I grew up wearing braids. I can remember running through sprinklers in Nashville, Tennessee, with two big plaits in my hair. In the fourth grade, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were all the rave, and my sister and I got jerry curls trying to emulate what was in. The curl juice stained our pillowcases and the chemical took out our hair. My mom quickly put my sister and I back in braids.
Occasionally, my mom would press our hair to straighten it. The “kitchen,” or what we called “the baby hairs” near the neck, would give me goose bumps when she tried to straighten them. The smell of any hot comb still makes me reminisce on sitting in the hot seat getting dolled up. I’d bite my lip hoping that Mommy wouldn’t burn my neck and leave a nasty scar. The image of beauty in my mind at a young age was straight hair that flowed in the wind.
Growing up, my siblings and I moved from one university town to another. Our parents are educators, which allowed us the opportunity to live in different cities throughout the United States. The communities we lived in were fairly diverse, but on many occasions, there were very few black kids in my class. We were the minority.
When I was eight years old, for fun I wrapped bath towels around my head, grabbed a bare paper towel roller, used it as a microphone, and instantly became the “material girl.” I wanted long straight hair like my white and Latino girlfriends. I loved being black, but images of my hair weren’t the norm in the media. I didn’t understand why water would make my hair shrivel up, or why silk pillowcases were a must-have in keeping your hairdo.
As a teenager, I became more comfortable with my African American-textured hair. I was crowned my high school’s homecoming queen wearing braids. Even though I was now proud of my hair and its texture, I still experienced difficulties because I didn’t necessarily feel that I fit in. Looking back, I laugh at the photos because the crown was constructed for straight hair and the combs on the crown rested on top of my head.
In college, I still experimented with my hair and continued to struggle with what was deemed beautiful. My college roommate convinced me to take out my braids, and she gave me my very first relaxer, and washed out the chemical in the dormitory bathtub. It burned like hell, but took out the naps and my hair was instantly straight. My hair was fried, dyed, and laid to the side. I thought I was the hottest ticket in town.
About a year ago, I watched Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair, which really made me question what I was doing to my own hair. Why was I putting guanidine hydroxide on my scalp? I decided to take a break from relaxing my hair and go back to my natural roots.
Sesame Street’s video, “I Love My Hair” is the perfect message to send young girls of color. It’s a message that is driven from the White House to one’s own house. The images of the Obama girls wearing cornrows to Sesame Street’s characters wearing afros will only help girls’ self-esteem and feeling of inclusiveness.
The same message of self-love is heard in Willow Smith’s song, “Whip My Hair.” In the song, she emphasizes the importance of loving oneself. Her image and lyrics exude a fine example of what it means to be proud of who you are.
I can only hope that this message is carried out and more young girls take pride in their nappy hair. In loving my own hair, I’ve grown to love that there are so many wonderful and unique ways to style my hair. Whether I press my hair, or wear twists, weave, or braids. What I questioned as beautiful growing up is no longer an issue. Hopefully, this positive message will spread around the globe so young black and brown girls will see the true beauty of their hair.
Published in Elephant Journal.