A collage of Karis and her hair shown in different styles
Karis Rivers/MiC.

To be a Black woman is to wear a crown so heavy it contains the weight of your world. All the pain, misery, anger and fear are bound up tightly in coiled locks promising to never let them see the light of day. These anxieties weigh you down, never letting you forget they’re there. It’s a silent affair, one that only another Black woman could truly understand. 

When I was 13, I wrote a poem titled “Tangled” about my hair. This poem expressed a confession of insecure feelings I could never rectify and a desire to change that I could never truly fulfill. My hair always has been and always will be the hardest part of me to love. It has consumed my life and my ability to see myself as beautiful. Each strand has brought me shame, anger and pain; my hair captured it all.

Before I grew to know insecurity so well, I used to think my hair was beautiful. It was beautiful because it was mine and my sisters’ and brothers’. Eventually, beauty standards began to point out cracks in my self-image that I couldn’t accept. It was a problem that always reared its head and cackled at my own despair.

For me, having coiled hair meant feeling ugly all of the time. It meant seeing celebrities and icons idolized and adored for their beauty that never matched mine. It meant seeing commercials and somehow knowing the message was that beautiful hair is straight, not curly. And on the rare occasion where a Black girl is present, her hair is straightened or very, very loose. Consequently, it meant playing with Black Barbies who all have straight hair and somehow knowing without that, I could never be beautiful. It meant asking my mom to straighten my hair, so I could look pretty, and crying when it rained because I knew my hair would revert to its natural state. It meant seeing the first Black Disney princess and knowing that her ambiguous hair texture teetered a line I would never be able to cross. For me, having Black hair meant I always felt less than, that I always came up short, that I always felt trapped in my own hair. 

But for all the internal problems I had to deal with, there were always a thousand more external societal issues. Even if I could escape my own inner thoughts about my hair being beautiful, I could never outrun the outer voices that told me my hair wasn’t suited as it was. Being told by adults, program leaders and even teachers that your hair is unprofessional will stick with you. It will make you hyper-aware of what your hair looks like and how it’s “supposed to be.” Nothing prepares Black girls and boys for the rules and regulations of wearing your hair as it comes out of your head — or the restrictions on styles designed to protect it for the sake of adhering to dress codes in work, schools and competitions. There is no guide to navigating a world that thinks your natural state is ugly and unprofessional. 

For years I was stuck there. I was trapped in a dangerous cycle that led me to hate myself. At some point, straightened hair became my norm, and curled hair became a rarity. The one time I tried to wear my hair in its natural, curly state, I was backhandedly complimented for my “self-expression,” but was ultimately chastised for my seemingly unkempt appearance. I was crushed and decided to keep my hair straightened.

My perception of my hair changed during the pandemic. Isolation allowed me to reflect on my identity and understand who I was. It was during this period I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I would never fit the beauty standards I wanted so desperately to match. No matter how much I changed my hair, it would always grow back the way it was meant to be. I had straightened my hair so much that eventually, enough heat damage meant my curls were almost gone. That alone was a wake-up call. A line had been crossed, and it was time to try to love myself again. 

Trying to love my hair took work, and it still does. I’ve been completely natural for almost two years now, and although it might be silly, it’s my greatest accomplishment. When I was younger, I never could have foreseen a future where I wore my natural hair every day. For so long, my hair was the source of all my sadness and became the recipient of all my hate. I never could have imagined a future where my hair was a source of joy. And being natural is still not easy. Embracing my Black hair has meant staying up late combing and styling, taking down old hairstyles and restyling again while my tears soaked my shirt and my face started to sting. It has meant crying in frustration when I look in the mirror and can’t seem to accept what I see. It has meant years of damage that can’t be undone. It has given me scars that have yet to heal and a pain that never faded. There are days, weeks and months where feeling beautiful seems impossible. There are times when I wish I could have anyone else’s hair. There are moments where I am utterly lost.

It is an unspoken truth, a silent affair, to be a Black woman who is learning to love her hair, and by extension herself. It’s been a long and tiring journey that I have yet to find the end of. Nevertheless, I breathe for the day when my hair brings me peace and holds nothing but love inside of it.

MiC Columnist Karis Rivers can be reached at kvrivers@umich.edu.