Updated: Oct 10, 2018
In 2012, Gabby Douglas made history at the London Olympics as the first African American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions. Sadly, I don’t remember the specifics because all I can remember about Douglas was her hair. While Douglas was making history, her critics back at home hopped on twitter to throw barbs about her unkempt edges. I went natural my junior year in high school back in 2005; that was 7 years before Douglas took the world stage. Back then people used to yell at me in the hallways of my high school to get a perm. Fast forward to today, my silhouetted afro is a cropped tapered cut with tight coils and I'm surrounded by natural hair sisters who wear their TWAs, twist-outs, locs, full afros, wash-n-gos, and protective styles. We've managed to usher forth a new era of natural hair. However, for all our progression, natural hair and black hair in general, continues to be attacked and policed.
To me, natural hair is an affront to European standards of beauty; it’s unruly, it’s malleable, and it takes up space; but because of its “oddity,” natural hair is still stigmatized. Every job interview I had after graduate school, I debated whether or not I should at least braid my hair, instead of wearing my hair out. I tried to find ways to make my hair neat and presentable because without being overtly told, I knew that my natural hair could possibly cost me a job opportunity. Even when we manage to wear our hair neatly in protective styles such as weaves or braids, it’s still not good enough; black hair has and continues to come under immense scrutiny. The Kardarshians get full editorials over hairstyles that they’ve appropriated from black girls, while black girls get suspended or expelled from school for wearing those same styles. At one point, the US armed forces tried to band locs and braids; they’ve only recently revised their policies on black hairstyles.
Sometimes the criticism about our hair comes from our own. Although we’ve managed to revolutionize natural hair, black women aren’t exempt from our own implicit and explicit biases. Maybe this is why we’ve become so obsessed with our edges. Every black girl has fresh memories of sitting in the kitchen waiting as the iron hot-comb is heated on the stove. We’d wince with fear as the obtrusive smoking instrument kissed our baby hairs and hissed upon the contact of heated metal to hair, as kinks miraculously transformed to silky threads. Now we’ve traded hot-combs for toothbrushes and edge control.
Black people still battle with respectability politics i.e. whiteness is close to godliness, and this affects how we present ourselves which includes how we style our hair. Although we’ve made great lengths to make natural hair acceptable; we still struggle with defining acceptability outside of European standards. Search #naturalhair on Instagram and you’ll be bombarded with cascading, bouncy, loose curls; think Mariah Carey circa her Honey days. We want to celebrate natural hair, but kinkier textures, shorter lengths, and unkempt edges have taken a back seat to the conversation of natural hair.
Recently I participated in a photo shoot that celebrated natural hair and self-love. We took photos and shared our testimonies about our hair journeys and our forms of hair care. Most of the girls in this group said they’ve been natural for one year or 5 years, I’ve been natural for 13 years. It struck me the climate at the time of my transition and how uninviting it was, as well as how far we’ve come. Black women, it doesn’t matter how you choose to style your hair; whether you want your hair permed, curly, braided, or in a weave, how you style your hair is an individual choice. In a world that continuously tries to silence black bodies, especially black women, we don’t need to contribute to that noise. Let’s continue to hold our crowns proudly atop our heads and help each other to hold those crowns. In doing so, black hair will no longer be odd or inappropriate, but beautiful.