By: Jasmine White
Photos by: Amy Huang
The relationship between black girls and their hair is complicated, especially for black girls in America, because hair for us is rarely just hair. There’s a reason R&B singer India Arie wrote “I Am Not My Hair.” And there’s a reason that debates like what is “good” hair and what is “bad” hair continue to exist within contemporary black society.
Perhaps it’s due to our country’s long history of racism and prejudice. For years, black women have been racing to find the newest straightening products whether it be hot combs, flat irons, or relaxers as a form of assimilation. Or perhaps it’s in embedded in our blood. In some ancient African cultures, hair could be symbolic of a person’s class, marital status, or job. But whatever may be the cause, within the black community there is a problematic culture of equating self-worth with hair. This may seem like an overstatement, but it’s the honest truth, for I myself have dealt with and still deal with such thoughts.
My hair has been straight for longer than I can remember. By the time I entered kindergarten, I was having my hair pressed on pretty much a weekly basis. Around the first or second grade, I got my hair relaxed and have continued having it relaxed ever since then. The natural kinks and curls that grow out of my scalp in between relaxers are foreign to me. And I find that unsettling.
So why don’t I stop getting relaxers? The answer may sound ridiculous. To be honest I’m scared. I’m scared of my natural hair. What if I don’t like it? Would I even know what to do with it? Like I said before, my natural hair is unfamiliar to me because I’ve had straight hair for the majority of my life. Still, it’s something I think about constantly. I often feel guilty for continuing to straighten my hair and sometimes I wonder if I am a “traitor” to the culture. Perhaps, one day I’ll be brave enough to take that big step of letting go of the chemicals and embracing my natural hair. But I’ll be completely honest and say that right now is not that time.
In the meantime, I find a little bit of consolation whenever I rock one particular style that is uniquely black: braids. Braids, oh how I adore them. If I could wear my hair in braids every day of my life I would be satisfied. They’re beautiful, long lasting and low-maintenance and allow me to bask in all of my #blackgirlmagic.
The process, however, is long, painful and requires a bag of snacks, a comfortable a chair, and a whole lot of patience. My current braids took almost 11 hours to complete – a figure that is probably on the longer side, but not all that rare. The shortest amount of time I’ve ever had my hair done was five hours; however, the process for me usually takes around seven or eight hours.
Now why would anyone in their right mind sit in a chair for hours and hours on end while someone tugs and twists their hair into complex arrangements? Well, that too is complicated. The first reason is admittedly vain but nonetheless valid in my opinion: they look good. Maybe it’s just me but whenever I wear braids I feel like a little African princess. And of that I am unashamed.
Another reason is related to the topic I mentioned before: the complex relationship between black women and their hair. For many of us, hair is symbolic of a lot of things. So when you allow someone to touch your hair or style your hair that means something. Whether it be at the beauty shop or just in your grandmother’s kitchen, there’s a special bond created and a unique experience that happens when black women do other black women’s hair. The same thing can be said about black men in barber shops. I remember going on Saturdays with my dad to have his hair cut. In the barber shop, men who had just met each other talked like old friends— laughing, sharing, even gossiping at times. The sense of community and unity just feels so much more tangible. It’s hard to describe in words, and even harder to understand if you haven’t experienced it for yourself. But it’s one of the aspects of the culture that I enjoy the most.
However, regardless of how I wear my hair, it’s likely that because of the culture I’ve been raised in, the relationship will always be complicated. Braids allow me a happy medium. They allow me to be confident in the way I look without making me feel like I’m comprising values in order to assimilate in our society’s often Eurocentric beauty standards. So not only do I feel good about the way I look, I also get the opportunity to wear a style that celebrates black beauty and black culture.
In all honesty, it’d probably be better and healthier if we as a community didn’t put so much emphasis on our hair. But that’s not reality. And since it isn’t, I’m glad that there’s a style I can rock from time to time that makes me feel just as good inside as I do outside.