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Hair

Courtesy of Wendy Isom Mercer

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when many people rushed to  grocery stores in droves hoarding packs of toilet paper, I couldn’t help but laugh and think back to my own childhood. Who would think that toilet paper packaging, of all things, would teach me one of my earliest lessons about self-love, especially learning to embrace my beautiful crown of poufy textured Black girl hair. 

It’s one of the reasons I was so excited recently to see the debut of Hair Tales, executive produced by Oprah Winfrey, Tracee Ellis Ross and Michaela angela Davis on the OWN network and also streams weekly  on Hulu. The six-part series, explores issues of beauty and identity through the eyes of Black women, most often starting with their earliest childhood memories. I can relate!

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You see, when I was a little wide-eyed Black girl growing up in the 70s and 80s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I didn’t often see images of myself represented in commercials, advertisements and, well, pretty much anywhere in popular culture. There was no Mahogany greeting card line from Hallmark. If I wanted a card with a child or parents with brown skin like mine, I had to draw it myselfwith a box of Crayolas, which, by the way, never seemed to ever have the right mix of browns. I didn’t have the luxury of turning on the TV to seea Black mama like mine on a laundry detergent commercial bragging about how she got her mocha-colored daughter’s clothes sparkling clean.

That all changed one day as I sauntered through the toilet paper aisle with my mom in the local grocery store. I literally stopped in my tracks as I passed the product display for Northern toilet tissue. My six-year-old self could not believe it.The plastic wrap featured the image of a smiley,girl with a chocolate brown complexion like mine;only she wore her hair up in neat little Princess Leia-style hairbuns like I had seen on Star Wars. I was captivated.

My mane was a lot thicker than the girl drawn onto the packaging, but instantly I wanted to be just like her and wear my hair just like she did. Iremember thinking that she was so pretty. She seemed special. Even at that young age, in my own way I was struck by the fact that I had neverseen a little girl even close to my skin color featured on any product labels or rarely in TV commercials.

Shortly after this revelation, came school picture day. I was in the first grade at the time and the only Black student in my entire class. That morning, my mother had parted my hair down the middle and meticulously plaited my hair into two big braids that dangled down each side of my face. I don’t know what took over me once I got to school that day, but as I stood in line to get my picture taken I was consumed with thememory of the little Black girl on that tissue package.

Gradually, I began twirling my braids on each side and somehow managed to wrap them around into my best version of the Princess Leia hairbuns. Before any school staff had the chance to tell me to stop playing with my hair, I boldly stepped in front of the backdrop and stared straight into the camera and flashed my biggest snaggle-toothed smile as the photographer snapped the picture. The rest, as they say, is history.

the hair tales

Source: Courtesy of OWN / OWN

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Afterward, I let my hair back down the way my mom had originally fixed it and never said a wordabout my impromptu hairstyle change. Later, when my mom received the school pictures, she was hot! “Why did you change your hair like that? she roared. I couldn’t offer much, just that I’d wanted to look just like the beautiful Black girl I’d gushed over on the Northern tissues package. Let’s just say I also learned that day to never go behind my mom’s back. Lol!

Little did I know though, that moment would be a major turning point in our relationship and would help catapult me onto my own path and journey of self-love and self-discovery. Soon after, shebought me a special mirror that had “I am beautiful” etched onto the back of it. At the time, I thought it was silly and I didn’t understand whyshe felt the need for me to see those words daily, especially as I stared back at my own reflection.

It would be many years before I would come to understand that my mother, who’d majored in sociology in college and had grown up during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Washington, D.C, was trying to instill in me a strong sense of self-worth and pride. My mom was trying to ensure that her little brown daughter now growing up as the only Black child, or among a few, in a predominantly white Midwest community, learned to love herself. Yes, she was trying to instill in me a sense of self-love!

Fast forward well over three decades later and I know for sure that my mother’s efforts are the main reason that as an adult, I am now comfortable with my unique brand of beauty as a Black woman, including my thick crown of Black hair. Although there’s still so much more work left to be done, I am thankful that the current generation of little Black girls (and their older selves) can now see more examples of their natural beauty represented and celebrated on product packaging in store aisles, in TV commercials, print ads and even on billboards and on the pages of magazines – not just one package of tissue paper in the grocery store (thanks for paving the way Northern).

This OWN network series provides yet another opportunity for more Black girls and women across the globe with textured hair to be set on that same journey of self-love and, hopefully, begin celebrating their beauty, including our wide array of complexions, the various shapes of our bodies and, yes, the diverse textures of our hair too. Thanks Ms. Ellis, Ms. Davis and Ms. Winfrey too, for creating this platform for Black girls and women like me can finally tell their own stories in their own words and feel seen, loved and beautiful, too!

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