Story ideas are all around you. Sometimes all you have to do is look in the mirror. Through the years, I have been inspired to write many stories simply by touching the hair on my head.
I’ve written about the natural hair movement for newspapers, magazines, and even public radio. I’ve shared my own hair story on those same platforms as well as on websites and blogs.
If you’re thinking it’s just hair, think again.
I am not my hair, but…
My hair is my feminist fashion statement. I started wearing my hair in its naturally curly state in 2002, long before it had become the hip thing to do. I knew of no natural hair blogs to guide me and there were no YouTube tutorials to turn to for help. And to be honest, back then I did have the “it’s just hair” attitude. I wasn’t trying to be part of any self-empowerment movement. But once I started to embrace my thick, curly mane, I started to embrace my quirky, offbeat personality too.
The natural hair movement is creating a new standard of beauty. Mainstream beauty standards tell black women we are not desirable. Back in 2011 a Psychology Today columnist wrote an article claiming to have used an “objective” measure of attractiveness to determine that black women are the least attractive women of any race. Natural hair, however, has given so many black women, the confidence to start defining beauty for themselves.
Now, to be clear, I’m not implying that black women who chemically straighten their hair are doing so because they’re suffering from self-hatred. That’s ridiculous. Many women relax their hair for convenience or simply because of style preference. But for me, natural hair was a gateway to self-acceptance and I know many, many women who can tell a similar story, stories I’ve been privileged to share in articles for various publications.
Furthermore, natural hair can be the common ground needed to bring women together. Countless times while at a mall, a restaurant, or a grocery store I’ve been approached by a complete stranger who wanted to ask me about the hair products I use and some of the women I’ve met women at natural hair meetups have become some of my best friends.
This isn’t to say that all women who sport natural hair are one big happy family. One of the points of contention in the natural hair community is whether or not you can still call yourself natural if you occasionally flat iron your hair straight. Some say no. I understand the sentiment. It’s like being one of the X-Men but hiding your powers and the things that make you different from the rest of the world. (Sorry for that analogy; #blackgirlnerd.) But I define being natural as not using caustic chemicals to permanently alter your hair texture. And when I straighten my hair once or twice a year I use heat, not a relaxer, and my curls usually come peeking out in a few days because they love to be the center of attention.
But this debate did make me ask myself: “Why do you occasionally straighten your curls?”
My Hair Story
When I was younger I got relaxers very infrequently so I’ve never had an addiction to the so-called creamy crack. Still, I was obsessed with straight hair because I was taught that beautiful hair was straight hair. Period. So I constantly wrestled my curls into submission with the strongest hair appliances I could afford.
Then one summer day when I was 21, while on what was probably my third hour of doing my hair, my roommate at the time turned to me and said, “Maybe your hair doesn’t want to be straight. Why don’t you just wear it curly?” And something just clicked. Never before had anyone suggested that just letting my hair exist in its naturally curly state was an option. And with that I was free. I started wearing my hair curly and an amazing journey began.
Because applying heat to my hair had been something that I did because I thought it was the only way to be beautiful, after going natural I didn’t use any heat, not even a blow dryer, on my hair for about three years. My hair needed time to heal. I needed time to heal.
So nowadays when I get my hair straightened I am sure to check myself. Why am I doing this? Is this coming from a dark place as it did when I was younger? After some soul searching I was sure that it was not. When I straighten my hair these days it’s usually because I’m bored and want a different look for a couple of weeks or because I want to wear a cute hat that won’t fit over my curly coif.
Putting thought into why I wear my hair a certain way pushed me to be thoughtful about all my fashion and beauty choices, which is why I always say that going natural made me a better feminist. Am I wearing these clothes and putting on this makeup because I truly want to or because I feel like I have to in order to be accepted or loved? Those are the kinds of questions I ask myself to keep my motives in check, but those are questions I didn’t start asking until I went natural.
Lately, my hair has become my feminist fashion statement not because of its curliness but because of its color.
I started graying when I was still in my 20s. I don’t yet boast a full head of gray hair like Ty Alexander of the blog formerly known as Gorgeous in Grey, but I do have a silver streak that gets plenty of attention.
At first, I made jokes about the irony of having gray hair and a baby face. “Who am I? Benjamin Button!” I’d say to friends. But I never once thought of dyeing my hair. Silver hair meant I could be Storm for Halloween without buying a wig. I was one step closer to actually being one of the X-Men!
Then the comments started:
“Girl, why you got all that gray hair in your head? Ain’t you young” asked the rude cashier at Walgreens.
“You need to stop letting life stress you out. That’s why you have all that gray hair” said the “concerned” family member.
And the most annoying comment of all: “You’re so brave!”
Apparently sporting gray hair is enough to be the Angela Davis of my generation.
At first, I was confused. If my gray hair wasn’t bothering me, why was it bothering everybody else?
Then I got angry. Why won’t they all just shut up?!
But, to borrow a phrase from Tamara Winfrey Harris, I realized I was hating the player and ignoring the game.
Society teaches us that signs of aging should be avoided at all costs because each wrinkle, each silver strand of hair, suggests you are one day closer to becoming obsolete. We women especially are taught that once we’re a certain age we are too old to wear stylish clothes, to have great sex, or to go after our dreams. So, of course, my friends would expect me to dye my hair!
Sometimes I even find myself saying I’m too old to do this or too old to do that. But then I think of the women in my life who are in their late 40s and 50s they are fierce, fabulous, fun, and free. These women do what they want, when they want, while wearing what they want.
Just as embracing my curly hair helped me love the woman I am, embracing my gray hair has helped me be excited about the woman I am to become.