Let Your Hair Down


natural hairWhy natural hair is my feminist statement.

By Javacia Harris Bowser

 

Earlier this summer, news anchor Tamron Hall, who is the first African-American female cohost of NBC’s Today show, sported her hair in its naturally curly state on television for the first time. Twitter exploded in celebration and support. 

Some virtual onlookers may have been wondering why this was such a big deal, especially since black women have been choosing for years to forgo chemicals and even heat to straighten their hair and proudly rocking their kinks and curls. But in a piece for TheRoot.com, Erin C.J. Robertson reminds readers that “in America, black hair has been and remains highly political. It has been used as a yardstick, for blacks and whites alike, to measure beauty, respectability, and worth.”

Many corporations and even some governmental agencies have grooming policies for their employees that prohibit natural-hair styles typically worn by black women, such as cornrows, braids, two-strand twists, and dreadlocks. Robertson’s hope, and mine as well, is that by having a beloved television personality sport natural hair we are one step closer to the African-American brand of beauty being considered normal and acceptable.

For me, however, my decision to wear my hair in its naturally curly state was more about self-acceptance than anything else. And this is why I often say that natural hair is my feminist fashion statement. Sure, feminism is about equality, but I think it’s about empowerment, too. For women, self-love is a revolutionary act. Many of us are told by everyone, from the media to our own mothers, that we are projects to be improved. Our faces, our bodies, and our hair all need to be fixed. But I decided that the coils sprouting from my scalp were fine just the way they were. And I decided I’m just fine the way I am, too. Once I embraced my curls, I also embraced my quirks.

I grew up in a family that believed pretty hair is straight hair and I agreed. So I not only occasionally applied a chemical relaxer to my tresses but also wrestled with it for hours on a regular basis to straighten it with as much heat as my scalp could stand. In 2002, when I was living in Louisville, Kentucky, for a summer internship, one of my roommates looked at me curiously as she watched me struggle to heat my hair into submission. Then she said, “Maybe your hair doesn’t want to be straight. Why don’t you just wear it curly?”

I was 21 at the time and, believe it or not, no one had ever suggested to me that wearing my hair curly was OK. I felt like exposing my curls was like exposing myself—like going outside in my underwear. In fact, the only time you would see me wearing my hair curly in public was at the beach, where it’s also OK to wear nothing but what is the equivalent of underwear! But her words changed everything. Not only did I decide to no longer use chemical relaxers but, for a while, I stopped applying heat to my hair as well. And once I accepted my hair as is, I accepted myself as is, too.

My hairstyle choices are also about self-awareness. I don’t believe that “feminist fashionista” is an oxymoron, but I do think we women should be thoughtful about the fashion and beauty choices that we make. It was natural hair that taught me this.

As I mentioned, after I decided to stop getting my hair chemically relaxed, I refused to use heat to straighten my hair, too. In fact, I didn’t apply any heat to my hair for three years. I wouldn’t even use a blow dryer. I suppose you could say I, and my hair, needed time to heal from all those years I used heat to straighten my hair because I thought it was the only way to be beautiful.

Nowadays, I will have my hair straightened about once a year by my favorite stylist. She doesn’t use any chemicals, just a really good flat iron. And the new look is only temporary with my oh-so-stubborn curls making waves again in about seven days. But now when I straighten my hair, it’s simply because I’m in the mood for something different, not because I feel the need to win the approval of people who have an issue with my kinky coils.

Natural hair, I believe, made me a better feminist because it taught me not to prioritize pretty. Sure, I’m a girl who likes to look good. I primp and pose in the mirror before going out. I plan my outfits for big events at least a week in advance. But I won’t be the girl who skips a trip to the water park or forgoes workout sessions because I’m afraid the water, humidity, and sweat will ruin my hair. Natural hair gives me the freedom to be more carefree. Natural hair reminds me to not my live my life constantly worrying about the cuteness of my coif. How I feel on the inside is much more important than how I look on the outside. How good I look is irrelevant if I’m not having a good time.

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