I used to hate myself.
There are particular parts of ourselves that we feel disdain toward. The way your forehead creases when you smile, the stubborn blackheads you can’t remove or the tiny bumps on the ridges of your teeth. We all have these dislikes, and we all have things we so desperately want to change. For me, I felt inner rage toward one thing:
Yes, my hair was the reason I hated myself. When I was eleven years old, I looked in the mirror, and the nappy mess grew larger and uglier before my eyes. The tears that threatened to flood my eyes were met with an anger and infuriation that rose from the depths of my being. I tried to pin my kinky hair with clips so it could at least have the appearance of being longer than its shrunken-up state. I devised a concoction of thick hair butter, Eco Style gel and Cantu leave-in conditioner so my hair would fit the standards of being loosely curled. Yet, without fail, it would bunch right back up in its undefined, frizzy, kinky, coily state. I loathed myself for being simply myself.
To be honest, I never really thought of my hair when I was younger. As a rambunctious 4-year-old, the state of my hair was the least of my troubles. I was more concerned with having my daily dose of chocolate milk and weekly fix of PBS’s “Word Girl.”
Yet, it was special days known as “wash-days” on which I noticed how painful and exhaustive the process of doing my hair could be.
“Chinwe, it’s time to do your hair!” my mother yelled, muffled by the sound of water running from the sink in large, steaming billows.
I winced, already preparing myself for what was to come as I shuffled my way to the bathroom. My mother scrubbed the heavily viscous shampoo that smelled of mint, scratching her fingernails deeply in my scalp as the soap cascaded down my hair and into my eyes, temporarily blinding me. After, I sat between her legs as she tore the comb through my wet, thick hair, black clumps falling to the ground like snow. I heard the rips, tugs and snaps as my hair fell, my eyes beginning to gloss.
“Please stop!” I wailed, salty tears streaming down the corners of my eyes and snot dribbling down my face.
We moved to the living room to finish the exhaustive process. There I sat, criss-crossed on the carpet floor with the hum of PBS Kids harmonizing with my heavy sniffles. As my mom twisted my hair and clipped little butterfly barrettes at the end, I began to experience the feelings of resentment that came along with my hair. The uncomfortableness of wash days morphed from me hating the mere situation to me hating the cause of that situation — my identity.
When I started first grade, I became distinctly aware that I was “different”.
Part of this difference manifested itself not only through my skin color but also through my hair, something the other first graders made sure that I knew. As I walked in with two puffs on either side of my head, my predominantly white peers were amazed at the fact that my strands seemed to defy gravity.
“Your hair is so soft!” a peer would say, coming up from behind me to pat it gently with their two hands. Others would stick their fingers and pull on my strands, mouth agape in wonder when it would spring back to its perky glory.
And while others would prance around my head and insert their fingers into my mane, I began to envy my straight-haired classmates. After coming home, I would put a long black shirt over my head, imagining myself in an ideal world — a world where I had long straight hair, a world where I could move my hair freely like the girls who stuck their heads out car windows, a world where I could possibly love my curls.
During her visit for the holidays when I was 12, my nana revealed she had recently discovered the world of natural haircare and as a result, had her hair in beautiful twists. I was consumed by this new idea, spending my time reading and watching videos of Black individuals with afros, twists, locs and braids that had the same hair texture as mine. One day during the break, she gently combed my hair from ends to roots, lightly spritzing it with water.
My hair seemed to be given new life; it was healthier, shinier and had movement. And as I continued to see others embracing their hair, wearing it freely without hesitation, I began to do the same. The day after my nana twisted my hair, I took the twists out, raking my hands gently through my curls to create a fro. Instead of resentment, I found a sense of peace, of love and tranquility in doing my hair. I had finally grown to no longer hating myself. In fact, I began to love who I was, from head to toe.
The journey of self-love is never a consistent or finite one. The feeling that I had after my nana did my hair definitely did not continue for the rest of middle school and beyond. The social stigma surrounding Black hair and the topic of desirability, especially for dark skin women, still deeply affects me.
This is especially true within the workplace and educational systems. Coily hair and locs are still viewed as ‘unkempt’ and ‘unprofessional’ by many employers, which not only harms the individual, but also disregards the deep history of Black hair. A study done by DOVE reported that 80% of Black women are likely to change their hair to another style to comply with social and academic pressures. Another study done by the Perception Institute reported that Black women experience high levels of anxiety when it comes to dealing with their hair.
From the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s to the enslavement of Black individuals, our hair was a way to curate a sense of freedom during times when we were denied it. Black activists wore large afros to signify their march against inequality and enslaved people braided cornrows to act like maps so they could find their way to freedom.
The societal struggle with appearance is further complicated by the fact that hair encompasses identity, expression and creativity. Within the Black community, hair can be one of the biggest ways we express ourselves, express our culture and connect with our roots. Barring us from wearing the hair on our heads is repulsive. To tell us to straighten our hair to be presentable, in order for us to move from assistants to executives, in order for us to be treated with genuine dignity, can never and will never be right.
Hence, in March 2022, the House passed the CROWN Act, which prohibits race-based hair discrimination in both professional and educational opportunities. Sponsored and drafted by California senator Holly Mitchell, a woman of Color, this act is one step forward in helping to disband the prejudices assigned to POCs and African Americans. It is meant for that Black girl with the large afro who dreams of becoming a doctor and the boy with the long locs who wants to become a chef. It is meant for the Black mother with cornrows who works double shifts at the hospital. It is meant for me: a Black 18-year-old who has struggled with her identity and love of her hair since she was young.
Even during times when I was not in pain doing my hair back when I was a 4-year-old, I would still cry, because I thought I had to live in this reality forever. For years, I thought that the frustrations that my hair had tortured me with were some type of curse.
However, now I know this was entirely false — the prior hatred of my hair has led me to dive deeper into the stem of that hate. Was it really my hair that I hated? Or was it the fact that I felt abnormal and isolated in my predominantly white spaces? I have come to realize that the latter is the case and that the hatred of my outer appearance stemmed from an inner conflict of self-worth and validation. No, my hair wasn’t a curse but rather a gift; it has shown me that to love yourself, you must first fully accept who you are.
Deciding to Free the Frizz
Over two years ago, I decided to twist my hair up and start my loc journey. Maybe it was the quarantine boredom, but more so it was the desire to have a low-maintenance hairstyle that was also something I could achieve naturally.
The first few months are often referred to as the ‘ugly stage’ due to the abundance of frizz and matting that happens. During that stage, I wore a variety of headscarves and wraps to cover up the ‘madness’ that was on top of my head. However, during the summertime, my head began to sweat with the culmination of the heavy fabric and my thick hair.
Unable to take any more perspiration, I decided to ditch the scarf and wear my hair out. A little bit above my ears, my locs stuck out in every direction, frizzy and short.
Yet, in all that it was, I had grown to appreciate it, during both the good and bad hair days.
For the frizz was truly — and authentically — myself. And for that, I learned to love it.
Statement Columnist Chinwe Onwere can be reached at email@example.com.