Natural Hair Has Never Meant Freedom for Me

My Thing Is: The “revolution” just subjected the look I’ve always had to a different kind of scrutiny.

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mythingisnaturalhair

Mali Collins

Growing up, I was the only biracial girl in a white family in a rural Wisconsin town. My hair has always been natural, but back then, I had no idea what “natural” was. I was raised ignorant of most black cultural issues, leaving my education about the debate between natural vs. processed hair to college friends and Chris Rock. (I didn’t even know what relaxer was until my teen years, and didn’t fully understood the mechanics of a weave until I started watching America’s Next Top Model in high school.)

Being mixed race, my genetic makeup expressed itself through my hair with a certain “in-between-ness,” claiming neither the color nor the texture associated with the polarized standards of white and black beauty. Its hybridity confused people, and as you can imagine, that confusion evoked questions, misunderstanding, touching and pulling. As a child, I was scrutinized in a way that felt merciless.

Any new hairstyle I wore to school elicited either a yea or nay from each passerby in the hallway. Worse than that, I’d find pieces of paper tucked into my curls with phrases like “Cut your hair” written on them. 

The constant ridicule left me jaded, paranoid and riddled with a level of self-consciousness that would make me cry in the bathroom during school days.

Fast-forwarding to my adult life: When the “natural-hair movement” took off, I thought my time for acceptance had come. Finally, I fantasized, there would be a community of support for a head of hair that has always done exactly what it wants and nothing that it does not. It has never been a bona fide Afro—although the white kids in school who used to pull on it would say so—but it certainly isn’t straight, and it grows out instead of down. 

With this entire group of black women rejecting styles rooted in whiteness and celebrating their natural curls, I had every reason to believe I could shake off the judgment that had always surrounded my hair and finally be free.

It didn’t happen that way.

My hair still has the power to elicit judgment from nearly every man, woman and child I encounter. Everyone has an opinion—and to me, these opinions are no less oppressive than those of white elementary school classmates who thought my hair should be straight.

I can’t count how many times people have said to me, “But why don’t you wear your wear down,” as if wearing my hair up on a 90-degree day is unsuitable or, worse­, a signifier of my own insecurity. I recently went out with friends after work, and when I began to put my hair up after a nine-hour day, a friend exclaimed, “Awww!” as if the life of the party relied solely on my tired do.

The natural-hair judgment goes right to the heart of my character. It seems that no matter what I do, my hair is either too this or too that: If I wear it up, I’m not staying “true to myself,” and if it’s down, it’s never picked out, big or “black” enough. Even a close black mentor of mine once asked, “If you’re so pro-natural hair, why don’t you wear your hair out more?”

When black folks are the critics, I remind them that the diameter of my Afro has nothing to do with my loyalty to black culture. When others weigh in, I find myself becoming defensive and reactionary. Either way, comments such as these insinuate that wearing my hair as is doesn’t make a big enough “statement’’ and “isn’t expressing myself fully.”

But a statement for whom? What is it that they think I should be trying express? What people need to remember is that my natural hair is no one’s business but my own, and is not for their viewing pleasure. It wasn’t when I was a child, and it isn’t now, even in the age of endless YouTube twist-out tutorials. Simply put, I am not performing for anyone. And neither is my hair.

Embracing my natural hair was supposed to be my break from standards of beauty that didn’t fit me, allowing me to feel free in a society where what we look like is integral to our quality of life. But I now know better. When I hear my black sisters talk about donning their ’fros and taking their weaves out to depart from the white, patriarchal ways of the beauty industry, I must caution: Beware. Some folks will do what they can to break you down—no matter your style preferences.

Mali D. Collins is a black feminist writer from Minneapolis and co-founder and editor of the New Minnesota Project. You can also find her work on AfroPunk.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter

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