After 19 years of chemically straightening my hair, dying it, and curling (more like frying) it at dangerous heat levels, I decided to see just what my hair could do, or what it could become at its most natural state. A few months earlier, I had made the decision to transition into being a “Naturalista,” with the hopes of retaining my length while growing out my natural hair simultaneously. In actuality, I feared the big chop; my (long) hair had played a huge role in how I perceived myself and my general self-esteem. So what would I become without my luscious curls?
My hair had always been a legitimizer of my gender identity. By ridding myself of my hair, I would be pushed into those ambiguous grounds where I would be unsure of my own womaness. Also, I imagined that people would see my shortened hair and immediately question my positioning as not only an “authentic” woman, but as a heterosexual cisgender Black woman. Overall, the thought of just waking up one morning and cutting my hair off was terrifying and destabilizing; after all, my intentions in going natural was to embrace the various qualities that made me a Black woman, not to lose an attribute that I felt was essential to my gender identity and expression. Also, growing up with a hypermasculine (and sexist) father who constantly reminded me that men were most attracted to women with long hair didn’t help. With that in mind, I just knew that a faded hair cut would definitely ensure my “single” status for a long time.
However, after traveling across Europe for four months with braids that I hardly cared for, I undid my protective style to find that much of my own hair had simply died. In the process of taking out the braids, I lost about 45% of my own hair and the remaining hair looked lifeless, brittle, and dry. At that moment, I knew I had to do what I most feared: cut it off.
At the salon, I cried as my stylist cut each limp strand from my head. I remember her revealing the “end look” and instantly having an emotional breakdown. Both my mother and stylist showered me with encouragements and compliments: “short hair looks nice on you,” “your natural texture is beautiful,” “Baby, remember it always grows back.” It didn’t matter; I was now bald (not actually bald, but was at tiny weeny afro status), Black, and maybe still a woman?
Showing up to family functions with my new “look” would bring stares, as expected. The bold ones would let me know how much they disliked my new hair, and questioned how I could think going “nappy” would be a good decision. I would stroll around my neighborhood and constantly feel eyes on me, on my hair primarily. Even in predominantly Black spaces, my natural (Black) hair wasn’t accepted. What was I doing wrong? Going natural was suppose to be a journey towards self-acceptance and realization. It was my resistance to assimilation in which communities of color have always had to (and still do) engage in, as a way to navigate (and survive) this racially polarized world.
But my shortened natural hair had positioned me as an outsider even in my own community. Not everyone was about that anti-assimilation life, so my newfound Naturalista status was not accepted or understood by many in my community. There was some overwhelming identity shifts taking place in my life that I found difficult to detangle and understand, and they all stemmed from a simple hair cut.
My first year as a Naturalista was tough to say the least. But the key towards overcoming was finding a support network. Youtube became a great asset to my natural hair journey. In fact, Youtube has become an empowering space for the Natural Black hair community. It has been a site where Black women (and men) can connect and share their experiences of exclusion, be it within their families, workplaces, school, or communities. Videos on hair care treatments and regimens for various (natural) hair textures are in abundance; therefore, Naturalistas no longer have to be confused about how to best care for their hair grades or seek assistance from stylists and salons who have no clue on how to properly care for natural Black hair. Having access to this community and information made my journey ultimately feel less lonesome.
Almost four years later, my mindset towards my hair has finally shifted; I now see my hair as an extension of who I am as a individual, not as an anchor for my gender identity. Most importantly, going natural helped me get closer to a place of self-acceptance. Only when I stopped worrying about how the world would perceive or interact with me based on my hair could I actually begin the real work of learning how to truly love myself, and accept myself, holistically, with or without my long luscious curls.
My journey also made me interested in the experiences of other Naturalistas, especially those here at the University of Minnesota. Therefore, I am excited the Women’s Center Spring AHA! Gallery show will focus on African American (women’s) hair. So, if you would like to be part of the the art gallery or know of someone who would be interested, please complete the participation form by clicking here.
With much peace,
Program Coordinator, Women’s Center