Find me a Hotep and I’ll find you a three hour Facebook debate with someone who has the utmost opinions on black women’s beauty and style who has never actually been a black woman. I walked into work the other day to a non-black co-worker singing actress Viola Davis’s praises over an article in which “The Help” star stated that she would allow her daughter to dress up as Disney princess on one condition: She had to wear her natural hair. Don’t get me wrong, Viola Davis is #BlackGirlMagic goals all day in my book and I feel everyone should parent their children how they see fit. But I couldn’t help but think, “What if her daughter wants to be a red head for Halloween? Does that automatically means she hates her natural hair?” I’ll be completely honest. I say this as I am currently rocking an “Atomic Blonde” inspired bob with dark brown bangs, not because I think Charlize Theron and her Caucasian counterparts sets the standard for beauty, but because I wanted to be a blonde and it looks great with my red frames and my NYX Liquid Suede Lip Color in Kitten Heels. And I don’t feel like I should be pressured to convince anyone how much I don’t hate myself just because I’m not walking around with an afro and coconut oil no more than an arm’s length away.
When I first found out I’d be having a baby girl, my first thought was that I better put my cousin’s number on speed dial because I can’t cornrow worth a damn. For the past three years my baby has rocked puff balls, an afro and yes cornrows thanks to my mother who was forced to blow the dust off her skills whenever I dropped a toddler off in a beanie before rushing to work because we washed her hair last night and ran out of time to actually style it. It’s been a learning curve for me as I’ve experimented with Shea Moisture, Cantu and whatever else my older sister would let me sample off her dresser that was deemed “not for her” during her own transition into natural hair. My daughter’s hair sucks up moisture like a warm Popeye’s biscuit so since we’ve finally perfected our product combination, doing her hair hasn’t been too painful as I relearn how to make a straight part and match her hair ties to her outfit for the day. But even now as I witness her start to flinch and body roll in an attempt to get away from the wide-tooth comb when I get to her “kitchen” there’s pang of guilt, and yes, resentment that rushes through me when I remember my own childhood struggles with hair care. See when it comes to black hair and beauty standards, a Hotep, CoverGirl or Cosmopolitan magazine weren’t the ones who sent a message to me that I should be afraid of my hair. It was my own mother.
Trust me, I don’t think my mother’s intention was to traumatize either of her daughters once a month in the middle of a North Philly kitchen. But my memories of hair care are filled with being burnt by the hot comb in attempt to get bone straight hair and later down the line shutting my eyelids tightly so my eyes wouldn’t get any water in them when the relaxer was rinsed out. There was nothing pleasant or enjoyable that I could associate with black hair back then. There was only yelling as my mother grew frustrated by my flinching and the reminder of, “That’s not the comb burning you, it’s just the heat!” It didn’t make a damn difference to me. All I knew is that my scalp was on fire and I couldn’t wait until the whole ordeal was over. And don’t let it be summer and you got caught in a random rain shower or a water gun fight as you watched your perfectly pressed tresses shrink back and defeat all of your mom’s hard work. If you didn’t have to deal with an actual behind whooping you had to deal with attitude as she warned you through pursed lips, “Well I guess you’ll go to school looking crazy, because I’m not doing it again.”
I want to remind you, my mother is an amazing person and not a masochist. Our North Philly kitchen hair salon was merely was a mirror of many of my childhood friend’s households who also were the last in a long line of African-American beauty traditions. When I got a little older, I even found myself with my little cousin sitting in a kitchen chair as I prepped my pressing grease and watched the flames wrap around my mother’s hot comb so I could pass down the gift of manageability and bouncy, dark brown locks. But now, watching my three-year-old start to develop an early fear of her own hair makes me wonder if sitting still for hours in my mama’s kitchen filled with anxiety was really worth a week or so of whipping my hair back and forth.
My mom prizes lengthy, healthy hair until this day. She regularly chastises wigs and weaves and is convinced they all carry fungus. Much of this probably stems from the fact that my late grandmother lost a lot of her own hair in her old age and wore wigs on the regular. My sister is embracing her natural hair and twisting out her tresses like she’s a regular Chubby Checker and I change my mind from day to day whether I want to be My Little Pony or Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. As we’ve gotten older we’ve discussed hair care and beauty rituals being about convenience as much as they are beauty. Just because a woman puts her hair in a ponytail, tucks it underneath a lace front or even shaves it all the hell off doesn’t mean she doesn’t love herself, she just might be exhausted and decided that swollen fingertips and shoulder cramps isn’t worth trying to achieve peak Solange “A Seat At The Table.” Managing black hair doesn’t have to be an uphill climb, but it can be just as anyone with curly hair can attest to. And I don’t want want to be my daughter’s first example of someone outside of herself telling her what beauty is and should be for her. Of course, I will fill her life with diverse representations of what beauty can be, but I will leave it to her define. I want to raise my daughter to be the authority on how she presents herself to the world, and she can’t develop the confidence to that if I spend her childhood forcing her to sit still for a hot comb or leave the blonde “Elsa” wig on the shelf when shopping for her Frozen costume for Halloween.
As I look at my daughter each day and we recite her daily mantra in the mirror, “I am smart. I am beautiful. I am kind.” I want her to know that her hair is beautiful the way it is, as well as her skin, her teeth, her toenails and everything in between. But I also want her to know that embracing that beauty doesn’t mean she is limited to express herself in a variety of ways. Diversity is as important to me as representation and I surround her with images of my mother, Michelle Obama, Zendaya, Yara Shahidi, Chloe and Halle and Blue Ivy so she knows that the beauty in our blackness is that it looks different on any one individual and also that each woman has a freedom to define what beauty means to her at any given time and isn’t obligated to give any damns what the next person has to say about it. You won’t find me in the kitchen with a hot comb or stirring up any chemicals until she gets to an age where she can choose for herself because first of all, I’m lazy and second of all, I’m just learning how to make a straight part. But also because I want my daughter to look forward to expressing herself and experimenting with her hair, her clothes and even make up further down the line. And if she’s a black soap and messy bun kind of girl that’s cool too, as long as she loves the skin she’s in and recognizes that whether her hair is down to her waist or braided up underneath a curly sew-in, she’s still beautiful. A part of parenting is acknowledging that my daughter has a voice and that it’s heard, even if I don’t always agree. And while I won’t be sending her out of the house looking like Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable, I don’t want her to ever associate black hair with fear, struggle or survival. Come hell or hot comb, there has to be a better way than fighting back tears in a kitchen chair one Sunday a month. Whether my baby wants to be a black panther or “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, red ringlets and all so be it. Self-love has to be about way more than what’s sitting on top of her head.
How do you approach beauty and black hair with your daughter or other young girls in your life?
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.