Nefertari Bilal

When I think about my experience as a woman with natural hair, it’s unbelievable how accepting people are now of my kinky locks.  When I walk the streets and often people look at my dreadlocked, frizzy, ‘nappy’ hair, and say:

‘I think your hair is cool.’

‘You look beautiful.’

‘Love the dreads.’

‘Where did you get them done? I’m trying to grow my own.’

‘Are you Jamaican?’

Besides the last comment, which makes me shake my head (so stereotypical, but I digress) I can’t help but feel happy and in disbelief.  Now, my hair is cool, not dirty.  It’s beautiful, not something to be ashamed of, to tame.  There was a time when my hair won me not praise, but only ridicule.  Throughout my life I would be pressured, mocked, and even scorned for not having permed and straightened hair.

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My hair has always garnered curiosity.  When I was in the second grade, a boy would pull my braids when I wasn’t looking.  People would ask to touch it, many of them of other races, who perhaps were curious about what afro textured hair felt like.  Some didn’t even ask for permission, deciding to touch it at will.  One teacher patted me on the head; a gesture I felt was a bit patronizing.  This urge to touch my hair I felt was at worst an obvious lack of regard for my personal boundaries and at best exoticization of it.  However, to my surprise, no one treated me more harshly for my natural hair than some of my black female classmates at a middle school in Harlem.

Every day they sneered at my hair, saying, ‘You need to comb those n**** naps out!’  Their hair was permed, and short.  I had afro puffs, braids untouched by relaxer, an unacceptable offense.  But, when I straightened my hair, they smiled.  It was long and straight.  It took hours of the hot iron emitting blistering heat that sizzled against my naked flesh to make it so.  Pretty.  Good.  ‘You should straighten it more, you look so pretty,’ they told me, as if I were somehow ugly when my hair was nappy.

I look back on it, the way I was tormented for my hair by fellow black girls, and I realize they had internalized racism, one that has been taught for generations.  Women have always had to maintain a certain standard of beauty.  However, we live in a society that tends to praise white women as the epitome of femininity.  This teaches girls of color whose hair isn’t straight, whose skin isn’t as pale, they're not good enough.  

So, many do whatever they can to hide this reminder.  They use harsh chemicals and irons to straighten hair, compromising its strength and vitality over time.  They wear scarves to hide it.  Now, one may argue perhaps it’s just a bad hair day, but I must ask: why does having natural hair have to be a bad hair day?  Surely if it's washed or otherwise taken care of, it could be as beautiful as any other hair style?  

But, historically that hasn’t been the case.  Since slavery, black women were required to cover their hair.  It was seen as distasteful and wild.  This attitude, the revulsion towards natural hair, has been passed down for generations.  People have absorbed the hateful ideas about their own natural hair since childhood.  

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To ignore the historically negative attitudes towards natural hair and their impact on the self confidence of many women of color only allows such thoughts to stay entrenched in our society.

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In a poem by Patricia Smith, she writes about how her mother forcibly permed her hair, hating that her hair wasn't straight and causing her daughter much pain in trying to reach this ideal.  For decades, parents have consciously and unconsciously passed this shame to their children, victimizing people for years to come.

I write this not to tell people what to do with their hair, but to call upon them to reflect more deeply on why they see straight hair as more beautiful than kinky hair.  To ignore the historically negative attitudes towards natural hair and their impact on the self confidence of many women of color only allows such thoughts to stay entrenched in our society.  We have to deprogram ourselves from ideas that served only to dehumanize and demean us or otherwise we will only turn against each other for not reaching a Eurocentric standard of beauty.  Instead, why not be proud of or accept our natural hair?  Perhaps, then more people would learn how to respect and love women who choose to maintain it.

 

Nefertari Bilal is a Sophomore at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a minor in Creative Writing.  She is in New York City as an editorial intern for Bsmart Guide. To see her other writing, please go to https://voicesofcolorblog.wordpress.com/.

 

Comments (3)

  1. Joy Kozu

This is a really great article, Nefertari!! So many of my family members have struggled with the same situation, and I could hear their thoughts and their words unspoken through your article. I found this extremely thought-provoking, and I hope...

This is a really great article, Nefertari!! So many of my family members have struggled with the same situation, and I could hear their thoughts and their words unspoken through your article. I found this extremely thought-provoking, and I hope many people continue to read this and become more accepting of natural hair!

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  1. Meagan Hooper    Joy Kozu

I agree! I really found it insightful. Keep writing Nefertari Bilal!

 
  1. Meagan Hooper

This is a fascinating post Nefertari! I always felt shame because my hair was TOO thin and straight. I was always perming it and putting mousse in to give it body. Even now, I would never wear my hair naturally and have been looking at new...

This is a fascinating post Nefertari! I always felt shame because my hair was TOO thin and straight. I was always perming it and putting mousse in to give it body. Even now, I would never wear my hair naturally and have been looking at new curling irons to give even more body along with my current mousse / hairspray routine.

So fascinating that we never feel like we're enough as we are (or at least that's how I feel.) Thank you for sharing! I agree, we definitely should reconsider how we define beautiful.

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