Over the weekend, at a street festival in Brooklyn N.Y., an older gentleman walked up to me and a friend (who also has natural hair) and handed us fliers about a social-justice meeting. While handing them to us, he said, “For my real sistas; I know you two are down for the cause.”
I can honestly say that until I went natural six years ago, no one assumed I was super pro-black, at least not from my appearance alone. When I was wearing my relaxed hair in ponytails and dressing how most Pittsburgh grad students dressed, there wasn’t anything about my physical appearance that screamed “ready for the race wars.” I was black, with groups of friends of all colors, and chemically straightened black hair—I didn’t think much else could be read from my look.
And to be honest, my reason for going natural was just as surface. While I was getting a touch-up at the beginning of 2010, a piece of hair fell and landed on my cheek. Although it had only been there a few seconds, there was a large red burn mark on my cheek that took almost a week to completely disappear. Seeing the harsh effect that the chemicals had on my skin shocked me into never putting them on my scalp again. That was my last perm, and I transitioned into 100 percent natural, using heat and protective styling, for a year and a half.
Not until my hair was visibly natural—all kinks, no signs of heat—did I start hearing comments about me being down-to-earth, and presumptions that I was more aware and more confident in my blackness. After that transition, my street hollas turned from “Hey, Ma!” to “Hey, queen!” I even started having guys ask if they could take me to a poetry reading instead of the general, “Can I take you out some time?”
My relaxed hair didn’t seem to say much, but my natural hair was screaming spoken word, conscious living and African royalty. According to the attention I was receiving, my hair had solidified my blackness to the outside world, both black and white. Of course I was “down for the cause,” a “real sista” with natural hair—what other way could I be?
Melissa Harris-Perry wrote an amazing piece for Elle that I will forever quote when having a discussion about the expectations and assumptions associated with women’s hair, particularly for women of color. The always on-point MPH highlighted the reality that most nonblack people don’t have to recognize the implications of living in a society that systematically requires certain groups of people to alter their natural appearance and punishes those who will not conform.
Choosing to conform to the standards is a personal choice, and deciding to refuse conformity and cultural expectation is instantly seen as a political statement—if only to everyone but the person making the choice. I can’t know for sure whether that man walked up to black women wearing weaves or straight hair and also called them “real sistas” who were “down for the cause.” However, I do know that nothing about my friend and me would have elicited that assumption other than our hair.
My hair is directly correlated with an opposition to “the system”—and that is because “the system” is still Eurocentric. Our standards for hair, body type and beauty are based on the governing European standard. With that in mind, I am bucking the system by choosing to embrace my natural hair; if that is “the cause,” then I am 100 percent down for it. But the relaxed-hair version of me was down for that cause, too; I was in support of women defining their own version of beauty and creating unique identities outside of these standards.
The other side of the coin is that while having natural hair makes me down for the cause to some, choosing to write about it apparently makes me shallow and out of touch with “the real issues.” There is a comment on pretty much every article I have had published that questions why I am playing into black women’s obsession (and oftentimes competitiveness) with our hair—and, in doing so, ignoring the “real issues” of the black community. Self-hate and generations of anti-black speech are real issues, in my opinion—and ones that I intend to talk about as often as possible.
I am letting my hair grow out of my head and making a conscious effort to ignore standards of beauty that don’t recognize people who look like me. My natural hair is saying something to the outside world about my overall outlook regarding myself and my environment. The choice to stop altering my hair six years ago was personal, as is the decision to keep waking up every morning with the confirmation that my hair is desirable for me and that these are “good hair days.”
Shayna Watson is a freelance style and beauty writer who can be heard saying “Natural hair is a lifestyle” at least once a day. A Pittsburgh native, she currently lives in a shoe-box apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.—which is fitting, since she really loves shoes. You can check out her personal style musings on A Nu Creature and follow her on Instagram.