Finding Freedom: Beauty in Other Spaces (Part 1)

blog picture 1This task of defining beauty is cumbersome.

Throw in our biological preference for youth and symmetry, the global status that white skin is given; and the social construct of beauty that varies across cultures and time periods.

It’s messy. Complex. Oppressive.

But I’m not as interested in defining beauty as I am in women possessing their beauty.

What is possessing one’s beauty? Is it figuring out the right makeup and hairstyle for your features?

I appeal to a blog post recently written by a friend to offer insight. Possessing your beauty is “to see beauty in yourself.” It is a release from shame.  From oppressive beauty standards. And yes, from the belief that physical beauty is worthless.

It is the freedom to “delight in beauty. Yes, even your own.”

Possession of our beauty doesn’t happen all at once.

You might catch glimpses of it. Underneath a blasting shower, a ringlet of hair bounces with the steady stream of water.

Maybe we find freedom to delight in our beauty in a quote by Kola Boof:

My look, mind you, is not chocolate like Lauryn Hill, Whoopi Goldberg, or Naomi Campbell–it is pitch black and shimmering like the purple outer space of the universe. I am the charcoal that creates diamonds. I am the blackest black woman.for blog 2

And sometimes we possess our beauty outside of our own culture. Away from our own ethnic group and a culture that upholds a certain beauty ideal.

We possess it in a space where we are the exotic.

In our laughter as a stranger stands in the street,  grips his chest and sings out:  “Morena de mi corazon.”

We see our beauty in the eyes of others as they take delight in our presence.

I possessed my beauty during my eight month stay in Lima, Peru:

I came home to myself. I took out the braids and I was left with a kinky, coily, curly ball of hair.  And I fell in love all over again.

I think of the shame that we as black women sometimes live with. For generations society has repeatedly told us that our hair is ugly. It needs to be hidden. It needs to be changed. It needs to look less African (whatever that means) and more European. But as I walked down a street in Lima with my big fluffy hair I felt glorious. I felt feminine. Womanly. There was a rush of power, defiance and self-acceptance.

…in this culture I am the Other.  But I  I’m going to enjoy  being the Other. I’m going to enjoy the GLORY of my hair. I’m going to enjoy its BOLD, BIGNESS DEFIANCE.

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The Sacred Space of Detangling Hair

sisterscombingeachothershairI was shocked, pissed off when my sister pushed open the bathroom door and walked in with a friend.

Conditioner and a mix of olive oil and coconut oil covered my hands. On the side of the sink sat a ball of shed hair I had combed out.

And my hair, wet, shrunken, drenched in oil and conditioner was combed haphazardly into fat twists. Not pretty.

I didn’t mind that my sister was in the bathroom. She had seen me dishevelled. Naked. Ugly.

But she, our friend who I will call Kim, was a stranger.

And I had recently learnt that her ethnically homogeneous culture preferred Caucasian features.

Could she appreciate, see beauty in other ethnicities?

“Look. Look.” Both Kim and my sister squealed.

‘What?” I asked, tugging on a section of hair. My mind still reeled from this invasion of privacy.

She had copied my sister’s hairstyle. They both stood in front of the mirror with their heads slightly bent in my direction.

‘Cute,” I complimented.  I thought Kim would leave and I would have the opportunity to tongue-lash my sister for breaking an unwritten code.

Instead Kim planted herself on the Jacuzzi step and watched as I combed out a section of hair and twisted.

What was she thinking? Would she go back to her family and friends  and tell them that afro-textured hair is ugly, short, and weird?

I felt uncomfortable. Ashamed. And a little bit curious.

My hair care practices don’t look like the 30 second Garnier commercials. And most non-black ethnicities just don’t get the hair. They don’t understand how tiny cornrows can blossom into a big ‘fro. Or how shrunken tufts of hair can suddenly jump from shoulder length to waist length. They think it is strange that black women change their hairstyles so often.

At school, church, work, in airports, hair salons, and on street corners I am bombarded with questions about my hair.

So washing my hair is sacred. Free from curious stares, questions, judgement and sneaky hands coping a feel.

Kim stood in a sacred space. A space in which my non-black friends were not allowed.

But her invasion made me curious about this space that I am unwilling share. There is a bond/intimacy that is created when you can talk to a friend about your hair care practices and experiences,  and she gets it. This friend knows and accepts the hair.   She won’t be shocked when she sees your hair in the before, during and after stages of washing, braiding, twisting, weaving or straightening.  She is even willing to help take out your nasty braids. To have her hands covered in the oil, build-up and dandruff of your two-month-old style. Not every black girlfriend is willing to do this, but I wonder if a non-black girlfriend would ever want to become that intimate with your hair?

Blogger, Yagazie Emezi wrote a post about hair intimacy. She describes it  as“getting to the roots of your hair; touching your scalp (yay head rubs!), knowing the way the hair works and accepting the hair in whatever form.”

Yagazie is in an interracial relationship. In the blog post she talks about refusing to allow her boyfriend to see her hair when it was halfway done in braids. But as their relationship deepened she allowed him into that sacred space of hair grooming: “At a certain point of our relationship, he watched me take out my braids. He saw the nasty nature of the way hair gets after two months in braids. Clumps and all. He helped me put in braids. He washed my hair. And I insisted on head rubs just about every day.”

Hair intimacy is not limited to romantic relationships.  But what does it look like between friends of different ethnic backgrounds?

“We need your help.” my sister asked. Kim’s hairstyle had fallen apart.

My fingers touched her scalp as they intertwined the black, silky strands to form a flat twist. Gently, I pinned the twist back. Her hair is beautiful: thick and shiny.

She and my sister clapped their hands and giggled. They were pleased.

Would I let her touch my hair? Finger these delicate coily strands? Pull it back in a puff? Would she like the soft, pillowy feel of the hair?

On my worst days

On my worst days I dress up the most, I painstakingly take the time to do my hair just right, I wear my sexiest outfit, and my makeup has to be flawless. On those days I wear lipstick, the darkest shade I own, the boldest color, indigo. So smooth, creamy on my lips protecting them, protecting my emotions that on those days threaten to spurt from my eyes.

I remember when I broke up with my boyfriend, my first love, I was devastated. That weekend I went to my hair dresser and got 20 inch extensions, I plucked my eyebrows, got a manicure and pedicure and bought a new dress. Despite my heartbreak, I looked like a heartbreaker. At that time I worked at Victoria’s Secret, I remember greeting the customers cheerily, and of course, some would say “You’re so beautiful, I’m sure your boyfriend loves that you work here.”  I would just laugh off the statement and secretly go in the fitting room and cry.  Imagine trying to cry with a face full of make up in a fitting room full of bras, and insecure women constantly in need of reassurance that they are wearing the right cup size. It’s not easy.  I felt like a broken woman, but I looked so put together.  And even though those were superficial compliments coming from absolute strangers, sometimes they made me smile. And when I passed by the huge mirrors that were in every room of the store, I didn’t see a grief stricken, heartbroken girl, I saw a confident sexy siren staring back at me. So, that’s why on my worst days I dress up the most.

There are days when I take my lingerie out of hiding. I handle it carefully because it is delicate and intricate yet dark and mysterious. Sometimes I think to myself, that these are some very raunchy pieces. I want to raise a hand up and “meow”. On those days I feel like being sexy, I feel like admiring my physique. I put on some music I can move to and I model my lingerie for myself.  I do my hair, I brush on some make up and I strike a pose. I pose for me, myself, and I; it’s quite fun actually. I don’t need any one’s approval or praise. I’m in my own space enjoying my lingerie, and I feel sexy.  In fact I don’t just feel it, I know it, I own it.

The days I feel a little chubby, soft in some places; I workout hard core. I may run up and down my basement stairs or jump rope. The elliptical is always an option but the treadmill never is. After I’m drenched in sweat, and if my muscles are not too tired, I may stretch my muscles on the carpet.  Afterwards I look in the mirror, sweaty, frizzy hair, in oversized clothing, I can’t help but smile. I smile because I feel good, great actually, because I don’t feel so soft anymore. Feeling fit beats feeling like a lazy lump.

On my most relaxed days, I dress up the least. I look like a totally different person, I think. My face is naked, free from foundation, pressed powder, mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow, and lip gloss. My hair is far from perfect, I don’t even brush it. A simple braid will do. I run around with shades on, an oversized sweater, shorts and bedroom slippers. I laugh spontaneously at myself, at my appearance. I am a sight to see on those days but I don’t care. I can be a sexy siren, a hardcore fitness person, or a frump. As long as I am confident in myself and I end my days with a smile that’s really all that matters.