It took me 30 years to accept my natural afro hair. My grandmother passed away in 2019 having never accepted that her hair was beautiful. At the age of 78, she was still straightening her hair religiously, or admonishing us if me and my sister’s hair was not tidy (i.e. not straightened). My grandmother was a strong woman: she was the first woman in my town to get divorced and raised 4 kids alone. She was not a conformist. And yet, she thought that in order to be pretty, she had to get rid of her coily, curly hair. The straighter the better.
Ten years ago, when I showed up for my first job with braided hair, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was not professional and that I would never be in front office with this kind of hairstyle. Grandma was right. I had to straighten my hair.
I straightened my hair with chemical relaxer. I became ashamed of my natural looking hair after that experience. I internalised the thought that having naturally coily hair was unprofessional and that I had to have straight dark hair to fit in. I even thought negatively of those who were sporting “kinky hairstyles”. Didn’t they know that it was unacceptable?
Thinking back, I started being uncomfortable with my hair long before that. Everytime I took my hair out in a 70s style afro, I was either a unicorn (‘can I touch it, it’s so soft!’) or mocked even. Looking like Beyonce was everyone’s dream as a teenager, and I realised only recently that her hair is fake (did you know that she wears very expensive wigs or weaves?).
After about 5 years of chemical treatments, my hair was very damaged. My scalp was burned from the chemical relaxers. One evening, I decided that I had enough and shaved everything off, all my hair; my pride and joy, what I thought was defining my femininity. I was ready to accept myself. I wanted to look like myself, and myself was enough. I also believed in myself so much more: my hair and my appearance in general had nothing to do with my abilities as a professional. If employers were not ready to look past that, then I was clearly not going to be happy working for them.
It is no coincidence that I consider the day I shaved my head as ‘Freedom Day’. Many black or mixed-raced women have experiences like mine; where the realisation that embracing our natural afro hair is the first step of accepting what we look like. I think that my grandmother would feel so happy to see that society is finally accepting that afrohair is beautiful.