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.


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?

Retelling the Story of Afro-textured Hair

The narrative about our hair has not always been positive or beautiful.

At a young age we are greeted with a plethora of words and the sharp tug of the comb that tell us these strands on our head are trouble, possibly ugly, and at the appropriate time must be changed to a more presentable and manageable form.

Hair Models

However, today, I had the pleasure to witness the retelling of afro-textured hair. And not in fancy magazines advertising a certain product that will define curls, soften hair or is perfect for styling. Rather,  I saw the story of beauty unfold in living, breathing women with poofy, cottony, fluffy hair. Hair that coiled and sprang up. Or curled and hung down. Big hair. Cropped cuts. Fancy updos involving rolls, tucks or French braids.

Where was I? Standing in line at Japonais Lounge in Chicago at a Curly Nikki meetup. My eyes darted from one beautiful head of hair to the next. In one spot, over 600 naturalistas had arrived to sample Motions’recently launched  product line for natural hair and of course enjoy the free drinks, and appetizers. Like most of my fellow naturalistas, I hoped to catch a glimpse of Curly Nikki and maybe even snag a picture.

Finally, when Curly Nikki addressed the crowd, she made a special call out to women who

Curly Nikki and ME!!!!!!! Wish my hair had fluffed out a bit more.

had “big chopped” or those who were transitioning. She reminded them that they were not alone. That there is a community beyond the blogger-sphere who had painfully, clumsily, but purposefully taken this journey to unveiling the beauty of kinky, coily, curly hair. She understood that at times the newbie naturalista would not see beauty when she looked in the mirror. That she would be frustrated with her hair: the time it took to wash, detangle and style. She would find some of the styles obnoxious. And even ugly. But if she looked around the room, this woman had support. She had inspiration.

Afterwards we stood in line for drinks and to snap photos with Curly Nikki. We touched each other’s hair.  Complimented each other’s hairstyles.  Listened to each other’s hair journeys and stories.  Asked for advice about certain hair woes.  Recommended certain products, techniques and styles.

Today, I saw the story of afro-textured hair–it is beautiful.

Close up of my twist out

Little Black Girl

Little black girl enjoy your youth. Enjoy the freedom of running around with big plaits in your hair. Take pride in the fact that your textured hair grows upwards like a crown. Dance in the sun and be proud of your black skin.

Little black girl you are more than what is between your thighs. More than your perfectly plump bottom and shapely legs. You are blessed with curves that go on for miles, but you are more than those too.

Little black girl you do not need to dye your hair blonde or bleach your skin. You do not have to look white washed like Beyonce’ or Keri Hilson. Your brown eyes do not need to be replaced by store bought blue ones.

Little black girl you are beautiful. You have almond shaped eyes the color of dark brown sugar and pouty soft lips. You do not need hair that hangs down to your bottom because your face was blessed with the intricacy and delicateness of your creator’s hands. Your skin is bronze like copper or black like rich coffee.

Little black girl you do not want to be like one of the girls that Drake, Kanye, or Lil Wayne rap about. You are better than dancing in rap videos and sliding down a stripper pole.  You do not want the life of the Draya Michele’s, and Brooke Bailey’s ( Basketball wives LA)of the world. Your aspiration in life should not be to become an urban model or a video vixen.

Little black girl either you are invisible and not seen, or you are put in a box and seen in a stereotypical light. I used to complain that black women were not represented in the media. I used to whine and fret about black women not having their own TV shows, or being on reality TV. I complained about the stereotypical magical Negro, mammy black women being used over and over again. I hated how the beauty of women like Viola Davis is continually down played in movies.  Now, I detest the way black women single-handedly objectify themselves in the media.

The image of the hyper sexual black woman is far worse than any of these other stereotypes. She is that woman in the music video scantily clad, legs spread eagle, shaking her shame to lyrics that degrade her. She exchanges her body for currency, for expensive cars, or clothes and she is not ashamed to say so. She is that woman who is proud to be a stripper, and is proud to let everyone know that she has a price. Unfortunately, her presentation is beautiful, which makes this life style appealing to little black girls with young malleable minds.  She sends the message to the world that she is her body, and that all she has to offer is sex. She embodies everything that is negative, and shameful about womanhood, yet she is packaged so nicely. This is not a life that any mother wants for her daughter. This is not a life that any woman, should choose.

I repeat, little black girl you are more than what is  between your thighs. More than your perfectly plump bottom and shapely legs. You are blessed with curves that go on for miles, but you are more than those too.

Images: Image 1, Image 2.

The lesson I learnt from my hair

I was born with thick, kinky, coily, black hair. I hated combining it. I hated washing it. And I hated how my mother styled it. When I moved to America, I hated my hair even more. I couldn’t accept it, just like I couldn’t accept myself. I blamed my hair for my insecurities: it made me ugly.

In ninth grade, my parents finally let me get a texturizer. This is it, I thought,  I am pretty now.  But the texturizer didn’t make my hair straight  enough, no matter how many times I squished my strands between the hot plates of the flat iron. I flat ironed my hair to death. It stank of burnt hair and the ends broke off in a rather choppy manner.  After  the texturizer disaster,  I got braids and that seemed to work for a while. I liked braids, they were no fuss, no stress. I didn’t have to deal with my hair. I didn’t have to accept it or take the time to get to know it. But I hated, hated when I took my braids out and had to deal with my natural hair. I couldn’t escape my hair and I couldn’t get it braided back up quickly enough. Then someone told me that I should change my hair and get a relaxer. I did just that.

One year later, I moved to Arizona and had to cut my hair off because it was over processed. I decided to grow my hair back naturally only if it was covered up. During that time, I found an amazing stylist so I never had to deal with it if I didn’t want to. But my hair was never good enough, so I started abusing my strands with heat again. With more heat came more breakage. My hair dresser tried to get me to love my hair, accept it’s kinkiness but at that time I just couldn’t.

I moved again, back to Wisconsin, and decided to try the Brazilian Blow out on my hair, this I thought would love my strands the way I couldn’t. Eureka! It worked.  I thought I found the answer to my insecurities, but then my hair started breaking. It broke right in the crown of my hair where everyone could see. It looked as if I had purposefully chopped my hair in that way. I was devastated. Heart broken. I destroyed my hair. I abused it. Because I wouldn’t get to know my hair I couldn’t understand it, and I couldn’t love it.

I decided to give my hair a break. I took out the extensions. I stopped baking it with the flat iron. I tried to understand it, I was patient with it. I saw it’s beauty and its strength in its natural state. Eventually my hair started growing back thicker and stronger.

My hair taught me to learn to love myself. I was fighting who I was; I was rejecting someone I didn’t even know, myself. I made a mistake many women make, I looked for a man to love me when I didn’t love myself, like I tried many products  to “love” my hair when I couldn’t. I didn’t take time to know my hair, to find out what products worked well in it and which ones didn’t. I didn’t know what my hair wanted or needed. Similar to another mistake I made that other women make, not knowing myself or my expectations, wants, needs and looking for a man to fix “something” when I didn’t know what the “something” was.

My hair taught me resilience. Despite the ill treatment, my hair grew back, time and time again. I finally got the message to accept it and to love it for what it was.  By giving it time I saw it’s beauty. In an attempt to find someone to love me, I did something a lot of other women to do, I treated myself poorly. I ended up abusing myself.  As women if we take the time to get to know ourselves, understand ourselves and  love ourselves, we will accept ourselves for who we are. For those  women like myself, who have gone through droughts of self-love  and made the mistake of trying to find a man to love them, but have eventually learnt to love themselves, they are not damaged, they are resilient. This is the lesson my hair taught me.


Hair Travels: A story of beauty (Part 1)

I decided this year to grow my hair out of the relaxer. It was a combination of experiencing severe breakage from the hair in the back plus observing my sister’s hair growth albeit as it lay protected under an expensive weave. Plus, I was tired of the fear and anxiety that would accompany me when I went to get my roots touched up at a salon. Would this salon trip leave me bald and in pain? I’m sure many other women with tightly coiled hair have experienced this sentiment. So I chopped it off and hid the kinky roots under an expensive weave myself.

But my desire for going natural took on an evening deeper meaning when I came across an article by a woman describing combing the Afro-textured hair of her daughters. In the article she described the despair her daughter felt when she came to the realization that her hair would never be as long or as flowy as the white model on television. The author goes onto state that of all ethnicities in the world, those us of African descent were the only ones with this type of hair. It seemed almost like a death sentence; a childhood dream bursting and giving way to an unpretty reality. I could relate. As a young child I always believed that my hair would eventually evolve into the relaxed and straightened strands that sat on top my mother’s head. I remember my sister’s obsession with wearing elastic-waisted skirts on top of her head to achieve that long-haired flowy look that most little black girls were denied.

And then came the unanswerable refrain: Why? Why are we so different? Followed by the usual self-pity that accompanies not living up to a beauty ideal that has dominated Western culture.

But then I started to think about how I would raise my own daughters (If I ever have

Hair after two years of growing out the relaxer

children). Would they, like that little girl in the article, burst into tears because their hair was coily and not straight? Would I join the reverberating chorus, “Don’t relax your hair “but fail to teach them how to manage and care for their hair because I did not know how? Would they believe the myth that Afro-textured hair is “bad hair” that our hair “ca’ grow long”? I wanted if I ever had girl children to pass on a beauty ethic that was denied my mother. One that would be devoid of pulling and tugging and complaints about how thick and tangling the hair is; one filled with words of beauty and praise.

How? When I still believed that my hair was coarse and unmanageable?