I was contacted for a job interview at a college a few weeks ago and was prepared to freshen up the perimeter of my Marley twists, style them in a low bun, and head into the interview confident and proud. However, when cornered by a few female family members and asked how I would be styling my hair, I was met with a look of disgust by the more “corporate” of the bunch, and told to straighten my hair for the interview to make a good impression.
I hated the way one particular family member turned her nose up and suggested that the way my hair was wouldn’t make a good impression. My hair was neither dirty nor unkempt, so what was the problem? I reached out to a former grade school teacher to ask her opinion, and while she is quite liberal, she basically told me that though in recent years more diverse hairstyles have become acceptable, it seems the pendulum has swung back the other way so that more conservative looks for a job interview are the best bet. She told me to “break out the hot comb” for the interview, and once my contract is signed, do whatever I want. I could dig that.
She mentioned how “they” are scared of our hair. Her delivery was less condescending, but still, the rationale threw me a little bit. The most opposition I received from going natural and experimenting with natural protective styling was from people of color. My own people. And even more specifically, my own family. Dirty, contemptuous looks and orders to “do something with that mess” came often. “They” (READ: white people) have only ever marveled at my various hairstyling choices, asking a million questions, begging me to “wear it like that more often!” So, who is the “they,” really?
I wanted the job badly, so with clenched teeth and a 360-degree flat iron, I blazed trails through my hair until it was straight. Humidity got to it though, and I ended up pulling it back once it puffed up into a mess. Great. I wonder what might have happened if I had stuck to my guns? Had I betrayed myself to please “they”? What if my natural hair choice had been an intriguing conversation piece as it had been so many times before? I was just doing what I HAD to do in order to be able to do what I WANT to do, right? So why did I feel so guilty?
The amount of courage it took to start wearing my hair natural as an adult could fill a tractor trailer. The hit my self-esteem took by my conceding to a mythical idea that white people are intimidated by my hair was even greater.
We see it so often in the media now, don’t we? Black hair is a hot button “issue.” Little girls getting sent home from school because their hair is “faddish.” Parents relaxing/straightening their toddlers’ hair. The common thread throughout many of these stories is not white people’s fear, but a deeply-rooted fear of what white people will think. A deeply ingrained notion that who and how we are naturally is unacceptable and must be straightened, lightened, or code-switched into humble submission.
I struggle with that paradigm. I struggle with it because I know that there are certain standards to be upheld. I would never dare walk into an interview wearing sweats and a T-shirt. I wouldn’t attend church with my breasts all out. I wouldn’t give a formal speech speaking casually as I do with my girlfriends. Those are clear choices that are inappropriate for those environments. But my hair, on my head? How is what grows out of my scalp inappropriate? If it’s clean and tidy, why would it be offensive?
I didn’t get the job. And I wonder what might have happened had I proudly worn my Marley twists instead of shrinking to conform to what others believed, going in feeling self-conscious about the humidity-beaten puff at the back of my head. I had betrayed every shred of self-esteem it took me years to build. Every bit of disappointment and sadness resurfaced as I remembered a childhood filled with blow dryers and hot combs, begging my hair to submit to the straighter standard. It would not because it was something else altogether. Something curly, kinky, textured, and just as beautiful as anything relaxed or hot-combed. I didn’t step into that acknowledgment until I was about 25-years-old.
I didn’t dissect the issue until after it was all over. Perhaps it was the anxiety of preparing for the interview. But now, with it all thought out, I can say this: I’ll never base another decision about my appearance off of someone else’s flawed logic again, no matter how good their intentions may be. I have fought through too many deeply-rooted insecurities about my hair to willingly begin stripping myself of what makes me, me. I can’t burden myself with fearing someone else’s disapproval of my unstraightened hair. Especially when the group we’re all seeking approval from sometimes seems to be the most celebratory of my kinks!
I’m waiting for the day when black people will look in the mirror and ask themselves, “Why am I uncomfortable with me?” Because, at this point, any other explanation of our behavior surrounding our hair is a cop-out.
La Truly’s writing is powered by a lifetime of anecdotal proof that awkward can transform to awesome and fear can cast its crown before courage. La seeks to encourage thought, discussion and change among young women through her writing. Check her out on Twitter: @AshleyLaTruly.