The Other Side Of Hair Privilege: Dark Skin With “Good Hair”?
What it means to reclaim the space on my head, and the color of my skin.
There were subtle signs throughout my girlhood that taught me just how important my hair was. And sometimes, it felt more important than the other parts of me. That time when I was six years old and decided to cut off a pigtail. It felt good, so I kept clipping. Afterward, I received a spanking that was memory worthy according to my sister. The time a couple made a bet in the mall over whether or not my hair was real or being asked—sometimes not—to touch it. Or the times I was told my hair was "pretty and curly" instead of, " Nia you're pretty." Or the time I won best hair as a superlative in high school because I was the girl that would wake up two hours early just to curl and flatten it.
My hair was my prize. It made me exotic in some instances and a point of fascination for my peers. From experience, people's surprise was how could this girl—a dark skinned girl—grow 3a/3b hair? As you can imagine, I got many questions, including the "what are you mixed with" or "where are you from?" Of course, the answer to any of those questions about my lineage were, "I'm black, mixed with black," but that didn't seem like enough to satisfy the mystery.
And this went past feeling like I needed to consult other black women before any major hair changes (friends, family members, etc.) or bear the burden of answering the questions that felt like an attack on my blackness or be considered "ungrateful." Because my hair was "manageable" and the hair that they dedicated products to, I had nothing to "complain" about because my hair wasn't really "black." I had that privilege, and any positive reinforcement or compliment about the way I looked started with my hair. But none of those women in the commercials looked quite like me. They were lighter, with looser curls. So naturally, as a teen struggling to carve out who I was, I attached a lot of that self-worth to my hair. That was the part people really liked about me, and it helped me like it, and myself, too.
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But it was hard to get away from. Before I knew what fetishizing actually meant, " good hair" was a compliment. Male partners would comment about how unique my look was or how they just loved curly hair. After a while, I felt invisible under it. No one could see me under all of this hair. Everything positive I felt about myself, or good, was about the hair on my head, so the "you're pretty for a dark-skinned girl" registered as "your hair is pretty for a dark-skinned girl."
That privilege made me feel isolated during conversations about hair and beauty. It meant I couldn't relate to other women friends and relatives with courser textures because I had that "good hair" that was "easy" to manage. And I understood! Research has certainly shown that there is a hair bias against black women, and a woman with a fro often experienced it most often. The assumption about manageability, rooted in the racial politics of black women's hair meant anything close enough to "whiteness" meant that you have it "easy." But it was also having the privilege of my "good hair," that seemed to make up for my darker complexion—and I internalized the guilt about the extra attention, even if It felt wrong. I was attractive in some circles, not pretty enough in others, and other times, a big question mark. And I did many of the self-hating things to make myself "prettier": staying away from the sun, fighting to remain a certain size and flattening my hair to the point where heat damage was a bit of an understatement. I was trying to force my body and skin to catch up to my hair—the one thing that made me feel accepted, beautiful.
And this is also why I struggled with the idea of pretty privilege early on. There was a reason none of the girls with my texture were as dark as me. Darker skin women still aren't considered palatable or acceptable in media and advertisements. So when you see pieces of yourself represented in ways that were negative/nonexistent and affirming all in the same breath, it's confusing as hell as a young black girl.
I was grateful that the natural hair movement could empower black women to wear their hair as they wanted, but the whirlwind of colorism and hair privilege also impacted the way I felt about my texture. If it didn't look a certain way—frizz-free and mostly flat or coiffed—I grew frustrated. My hair felt separate, a personality all her own that I had to police and gel into submission to maintain the right image of natural beauty.
And I'm still standing, after years of combs, self-esteem and elastic bands broken, trying to start a new relationship with my hair on my terms. The truth is, this hair on my head, that people fetishized and praised, never really felt like mine. And reclaiming that space even on my own head, as many black women know, takes time and is so much more than skin deep.