of rooms.

It came in blonde, ginger, and brown, and laid straight against your head. In my eyes it was beyond beautiful and I idolized those who wore it. At 13, my fascination became unwavering and slowly grew into self-loathing, and in desperation, I turned to my mother, my hair advisory, and asked the dreaded question to every natural hair personnel: to straighten my untameable locks.

With her approval, and my first feel of a salon chair away from home, I started a cycle of monthly visits that went from manageable straightening to even more dangerous territory in the Black Hair community; I felt the cream to my head, the itch of my scalp, and the slow transformation from virgin hair to altered locks.

A mantra that stuck with me in the first few years was good looks meant good hair, and good hair meant white hair, a clouded sense of judgement that only continued to sound authentic as the ring of compliments fell to my ears. The hours spent in a leather spin chair, unnerved by the orchestrated movement of cream to sink to steamer to rollers to drier to mirror with salon hands giving my altered locks a final spray of virgin olive oil was all worth the awe and fascination.

I looked new and different, it was unsettling but somehow felt right and I could not escape the expanding smile on my face as I dared to say, even think, that the person in front of the mirror was finally beautiful. I was suddenly deserving of a second glance, of a warm compliment edged with dull jealously.

The unyielding positive reception made me feel special as I gained the approval of absolute strangers, and the admiring attention of friends and family. My hair was center stage like it had never been before, but whilst my hair took to the spotlight in a further bid to win over its adoring fans, I was left unsure of where I stood.

“It’s because it’s white”, four words voiced in spite and playful jab; I felt my stomach turn. With every compliment it was not long before involuntary critic reared its ugly head, and in the haze of unwavering praise came the biting bitter truth. The petting and stern asking of “was it all mine?”, the rash acts to show its authenticity and the brazen exclamations of “white”; my hair was a sham, a play for white beauty, and with every relaxer I took to my head I could not escape its association.

My hair did not receive praise for what it was but what it seemed to be. I had infiltrated the sanctity of beauty and had stolen a word that did not belong to me: beautiful. “Hair like a white girl” didn’t carry the same allure it had in my younger years, bringing instead on a pang of guilt as I wondered if the monthly hair rituals were worth all this white-washed approval.

It took years before I began to question this idea I had internalized for so long, that black couldn’t be beautiful unless it looked white. Whether it was the darkness of my skin, the roundness of my nose, or the kinkiness of my hair, it was years after the impressionable 13 year old had embossed the word “ugly” to her black body that I fully began to appreciate the parts of me that stood for my blackness.

Journeying into self-acceptance that started first with loving my skin tone and is fit to end with loving my natural hair, I feel myself stationed on a platform with one foot on the train as if ready to board. And even though, one foot is left outstretched on the train floor, the other wedged to the station platform, I’m further than I’ve ever been to loving myself.

Looking to the future now, and the feeling of dread which used to engulf my insides at the thought of no more relaxers having melted away, I know it won’t be long before I take both feet off the platform floor.

For 18 years now, I’ve taken refuge in my long relaxed hair but for the year 2016, I want more. I want more than the masked feeling of security flowy hair brought me; instead I’m looking for security in my own natural hair, in my kinky curls.

I want more than the attention these altered locks gave me and the approval I got from strangers; instead I’m looking for fun and daring underneath the flat and boring, to unearth my kinky roots and really embrace the curly hair I constantly redo with the relaxers every few months and hide away.

I want more than jealously and envy, other women looking down on themselves the way I had all those years ago; instead I want my personal journey to inspire others the way others have done for me and to rid young black girls of the rhetoric that who they are is not good enough. And if that starts and ends with them siting crossed legged on the floor of their living room as their mother cornrows from left to right with the notion “they are beautiful” iterated with every braid, then so be it.

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14 Comments on "Redefining My Image of “Pretty” and Opening My Eyes to the Beauty of Black Hair"

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1 year 8 months ago

I completely agree with your viewpoint and am excited that you’re now a member of #teamnatural, but I don’t entirely agree with the idea that relaxed hair is boring. I went natural almost three years. The only reason for me going natural was because I couldn’t afford to spend $60 on perming my hair. I don’t agree with some women with natural hair who attack perm. Yes it is damaging to your hair, but honestly if I still relaxed my hair, I’d feel bad reading stories like this.

1 year 8 months ago

As the writer of this article I really in no way intended to hurt someone. It was me talking on my own personal experience and how those monthly perms had manifested. I respect the way any woman chooses to wear her hair and do believe it is completely her decision. My reason behind the article was just me coming to terms with a change in my own mindset after years of a lot of self hate. From what I’ve heard this outlook on beauty is the same for some black women. I guess what I wanted from the article was… Read more »

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