Dear Black Girls: You don’t have to explain your hair to the world
May 30, 2016 at 1:30 am
I’ll never forget my first negative hair experience in the professional world. I was a newly minted college graduate who’d secured a paid internship position creating web content for a highly successful non-profit. As part of the internship program I was required to give occasional presentations exhibiting my work-to-date and all that I was learning, to the bigwigs of the company. It was a great experience overall and I was enjoying the freedom of just working. I’d previously grown my relaxer out during the last two years of college and as a full time student with a full time job, there was no time to be concerned with styling my hair. I regularly thanked baby Jesus for the invention of sew-ins and silk presses. Now that I had a standard 9-5 gig and no homework to attend to in the evenings, I figured it was the perfect time to experiment with more natural looks. I had the space to finally try all the products I’d seen raved about throughout my Instagram feed or see just what my hair did when I unraveled a head full of bantu knots. As many newbie naturals can attest to, those early days of wearing your hair natural can be uncomfortable and awkward. And they were. My hair was big, incredibly thick, kinky and hard to manage. It took hours to wash and style. But I was determined to learn how to properly care for it and to be confident wearing it.
In the weeks leading up to the big day, myself and nine other interns were required to give practice presentations to each other and our internship coordinator for feedback. This was also just week two of my embracing natural styles. I’d opted for a twist-out that day. As I got up to speak I noticed a concerned look on The Coordinator’s face. Having already been extremely nervous about my first post-grad professional presentation, I panicked a bit and wondered, Ok, what’s up with her face? I pushed the thought aside, smiled widely, got through my allotted 5 minutes and received more praise than critique. Yet I still walked away feeling uneasy about that look. Maybe I’m just overthinking it? Maybe my hair looks wild? Was I already off to a bad start with this natural thing? I sprinted to the bathroom and much to my surprise, my hair looked no different than it did when I left for work that morning. In fact, I was delighted to see how good my it looked. Sure, it was big but it wasn’t unruly and hell, this was my natural volume, anyway. Had I never relaxed my hair, these kinks and curls would have been the norm throughout my adolescence. Looking in the mirror that day, the experience compelled me to question why I ever thought it was necessary to alter what was already beautiful? This was all me, and though still feeling a bit uncomfortable at the freshness of seeing myself this way, I felt liberated.
But as the weeks progressed, the coordinator’s frowny, twisted expression persisted during our mock presentations and my confidence began to wane. This was my first post-college professional presentation, to company leadership no-less, and I wanted the focus to be on my content, not my hair. I didn’t want to change anything about myself for the sake of someone else’s comfort but I still wasn’t willing to risk having my work be overshadowed by anyone’s possible prejudices either. So to avoid getting that look from a room full of executives, I asked my stylist to break out the flat iron at our next appointment:
“Why? I thought you were going natural for a while?”
I was. I gave her the full backstory. She thought it was ridiculous, that I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable and that the idea of straight hair being synonymous with professionalism was bull shit. I agreed wholeheartedly and yet remained firm in my decision. Better to be safe than sorry, right?
The next morning I arrived to the office early and meticulously ran through my talking points. Ten minutes to showtime and the coordinator approached me. Her expression was noticeably pleasant and light. And without her eyes ever leaving my face she plainly said, “nice outfit,” gently patted my shoulder and walked away.
Wayment. Did that just happen? Did she just…? Hello?!
I promptly put my attitude (and astonishment) aside, plastered a smile on my face and proceeded to rock my presentation. My work was well-receive, but internally, the sting of the coordinator’s faux compliment resounded loudly. It was what she didn’t say that gnawed at me. And maybe she hadn’t meant to be offensive. Maybe she just didn’t know how to react to my hair. But that morning, her face and her snide remark presented one very clear reaction to my now-straight mane — relief. And though my work that day was a success, I left work feeling deflated and like more had been lost than gained in my attempt to maintain a professional appearance.
That was few years ago. I’ve since moved on (and up) from that internship a few times over and rarely think of that day. But I did retain one key lesson: You should never feel like you need to question or change your appearance because it makes someone else uncomfortable. Whether that pertains to one person or a room full of higher-ups.
It’s a lesson I’ve had to remember often as I’ve gotten older. Throughout these past few years I’ve worn my hair in a myriad of styles. In fact, shortly after I completed that internship I went right back to twist-outs, bantu-knots and afro-puffs. I also went back to 16” bundles, Dominican blow-outs and curly hair sew-ins. And with every change, the public response from non-black women has been constant. Compliments, stares, and an abundance of questions:
“How did you get your hair to do that?”
“Is it hard to manage?”
“Do you just wake up with it like that?”
I’ve been put on the spot at work from people I barely know. I’ve gotten unapproving comments from family members. I’ve seen and heard hateful comments about black women’s choice to wear weave or conversely that natural hair is distasteful. I’ve heard men openly state they’d prefer our hair (insert any style here, really) and find xyz style more attractive. I’ve seen people argue across social media that women who still relax their hair as somehow lacking self-love. Girl whet?
Dear world: Stop interrogating, policing, and offering your unsolicited assessments on our hair.
Sure, you can be curious, but please know when and where and if it’s appropriate to have certain conversations.
Personal appearance is simply based on one’s personal preference. And that preference is not accompanied by a public call for discussion, it’s not open for interview, up for debate, anddefinitely not a welcome mat for critique from society at large. And this analysis certainly isn’t applicable to everyone. I’ve gotten a plethora of compliments both in and outside of professional environments from people who know when to leave it as just that, a brief discussion or compliment and keep it moving. Because, boundaries.
Now as I enter my late-twenties there is seldom a day where I’m insecure about my hair, natural or not. I’m comfortable with my hair whether it’s braided underneath a full sew-in, straight as a bone, or free and two-strand twisted to the gods.
So to every woman of color reading this who can relate to being made to feel uneasy about your crown of glory, let me be the billionth woman to remind you: there is nothing wrong with your hair. However you choose to wear it and through whichever style makes you happy. Now matter how big, kinky, curly or lack thereof. Hell, you can walk into work tomorrow with a shaved head — Erykah Badu style or a Beyoncé-inspired honey blonde color change. You can do whatever the hell you want so long as it makes you feel beautiful. Black women are delightfully varied in the divergence of our beauty. We should be able to revel in that without worrying about being judged, questioned or stared down. And we should never feel obligated to explain ourselves, change or defend our choices in this way.
Though, if you want to, have at it. Educate. If an instance occurs where your hair comes into question and you feel so inclined, go ahead and enlighten an inquiring mind. There’s no shame in that either. Just don’t feel obligated to do it. As one of my favorite YouTube vloggers regularly says, “Do you boo.” Let em’ know you love your hair too, maybe even give a run through of your wash-day, styling process, favorite hair inspirations and those must-have, go-to staple products.
Or, you know, don’t.