Posted on July 18, 2014
Black Natural Hair Movement: Reflections on Self-Hate, Self-Esteem, Self- Definition and Ignorance
I am not going to lie. I felt a little anxiety when my wife (a.k.a. maximuslyricus, prolific commenter and fairly well-known naturalista on YouTube) decided to take the plunge several years ago and “go natural”. My level of anxiety increased exponentially when she enlisted me to do her “big chop”, which meant to cut most of her hair down to the part where there was totally natural growth. The big chop is the most radical way to go natural because as opposed to waiting for your chemically treated hair to grow out and shed over time, you just cut the chemical out which usually results in a teeny weeny afro (or TWA).
My wife researched the Natural Hair Movement for months before deciding that she wanted to wear her natural hair. For many weeks, I was an unwilling participant on her natural hair journey. Not because I didn’t believe in it, but because I was a male who simply wasn’t interested in what women did with their hair. Night after night, I would be drafted into conversations about big chops, TWAs, sister locks, shea butter, castor oil, etc. My wife would say, “Honey, come and look at this…” as she enlisted me to watch a variety of YouTube videos. YouTube is perhaps the greatest source of information and inspiration regarding the Natural Hair Movement. If I didn’t learn anything else from my wife’s seeming obsession, I learned that two of the major players in the Natural Hair Movement at that time were Rustic Beauty and Black Onyx. Since then the Natural Hair Movement has grown, but Rustic Beauty and Black Onyx are still irrecoverably burned within my memory banks as they were a major source of my wife’s inspiration. Moreover, their YouTube channels still have thousands of followers to this day.
I think that it’s great that women like my wife have come to embrace their natural hair. More than a few black women have finally come to the realization that chemicals and excessive amounts of heat are just plain bad for their hair, and science as well as their experience proves this realization to be true. But, yet and still, millions of black women continue to damage their hair, mainly in the name of beauty and style, each and everyday. Moreover, hair tracks and weaves are used just as gratuitously as relaxers and other chemical treatments because millions of black women believe that these alterations makes them look good. These same black women are supported in their opinion by millions of black men who consciously or subconsciously flock to women who have chemically treated hair, other people’s hair, and outright fake hair sometimes at the expense of women who have vibrant, healthy natural hair.
Since becoming aware of the ill effects on a black woman’s hair that are caused by chemicals (and to a lesser extent, all the weave and tracks), I just ponder what the basic reasons as to why some black women treat their hair so badly. I have contemplated this long and hard, and I have come up with one conclusion: Most of them have been so bombarded with white, Eurocentric standards of beauty that they, as well as ignorant black men, subconsciously hate themselves—or, at the very least, fail to appreciate the beauty of their own God-given natural hair.
I’ll take it even a step further: Not only do many black women hate their natural hair, but it’s very possible that they hate their big noses and lips, and dark skin as well, all because their minds have been “whitewashed” in a society where light skin, blue eyes and blonde hair have been placed upon a pedestal as the epitome of beauty. Furthermore, delving deeper into historical contexts, white society in general has had the audacity to tell these women that their racial characteristics are unacceptable on magazine covers, TV shows, and in the workplace, and millions of black women have subconsciously accepted these lies to be true. Don’t get me wrong, things are changing here and there, but American society still intimates that black characteristics and ethnic traits are ugly.
From the images of old minstrel shows, to black savages running around the jungle in Tarzan, a 1950s TV show, to Buckwheat on the the Little Rascals, etc., blacks have been taught that certain negroid characteristics are to be scorned, viewed with disdain, or manipulated to be used as an object of comedy and entertainment. This fact, along with the constant bombardment of white Eurocentric standards of beauty on the airwaves, magazine covers, and the runways of the fashion industry—from Paris to Los Angeles—have undeniably had an effect on black self esteem (and on black women, in particular).
Now to be sure, I am not saying that women like Sandra Bullock or Gwyneth Paltrow aren’t pleasing to the eye, but so are women with strong Afrocentric features like Viola Davis and Indi Arie. If many whites cannot see that, then that’s their problem, but if many blacks can’t see the beauty in those two women, then that becomes a little more personal. Perhaps blacks’ inability to see the beauty in women like Arie is a reflection of living in a highly esteemed white society that has at one point viewed blacks as animals.
History has had a devastating effect on the psyche of black America (and blacks in Africa, and other parts of the world). It’s time for a large number of blacks to reprogram their minds and baptize their spirits of all such self-hate and disdain for their own ethnic traits. Blacks need to appreciate their black beauty for what it is: beautiful.
The Natural Hair Movement, in my mind, is positive change in the correct direction of self-actualization and self-definition for black people. The black Natural Hair Movement may have begun with hair, but is also about greater education. Even a strong black man like myself still had a little anxiety at the thought of my wife going natural, so I hate to think about all the black men and women who are not mentally strong enough to overcome what amounts to conscious and subconscious cultural brainwashing.
But, let’s not get it twisted. Sure I had a passing thought that was probably based on Eurocentric beauty standards, but the lion’s share of my anxiety had to do with the thought of cutting my wife’s hair and her reaction to my effort as opposed to the professional job of a barber of hairstylist. Not only that, but I could see her assigning me some blame if she just didn’t like her natural hair. But my wife had already committed to her big chop in every way even before I snipped the first strand. Little did I know that I embraced my big chop too. I got back to my roots (pun intended). My big chop wasn’t about hair though, it was about cutting all of the ill effects of being in a society where blacks have been historically oppressed—and, by extension, defined—and had standards of what is beautiful and acceptable forced upon us.
Now to be fair, there are probably some black women who just don’t like the texture of their natural hair, ostensibly because it just doesn’t look “good”, but I still have a hard time believing that these women are not being influenced by white standards of beauty that surround them everyday. They would rather damage their hair, roots and edges with chemicals and weave than allow the beauty of their God-given natural hair to flourish. To me there is something wrong with that picture.
Ultimately, everyone has the right to choose their own style, even to their health’s detriment, in the name of beauty. But why someone would want to continue doing this in light of the information that is available today is beyond me. It’s akin to smoking. Perhaps I have been affected by my indirect association with the Natural Hair Movement, but I have become more aware of women’s hair in general. I can almost certainly tell when a woman is wearing wigs and weaves. I can sometimes spot a woman’s hair that is receding, breaking or splitting due to the abuse of chemicals, weaves or tracks. It is ironic that all of the things that are supposed to make women’s hair more attractive has become somewhat of a sore spot to my eyes, particularly when the hair hasn’t been done well. The difference between the usually shorter, limper, chemically treated hair and more vibrant, full, and bouncy, natural hair is quite noticeable. There have been times that I have looked at my wife’s twists or braids and thought to myself how synthetic that her hair appears, even though it is real. Women have literally asked my wife to feel her hair and attempted to surreptitiously do root checks to make sure her hair is real when she wears it out. One old woman in Target just felt in my wife’s hair without even asking (as have certain family members). No one was doing any of these things when my wife had a perm, or decidedly hideous fake hair. Call me a hair snob now, but fake hair in any form just looks foreign to me (probably because it is). When women put all kinds of funky colors—and sometimes just an off-color—in their hair and wear all kinds of unnatural colored wigs they sometimes appear basically clownish in my opinion. Sorry if I have offended you, but after having been passively educated by the black Natural Hair Movement, I just can’t help these feelings. Granted, I have been called a radical and militant before over the years, so it’s not a stretch that I may be likened to what some familiar with the Natural Hair Movement refer to as a “Hair Nazi”, but I don’t purposefully seek out black women whose hair stands out (in my mind) for all the wrong reasons.
When I learned of stories of beautiful black women who became the targets of disdain and ignorance as a result of remarks and rejection by their boyfriends, husbands, fathers and even their mothers, I was fascinated by the degree of ignorance that pervades the black community (from the young to the old). Plenty of women within the black Natural Hair Movement have stories about rejection that truly make me feel ashamed. And speaking of shame, there is no shame in embracing that which God blessed you to have. Black hair is the only hair of its kind on the planet. The closest thing to it in appearance is probably lamb’s wool. Lamb’s wool was attributed to Jesus, whether you take the scripture literally or figuratively. So I ask, “What is so unacceptable about the natural texture of black hair?” What is so wrong with big noses and big lips? They are natural born traits that need to be embraced. They should be embraced just as much as Eurocentric traits, or any ethnic traits. Many may look at self-acceptance and self-realization as no big deal, but there was a war that basically began in Rwanda over similar issues. At this writing, Kenya does not permit its members of parliament to wear traditional African attire in their chamber, somehow thinking that dress brought to them by European colonial imperialists is more acceptable. I was also surprised to discover that dreadlocks were prohibited from some parts of the Virgin Islands. Moreover, eye surgeries to make eyes less slanted have become quite popular in certain parts of Asia. Unbelievable! What some people of different races won’t do to fall in line with white standards of beauty.
Like I have alluded to before, women like Tyra Banks and Halle Berry are beautiful no doubt, but so are Venus and Serena Williams who have decidedly stronger negroid features. And I must say that, in my eyes, Venus looks even more beautiful with her natural hair. Ironically, it is being surmised that Serena is suffering from Traction Alopecia, a condition caused by wearing tight braids, buns, weaves and extensions, after a member of the paparazzi snapped a picture that clearly shows a bald spot in her hair. Let’s hope that the apparent damage is not permanent.
Women like my wife and others within the Natural Hair Movement are leading the charge towards self-definition of what is beautiful and acceptable for black women. Eventually the natural beauty of their natural hair will be too much for many other black women to ignore and resist. Why would a woman want to continue the destruction of her hair when she sees the alternative? My wife embraces her self-proclaimed “nappy hair”, and she has “straightened me out” on the use of the term “nappy”, choosing to view the term as positive and unique to black hair. The acceptance of the term “nappy” by many, but not all, black women is just one of the positive byproducts of the Natural Hair Movement. Thanks to women in the Natural Hair Movement, I suspect that one day it will not be such a novelty to see black women whose natural hair is so vibrant and shiny that many will ponder whether their hair is even real. Thanks to many women of the Natural Hair Movement, I predict that countless numbers of black men will finally learn to accept and appreciate the total beauty of the natural black woman. Thanks to rebels of the Natural Hair Movement, the day is coming soon that corporate America will not dare tell a black woman that her natural hair is unacceptable in the workplace. Thanks to many pioneers within the Natural Hair Movement, one day women who have dared to do the big chop will not feel compelled to abruptly end their hair journeys or hide their short afros with wigs, weaves or scarves because of the consternation of their mothers and grandmothers, or anyone else.
Now again, let me repeat that black women ultimately have the right to do whatever they want to their hair, including damage it in order to fulfill their own standards of beauty. I get that. Women who are not of African descent do surprise people with sister locks, braids, cornrows or dreadlocks on occasion. Women of other races will sometimes get collagen treatments to make their lips fuller, or butt implants to make their behinds bigger. But we really don’t see these types of alterations to the extent that we see black women going around with perms, weaves and extensions. Sometimes, the hairdos look just plain awful. But, appearance aside, chemicals and weaves are very damaging to black women’s hair (and perhaps even more), and that’s my biggest problem with most black women and their hair. The only thing that I can liken it to is how many whites recklessly damage their skin by abusing tanning salons. But, the difference is that white skin has never been a source of discrimination or disdain in most parts of the world. Furthermore, you don’t see nearly as many whites with tans as you see black women with treated hair. But the tide is very slowly turning.
The black Natural Hair Movement is causing black women all over America, and other parts of the world to rethink their hair. YouTube is having an impact form America to Europe to Africa. Yes, believe it or not, many African women use perms and synthetic hair also. Thankfully there are women in the Natural Hair Movement who have overcome their preference for Eurocentric looking hair to the detriment of their own black hair. These strong black women prefer their natural hair. They should be praised for standing steadfast in their desire to be natural in a world that has often attempted to cast negativity upon that which God gave them.
I am sure that many people have heard the phrase, “Black is beautiful!” The phrase has its origins during the Civil Rights Movement if the 1960s. During that period, black Americans aggressively fought discrimination and racism, came out of their shells and boldly defined themselves. It is in that same spirit that I proclaim today that the black, Natural Hair Movement is beautiful!
Read More Than About Black Hair, a poem inspired by this essay.