I have recently become jealous of young girls. My envy is not rooted in the fact that they have their whole lives ahead of them or that the clothing in their section of department stores is often cuter than that for adult women, although these things have certainly been noted. The real cause of my jealousy is their hair.
Most young black girls’ hair has yet to encounter a relaxer and is flourishing in all of its natural glory. I am jealous of their hair’s length, which makes it easy for them to pull it all into one big afro puff. I covet their long twists and bouncy afros. I am envious of the versatility they have due to years of their mothers simply letting their hair be.
My own hair is only 16 months into returning to its natural state after years of chemical relaxers. It is still short and each day I look into the mirror, I have to stop myself from chanting “grow, grow, grow.” As it slowly complies, I am learning how to care for it, how to style it, and quite honestly, how to love it.
I told my hairdresser that I never imagined myself with an afro. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I just did not expect that to be the final result of transitioning to natural. However, an afro is exactly what I have. Its default is a 1970s style bush and with some twisting, rolling, and other tricks, I can transform it into a curlier version of that. Following this discovery, I am trying to like the shape of my hair, which naturally grows out rather than down. I am trying to embrace a tightly curled texture prone to shrinkage. I am learning, slowly but surely, to love it all.
As my hair and I adjust to its original state, I recognize that some of the young girls whose hair I envy are still learning to love their hair as well. There is a steep learning curve; though, thankfully, they may see many black women around them who are rocking their natural ‘dos, the images they see in popular culture and media are often of straight, flowing hair. And when those images are classified as ideal, it can leave one – young or old – with much to learn when it comes to loving her natural hair.
Loving natural black hair – primarily the kind that is more kinky than curly – is a revolutionary act. While it has certainly become more popular in recent years, it still often carries with it stereotypes (which my writer crush Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does an excellent job of explaining in this video) and simply does not line up with many people’s standard of beauty. Outside of the black girl sister circle (and sometimes within), for most people, including many black men, natural black hair is tolerated more than celebrated. We live in a world that regularly tells women – both in subtle and overt ways – how we should look. To rock black natural hair well, you must develop a certain level of confidence and unwillingness to conform.
That powerful combination was on display over the last few days in South Africa, where black students at the prestigious Pretoria High School for Girls protested policies that forbid them from wearing their hair in natural and traditional black styles that were not considered ‘neat’ or ‘tidy.’ The brave girls, donning their afros and braids, gained international social media buzz as people stood behind their right to wear their hair the way it naturally grows from their heads. Their resistance paid off, as school officials were recently ordered to reassess the policies.
People may downplay the significance of these restrictions, but such policies make it especially difficult to love one’s natural black hair. Such restrictions teach black girls that their hair is naturally unruly and must be tamed. Such rules suggest that black hair is ‘wrong’ in its natural state and must be adjusted to resemble other races’ in order to become ‘right.’ Such restrictions bring shame to what God has called beautiful.
Indeed, loving natural black hair is a revolutionary act. As someone who is still learning, I could not be more proud of these teenage girls who are light years ahead of me. They have declared both themselves and their hair free – unable to be constrained by other peoples’ expectations, limited understanding, and racist beauty standards. These girls wear their bushy crowns with abandon, refusing to be molded into what others want them to be. They clapped back at school officials and an entire world with a powerful message: you don’t have to consider my natural hair beautiful, but I will not let you call it unacceptable. To these brave young women, I extend a fist in the air and many thanks for teaching me how to love.
SheryLeigh is a woman who loves God, words, and people. She is currently living and loving as an author, blogger, poet, and spoken word artist in the Washington, D.C., area.
A communicator by education and trade, SheryLeigh holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Howard University and a Master of Arts in Management from Webster University.