Michigan in Color: An open letter to my mother about why my natural hair is beautiful
I will be completely honest in saying that this is one of the hardest things I’ve had to write — mainly because I know that, as my mother, you are my biggest supporter and encourager. I can always count on you to be my number one fan — except when it comes to my natural curls. From the age of 10, I can remember only negative comments from you when I tried to wear my hair in its natural state — without any chemicals, heat or manipulation.
I admire your simplicity when it comes to beauty, which is why I wonder why there seems to be so much distaste toward my natural hair. But as I’ve grown to recognize that the negativity surrounding Black women and natural hair has to do with race and many underlying historical reasons, I have gained a better understanding of the inherent racism that drives us as Black women to desire the universal standard of beauty — which is that of the European aesthetic. I wonder, though, if you understand that? I wonder if you understand the underlying teachings of self-hate toward our own race that have been inflicted on both you and me growing up. Because this is what America teaches us — that we must conform to the ideal image of the white race or else we are not considered “beautiful.”
I remember when I came to college, and I saw so many beautiful Black women embracing their “Blackness” by participating in student organizations celebrating Black women, activism in the Black Lives Matter Movement and more. As I saw others celebrating their Blackness, I began to think about my identity as a Black woman in a different, more positive and visible light. I began to notice a growing group of “naturalistas” that were on campus. Naturalistas, curly heads, curlies — whatever you want to call it — have become the names for women, specifically women of color, who embrace their natural hair pattern. For me, it was my curls. For others it may be waves or kinks. For others, it might mean protecting their natural hair in styles like box braids, Senegalese twists, locs, crochet braids and much more. There was this drive among many to recreate the conceptions of beauty, especially when it came to hair. Embracing these nonstandard forms of beauty has become a way of making a statement.
Take Angela Davis, for example. Davis, a woman strongly associated with the Black power movement in the 1960s, is as famous for her activism as she is for her afro. Often times, she is even referred to as “The Afro.” This image of her natural hair became a historical symbol that served as both a negative and positive representation throughout the decades. As a radical Black revolutionary, she was portrayed as a communist and anti-white, and her afro became a negative representation. She was sought out by the FBI because of her membership with the Communist Party, and soon the stigma of criminalization became strongly associated with Black women who — like Angela Davis — wore their hair “natural.” Black women began to be harassed, arrested by the police and discriminated against simply because of the way they wore their hair. These women became targeted, their hair seen as an object of suppression, rather than being a positive, unique and celebrated part of them. Women began to feel self-conscious toward their hair, causing increasing feelings of self-hate because of the negative stigmas surrounding race and ethnic features. Women began to revert back to the belief that, the closer they were to looking “white,” the better.
Though this was back in the ‘60s, this self-hate has manifested itself throughout generations and is still inherent in many Black women today. It’s Black women’s use of makeup to make themselves appear of a lighter skin tone. It’s little girls asking their mothers to put bleach in their bath water. It’s the assumption that any Black woman who is considered beautiful cannot possibly be fully Black, that there must be some trace of another race that contributes to her beauty. It’s me thinking that I am only presentable when my hair is straight. It’s you telling me that when I go into work for you that I can’t “wear my hair how it is,” insinuating that my curly fro isn’t professional. All of these instances are sending the message that Black women are only beautiful when they conform to the standard image of the white woman.
But this natural hair movement is about way more than race. It is a stand to challenge the limits of beauty. It’s promoting self-love. It’s about celebrating health — healthy body, healthy hair and in return, healthy mind. When I wear my natural curls, I feel free in a way that challenges me to redefine beauty. It took me about two to three years to fully feel confident in wearing my curly fro, as I had to train myself in seeing the beauty in my natural curls. Even now, I still have my moments of feeling self-conscious that my hair is too big or draws too much attention to my Blackness. It’s a constant battle between my own perceptions and what I see in society.
I often think about how I will teach my daughter this broadened definition of beauty. For me, encouraging her to have confidence in her natural beauty is the first step. For a young girl, being able to be comfortable in her raw beauty without comparing herself to societal standards is essential for her growth into a confident woman. And I’m not saying that you did not teach me these things. I appreciate the lessons you taught me throughout my childhood. You taught me humility, discipline, obedience, independence and so much more. But one thing I hoped we could have learned together is self-love. And by self-love, I don’t necessarily mean us as individuals, but us as Black women. I am so grateful that this natural hair journey allowed me to not only grow in loving myself, but to love the diverse array of beauty that I see in Black women. It’s allowed me to become part of this growing community of “naturalistas” who all celebrate and uplift each other. Being able to embrace myself, while celebrating the beauty of other women who look like me, creates such a liberating feeling.
I think this is why I’m writing this letter to you, as well as making it public. It’s not to embarrass you, or expose you for anything. But I wanted to address this problem many of us have of not thinking critically and questioning what have we been fed. What’s really so wrong about wearing an afro or cornrows in the workplace? What makes it unprofessional? I’d challenge you to give me a logical answer to these questions. I bet not many can. I’m confident in this statement because it’s clear that many of us fail to look beyond what society “says” and decide for ourselves what is acceptable, or beautiful. By not doing this, we are tricked into believing that our brown skin isn’t beautiful, or that our wild, kinky curls are unacceptable.
I want to feel truth in waking up every morning in seeing my beauty — whether my hair be straight or curly, whether I put on makeup or I don’t. I want every little girl, and especially every little brown girl, to look in the mirror and see the beauty in the physical features that make her unique. It’s time to encourage each other and challenge each other to see beauty in all different colors, shapes and sizes.