Beautiful Hair Without Pain, Politics or Shame

Gladys Gitau

Hair for women carries secrets of beauty and self-acceptance. Black women’s hair especially holds secrets I have known about since I was old enough to sit on my mother’s lap and have her pull at my scalp until I looked “presentable.” Mostly what I understood about my hair is that I had to endure a lot of pain for a disproportional amount of beauty in return.

Illustration by Eduardo Vazquez
Illustration by Eduardo Vazquez

Having “good hair” has always been painful. Braids, which I wore for most of my life, meant six to eight hours of sitting between an “auntie’s” legs, straining to watch whatever daytime novella was playing on the TV while she pinched my scalp in a thousand places. It was worth it because my friends would marvel at my slick new locks for the two months they lasted. My black friends would ask for the auntie’s number, my non-black friends would tug at it and ask how my hair grew so fast.

If it wasn’t braids, I’d have to endure my mother carefully combing my roots with Dark and Lovely relaxers and wait until they inflicted a faint burn on my scalp before I could wash the chemicals off. I was always more confident with soft, straight hair like the light-skinned girls on the Dark and Lovely box.

But the feeling only lasted as long as my roots didn’t peep out from under the braids or the relaxed hair. All of a sudden, I had naps in the back of my head, and the beauty would fade. Either way, I still didn’t look as cute as the pretty girls on TV who differed from me by more than just their hair.

This December, I decided to go natural. This means I took out my long braids that I had in for first semester, I cut off whatever remains of relaxed hair I had and decided to wear my hair in a fro, the way it grows out of my head. This made me feel liberated and bold and for those reasons, more beautiful. My parents hated it: They thought I was making a political statement. My friends loved it: They thought I was making a political statement. Sadly, the fact that I wear my hair naturally as a black woman is a political statement. Do white girls ever have to go natural?

I do not mean to shame black women who wear weaves and braids and relax their hair. Everyone has their right to feel beautiful in the way they feel most comfortable. But sometimes I wonder why it felt so natural for me to relax my hair and hide it under braids and weaves and hair scarves from such a tender age, or why my mother, like every other black woman I knew, put me through this process before I had the chance to decide on my own that I didn’t like my natural hair. Sometimes I wonder if this community perpetuates the harsh cycle by not accepting ourselves.

I have a younger sister, and when my mother does her hair, she screams, and I think of how inhumane it is to have a little girl go through that just to look presentable. Did I sound like that when I was her age? Do non-black girls go through the same pain to feel beautiful? Furthermore, if she wore her natural hair in a glorious fro, how many girls like her would she see on TV? How many kids would tease her for it? How quickly would she come crying to my mother to straighten her hair? Unfortunately, she’s 10 now and she’s gotten used to it, like I did at her age, like my mother did before us.

It’s taken me 19 years, and finally I have that choice to decide whether or not I like my hair for myself, and, sadly, whether or not I feel beautiful with it. I hope if I have a daughter, she’ll have that chance to decide without associating her hair with pain, or politics, or shame.