I never grew up thinking I was beautiful. I couldn’t recall a time my parents told me I was, but it was vastly unimportant. I was told I was creative and smart and funny and these were the qualities I wanted to build upon in my youth.
School and constantly being around your peers who grew up with differing ideals didn’t help me maintain these feelings I had. I was bullied in elementary school, called “Darky” or “Beady-beads” at almost every recess by a collection of girls, but I was fast and great at sports and the boys I played with didn’t care about any of that, so neither did I. Middle school rolled around and the insults progressed, but never matured. My last name was constantly made fun of, as well as the experimental hairstyles my mom would try on me and the fact that I was such a tomboy. At this time where I was just developing into the woman I would be for the rest of my life, it started becoming difficult. High school was more tolerable because frankly, the kids were cowards there. They’d talk crap about me, but it was never to my face. At least 12 and 13-year olds had the balls to try to break me while facing me, but in retrospect, high school was just preparing me for life as an adult.
Being in college I was bombarded by images of black women who I was never really exposed to in real life; long hair, clear skin, perfection oozing out of their every pore. I constantly put my hair in braids so it was always flowing, but knew when I graduated I had to elevate that. I started putting weaves in my hair, and when I grew tired of those, I’d confine my locks back into braids. I refused to let anybody see my real hair except for the stylists who wove extensions into it. Stylists who would constantly tell me my natural hair was beautiful and so long and that I should show it off, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t believe them.
Society convinced me that natural hair, MY natural hair wasn’t beautiful and acceptable, but extremely subversive and would never get me the man I wanted, the job I desired, or the kind of future I deserved. If I chose to live a life with hair on top of my head so kinky and unkempt, I’d better have some extraordinary talent to make that acceptable; singers and actresses, writers and artists were so good at what they did that they could carry whatever hair they wanted, it was part of the whole package. Not me though, not in the corporate world on non-profit, not if I wanted to get far.
I had my awakening two years ago when on the way to visit my boyfriend at his house one weekend. I took my braids out, twisted my natural hair and released it in a stylish hairdo that would be the first exposure to my hair he would have. I was freaked out because he was white, he’d never dated a black woman before, so I was sure he’d never had first hand experience with kinky hair. We met when I was wearing weaves in my hair and as our relationship progressed, I kept a constant stream of those and braids on my head, but nothing as intimate as my hair.
The entire drive to his place I anticipated his reaction; telling me my hair was beautiful out of obligation, but realizing that he truly missed the long weaves he grew to know. I never would have guessed that he’d respond the way he did. He almost squealed in delight and immediately asked me to touch my hair which I thought was demeaning at first (the hair equivalent of white people traveling to villages in Africa and asking for pictures with the locals as if they were landmarks). Upon realizing he was genuinely curious to see what it felt like I gave him permission. Instead of being tentative about it, he literally dived his hand deep into my twists and just felt around, so fascinated by the texture and softness that I started laughing.
I was freaking out for nothing. Not saying that I required the validation of my Caucasian boyfriend to help me accept my natural hair, but I think I definitely needed the assurance from somebody who wasn’t obligated to love me like family and friends to know that not everyone I encountered would have a problem with my fros and twists. Extremely liberating it was discovering a new dimension to my own personal definition of beautiful. I continue my life building on that, experimenting, and just having fun with my looks without any concern about what others, especially a society not at all built for my happiness as a black woman, think of it.
Viola Davis once said in an interview “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. I am telling you, I have spent so much of my life not feeling comfortable in my skin. I am just so not there anymore.”
Me neither, Vi, me neither.