Splitting Hairs

About a month ago, a friend of mine shared a commercial by Dove’s hair care line that professed a message to all curly haired girls and women that they should proudly and happily embrace their curls. The video cites statistics that girls are seven times more likely to like their curly hair if those around them do, and that only four out of ten girls think their hair is beautiful. In the video, moms and other women don curly hairstyles and congregate with lots of curly haired young girls to celebrate that curly hair is beautiful and that they all love it. It’s a beautiful and uplifting message, and I’m glad that my daughter will be raised during a time when more women are preaching a message of loving themselves, especially their hair, in its natural state. I also cry every time I see that video, but not tears of joy…

During the time when I grew up, which was mostly during the 1990s and early 2000s, straight hair was all the rage. Women and girls spent ample time processing and flat ironing their hair to achieve the smooth, straight look. For black women in particular, the message about hair was that it should be tame and sleek, and straightening (“perming”), flat ironing, hot combing, or “weaving” were the popular methods for achieving this. My mom straightened her hair. She also straightened my hair at my request. Most black girls at my school had straight hair in elementary, middle, and high school.

It wasn’t until I entered college in 2002 that I started thinking about my hair’s potential outside of straightness. By this time, my mom had ditched straight styles and was rocking a full and healthy Afro, all while maintaining an upper management job and attending college. I did the “chop” and cut my straight hair off in an effort to stop chemically processing and wear my hair naturally. I don’t have many photos from that time, but here’s one:

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The day I initiated into Alpha Xi Delta. Photo cred goes to my big sis for this blast from the past.

The transition didn’t go well for me for a variety of reasons, most of which pointed back to the fact that I didn’t know how to properly care for my hair in its natural state. I also didn’t have the patience to really nurture my hair into something beautiful, so that style only lasted for about a year and I returned to my straightening (and frying) ways.

Six years later, fed up with expensive hair care treatments and routine visits to the salon, I walked into a wig shop and made a few purchases. For everyday trips to work and such I would wear a human hair wig. For special occasions I changed it up. I rocked wigs for almost three years straight, and all the while, my own “unfooled around with” hair grew back with a thick vengeance under my wig cap.

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Everyone loved my hair from our engagement pictures. Little. Did they. Know.

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From one of my last modeling gigs.

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I wore a partial weave on my wedding day.

One day after showering I looked in the mirror at my very curly, very thick hair and decided I would nail down a good hair stylist to help me return to my own hair again. I wasn’t sure how the return would look, whether natural curly or straight, but given my previous hair experiences I knew I wanted to make the decision with some guidance from a professional.

It was at this time that I met Amber, hair goddess and stylist extraordinaire, and she and I had an important conversation. I told her I was thinking of going natural and that I wanted some recommendations for upkeep. She applauded my decision and detailed the regimens for braiding, wrapping, and moisturizing in addition to scalp care and split end maintenance. All of these things are applicable to other hair textures too, but styling natural African American hair requires great care and patience. My face must’ve been talking for me in that moment, because Amber asked me if going natural was what I really wanted. I told her no. “Your blackness isn’t defined by you having natural hair,” she said to me. I sat in her chair and she gave me back the same straight hairstyle I was accustomed to, and she continued to care for my hair for the next four years until I moved from San Diego to Gainesville in August 2014.

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Mother’s Day 2010. That’s my mom’s Afro, in all its natural glory. 🙂

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Mother’s Day 2014. Three generations, three different hair textures.

Amber gave me permission to stick with what I liked and felt comfortable with, and I remained pretty okay in that until Dove debuted their commercial. My biracial daughter has springy curls, much like my biracial cousins do. Caring for her hair isn’t too hard for me since I’m somewhat familiar with it from experience and watching my aunt style my cousin Jade’s hair.

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Reppin’ the Giants (WINNING!). Baby Kennedy looks a lot like she did as a baby, complete with similar hair texture.

But in straightening my own hair, am I communicating a message of self-hate to my daughter? I love Kennedy’s hair. I think it’s lustrous and beautiful, and I want her to be proud of it. I want little girls everywhere with curls of all texture to be happy with their hair. I wish I could have been told a message like this when I was a child too, because maybe then I wouldn’t have had to grow up stressing over whether my hair looked right, and subjecting my image to such intense scrutiny because of what was growing on top of my head. Perhaps if a message like this had been popular in the 1990s, I’d have a thick coif of natural hair and not have to contemplate this problem. When I was younger, I viewed my natural hair as a curse. I don’t see it that way anymore. I chose the style I wear because it’s what’s easiest for me. The reason why hair is such a big deal for girls and women is because it’s such a defining feature of who we are. I choose to stick with something familiar when it comes to this feature for myself. I don’t hate my natural hair. I don’t hate my race. But I feel like that’s what Dove is communicating about my choice to straighten. I’m also not willing to go through another big chop and sport a near buzz cut all for the purpose of trying to meet a consistency that others say I should have.

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Curly coifed, smoothie drinkin’, toddler goodness. 🙂

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We’re smiling because we like cookies. And selfies.

So, in short, the Dove commercial makes me cry because it makes me feel like I’m a bad mother for straightening my curls but wanting my daughter to wear hers, as if I didn’t have enough to worry about in my quest to convince myself that I’m doing okay as a mother.

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