Are you ready to be your authentic self?

Hair-itage – Unravelling my roots

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Growing up, the message that was inadvertently ingrained in me was that my hair in its most natural state was unkempt and unpresentable. The dolls I played with reinforced this narrative, all adorned with long, straight, flowing locks that made me wish for a hair texture different from my own. My hair was thick, bushy, untameable, and difficult to comb through. I dreaded anyone touching my head. I’d be sad and depressed whenever it was time to have my hair done. Some days depending on how painful it was, I would cry. The worst was when I knew I had a special event to attend because there was no escaping the hot comb! At 13, my mother decided to save us both the misery and I was introduced to the concept of “good hair” through kiddie perms and relaxers, chemical treatments that, over time, inflicted lasting damage on both my hair and scalp, a struggle that persists to this day.

As I grew up and became more responsible for myself, I took a lot for granted and didn’t invest as much in caring for my natural hair as I should have. I don’t even think that I realised that I needed to. It was so much easier to wear braids with extensions or a weave. As time went on, I became more interested in getting long hair extensions regardless of what the method was. As a student, the cheapest option was a glued-in self-installed quick weave. The pressure to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards was palpable, as societal norms often dictate that straightened or Eurocentric-styled hair is more professional or acceptable. This unspoken expectation places an invisible burden on black women, making us question whether our natural beauty is valid in spaces where we may already feel like outsiders.

By the time I was old enough to fully appreciate and embrace my natural beauty, hair and all, the damage had already been done. The decision to embrace my natural hair more and to stop using chemical relaxers has not been a straightforward one; many moments of self-doubt often lead me right back to the wigs, weaves, and headwraps instead of just letting my hair breathe. As a mother, I am acutely aware of the influence I wield in shaping my daughter’s perceptions of beauty and self-worth. Representation matters, and I have made intentional choices to ensure she sees herself reflected positively in her environment. Dolls that mirror her appearance, books with characters that share her features—these deliberate decisions are my way of fostering a sense of pride in her identity.

Yet, while preaching this self-love gospel to her, I often find myself grappling with my own internal conflicts. The weaves and wigs I wear can sometimes make me feel like a hypocrite, a contradiction to the values I strive to instill in my child. Though I am more inclined to go for more natural looks these days, the struggle to align my words with my actions reminds me that this is still a journey that I am navigating, and I haven’t quite arrived at the desired destination yet — a place of complete self-acceptance and authenticity.

I often wonder where code-switching seats in this process. Code-switching, the practice of changing one’s language or behaviour to align with a particular cultural or social context, can be both beneficial and challenging for black and indigenous people of colour. While it can help us build relationships and navigate different spaces, it can also lead to a sense of inauthenticity and a loss of connection with our true selves. Striking a balance between assimilation and authenticity is crucial for maintaining our mental and emotional well-being. However, this balance can be difficult to achieve, especially in professional settings where we may feel pressured to present a carefully curated image that aligns with societal expectations.

The COVID-19 pandemic, with its shift to remote work, highlighted this struggle, as many of us found ourselves balancing the comfort of our headscarves and hair bonnets with the need to maintain a professional appearance during video calls, while many of our white colleagues had the luxury of a more effortless and carefree approach. I remember complimenting a colleague on how nice her hair looked during a virtual call and she replied that she had done nothing special with it that morning except for letting it down. I was so envious! I too want to be able to just shake and go!

The unfair pressure that black women feel today is deeply rooted in a long history of colonisation, slavery, and systemic oppression. For centuries, European beauty has been imposed as the standard, marginalising and devaluing our natural features. From the forced shaving of African hair during the slave trade, to the pervasive discrimination faced by those with textured hair in modern workplaces, Black women have continually been told that their natural hair, skin tone, and other physical features are not good enough. Recently a few schools in the UK have been called out for having “racist hair policies” and excluding black pupils unfairly. This persistent denigration and erasure of black women’s beauty has resulted in a collective trauma and self-doubt that can make it hard for us to embrace our true selves, even in seemingly simple situations like turning on our cameras during virtual meetings.

Conversations about my ever-changing hairstyles have become an awkward dance, explaining why my hair might be long one day and short and kinky the next. The recent incident involving Will Smith and Chris Rock was a moment of mixed emotions for me. While I may not fully comprehend or endorse the physical reaction, the joke aimed at Jada’s alopecia was not new. There is a long history of black male comedians perpetuating harmful stereotypes about black women’s appearances for entertainment purposes. Even before the slap landed, I shook my head and said to myself not again.

Hair should not be political but for many of us, it is. Every kink, curl, and coil carries a legacy of resilience, a testament to the strength and beauty of my ancestors who defied oppression. It served as a reminder of the persistent need to challenge and dismantle such harmful narratives. I continue to seek inspiration from women like Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o—award-winning actresses who have boldly chosen to embrace the beauty of their natural hair in spaces where it might traditionally be deemed less glamorous. Women like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Samira Bawumia have been purposeful in their refusal to conform to European fashion and beauty ideals. These women send out a powerful message about self-acceptance and the importance of celebrating diversity in all its forms. Their courage lights the way for those of us still navigating the complexities of our identity, reminding us that the journey to self-acceptance is ongoing and that we are not alone in our struggles.

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