The summer before I went to college, I stopped getting relaxers because they damaged my hair, and as a result, my self-esteem was in the dumps.
This decision may seem uneventful now, but this was 2002, and I was living in the Midwest. The natural-hair movement, which is now on track to be a $500 billion industry, according to market research firm Mintel, was still in its infancy. Sure, every once in a while a woman would sport the “Maxine Shaw,” but she was generally treated with a “Hmmph! I bet she just watched Waiting to Exhale and is ready to raise hell about something” type of disdain.
So suffice it to say that my decision to eighty-six the perm was met with the same skepticism a child receives when he proclaims that black licorice is his favorite candy: “Are you sure?” As in, “Phoebe, are you sure you want to look unprofessional?” Or undesirable, ugly, different, unkempt, angry or basically any other pejorative adjective you can think of that’s normally assigned to natural hair.
And if we’re going to be honest, those inquiries were really just a cover for the one question people wanted to ask: “Are you trying to make black people look bad with your naps?” No. I was just tired of spending countless hours relaxing my hair, only to have it, at best, look like Katt Williams … in his mug shot.
The point is, perming my hair just wasn’t working, so I did the big chop and haven’t looked back since. As I approach my 14th year with natural hair, I have seen the natural-hair movement explode. There are supportive and informative natural-hair expos, vlogs, blogs, Instagram accounts and websites, which are all wonderful.
On the flip side, there is a lot of negativity, such as Gabby G’s blog post, “10 Reasons Natural Hair Is Better Than Relaxed,” or photos that celebrate natural or curly hair, yet still find a way to put others down with captions like, “Curly girls do it better”:
Don’t even get me started on comment boards filled with presumptuous reasons as to why black women straighten their hair. And just as on House, where the first (and oft-wrong) guess was always lupus, many of the naturalistas on those comment boards seem to have come to the erroneous conclusion that black women get relaxers because they want to be white. Yikes.
But this isn’t a one-sided affair. #TeamPerm, #TeamRelaxer and #TeamWeave are the captions for countless pics online. Natural-hair ladies constantly get made fun of in memes like this one.
And if people are feeling particularly bold, they will up the production value, as Top Rope Zeus did, and make a Chris Brown parody video entitled, “Where the F—k Is Your Hair?” (NSFW):
We even had Wendy Williams seriously denounce Viola Davis for wearing a baby ’fro at the 2012 Oscars, which made me roll my eyes so hard that they damn near fell out of my head and landed in the Hudson River next to Nemo and Dory. If it’s not clear by now, we are at the high point in the ongoing black-hair wars, despite the fact that we live in an age when black women have so many hair options. And I think I know why.
Black women have been conditioned to see one another as the competition and have a “There can be only one” Highlander-esque attitude. Whether it’s skin tone, speech patterns, being down or hair, judging one another is encouraged. And I’m not just speaking merely as a commentator. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m guilty of carrying on this type of behavior, too.
When I first started wearing my hair naturally, a little part of me felt superior because I’d broken my creamy crack addiction, which meant that I wasn’t trying to fit within the European standards of beauty—ergo, “I love myself.” Now, we all know some chicks with kinky hair whose self-esteem is as low as the battery on my iPhone after playing Tetris for 23 minutes (seriously, Apple, fix that!), so we have to quit pretending that self-worth is inextricably linked to hair. As India.Arie so rightfully pointed out: We are not our hair.
That truth is hard to remember when it’s ingrained into us to define our self-worth and the worth of others based on the follicles that come out of our heads, but it’s a truth worth remembering because there’s a lot of mean-girl stuff happening. It’s time to stop it, and thankfully, I am proud to say I am doing my part—and it started with one action.
Every time I saw a black woman, I reminded myself, “What she does with her hair or how she feels about it is not my business; nor should I make it mine.” It really is that simple. Freeing myself from the idea that how someone wears her hair is not only a reflection of her but also of me was a game changer when it came to my own concept of blackness.
I also did this with my own hair. I let go of whatever judgments people made about my natural hair, and I stopped assuming that people were judging my hair in the first place. The truth of the matter is that I, like a lot of people, worry that people are thinking about me when they aren’t. They’re consumed with their own stuff.
Most important, I taught myself the right way to feel proud of my hair, and it’s no longer rooted in belittling or questioning others’ hair decisions. For me, the pride comes from being a queen who recognizes that any other black woman walking this earth is a queen because she chooses to wear her hair however she damn well pleases.
Phoebe Robinson is a stand-up comedian and writer who recently appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. She is currently a consultant on Broad City and is writing her first collection of essays for Plume Publishing, which will be published in the fall of 2016. If you live in New York City, you can see her and Jessica Williams co-hosting a stand-up show called Blaria (aka Black Daria) at Union Hall the third Wednesday of every month. Follow her on Twitter.