Growing up with curly hair was always an adventure.
Sometimes my hair chose to cooperate and other days not so much. Some days it was in a ponytail and other days it was down and poofy: flowing, bouncing behind me as I ran around the playground. My classmates (mostly the girls) would “ooh” and “ahh” at my long hair like it was new and foreign to them and would touch it endlessly.
Sure, my curly hair was cool and different, but it wasn’t pretty. Not by the standards that I and many others were born to see as beautiful or pretty. It was something I didn’t understand, but as an eight-year-old my biggest concerns were with the swing sets so I didn’t give it too much thought.
However, things started to change once I hit middle school. My curly hair got curlier, more frizzy and wild, and I put it up more often than I let it down. I started saying that I hated my hair, I wished and wished that my hair was different. I had become more aware of how I wanted to be “beautiful” and what I had to do to get there.
The only idea I had of beauty was what was being shown to me and every other young girl in the world – airbrushed models and photo-shopped celebrities who had become the standard of white beauty when in fact, their looks were nearly impossible without a team of beauticians. But still I felt like I needed to look like them.
In 7th grade, when picture day came around, I spent hours getting my hair straightened until my neck was sore and the next day. I entered campus feeling like a new person. I mean, I had to look my best for picture day and my best was with straight hair… right?
“Wow, is that your real hair?”
“You look stunning!”
“Hey! What’s up?”
Suddenly everyone wanted to talk to me.
And then my crush walked up to me. My crush, with is shaggy blonde Bieber hair and bright green eyes who had ignored me for the entire year smiled at me and said,
“Hey, you look really, beautiful.” Swoon.
“You should keep your hair straight, it looks a lot better than when it’s curly.” Oh.
And he wasn’t the only person to tell me that. My friends, some acquaintances on campus, and even some teachers all agreed that I looked beautiful or great or lovely. People listened to me more, noticed me more and I felt happy about it but also sad.
Why did my hair have to look a certain way for people to think that I was beautiful enough for them to say something? Why did I have to look a certain way for people to want to talk to me or give me the time of day?
Sure, no one was saying that my curly hair was ugly, but I felt the pressure to look a certain way in order to be respected or even worth someone’s time, growing stronger and stronger. And according to the media, to TV, to magazines and the majority of society, my natural curly hair as an African-American woman was not beautiful.
I started straightening my hair because a boy told me I looked prettier that way. I started straightening my hair because someone told me I looked more put together. I started straightening my hair because I wanted to look like the celebrities and models whom the worldwas always praising.
I felt so pressured and I desired so strongly to be seen as beautiful that I was willing to damage my hair in order to attain that status. I chemically treated my hair three times in an effort to make it straighter. Chemicals and lightening creams and a burning feeling on my scalp were necessary parts of my beauty routine. I went to extreme lengths simply to be the more accepted beautiful and it still was not enough.
It took me five years to stop trying to have straighter hair, but by then my hair was so damaged I had to cut seven inches off. Even after that, it took me months still to understand that I had been straightening my hair in order to fit people’s vision of what I should look like. I was straightening my hair for other people, for their approval – so that I could finally be considered beautiful too.
But the truth is, the Eurocentric standard idea of beautiful is not the only type of beauty in the world. My natural hair, in its wild, craziness was still just as gorgeous and lovely as straight hair, even if my seventh-grade Bieber-haired crush and the rest of society didn’t think so. I stopped straightening my hair because I realized that holding women, specifically women of color, to the limited and skewed standard of beauty was dangerous and unfair. There’s more than just one type of beautiful and I wanted to embrace all of them and make them all the “standard” until every young woman could feel comfortable and beautiful in her natural skin.
This isn’t to say that straightening hair or curling it or wearing make-up is bad and that women who do these things “don’t get it” or are conforming to this dangerous standard. Heck, getting dolled up is fun. The difference now is, I’m doing it on my own terms for my own desires and that’s what’s important.