What I Learned About Beauty After Straightening My Hair
Deciding to start my natural hair journey had been long overdue.
My hair had been so damaged from heat and the overuse of products not meant for it that I could hear it laughing at me every time I ran my fingers through it, contemplating to just let it be.
It was hard at first. It was in this awkward transition stage of being both dead and alive. It was kind of like that awkward stage women go through with their eyebrows when trying to grow them out.
Somehow, I managed. For months, my hair went untouched by straightening devices like flat irons, blow dryers, even serums and hair treatments that were designed to take away from its naturalness. My curls were making a come back!
Before embarking on my journey, I agreed that once every six months, I would straighten my hair to see how my growth was progressing. This week marked the sixth month. So I pulled out my flat iron, blew the dust off, and prepared to be amazed at my growth. But boy, was I disappointed. It went nowhere near as straight as it used to, and my ends were deader than I knew what to do with.
Maybe its time for a trim, I thought to myself. The very next day, I was in my hairdressers seat asking Leann to keep it as long as possible while trimming away the lifeless ends that really hadn’t looked that bad when my hair was curly.
I walked out of there feeling great. My hair was healthy and it looked good.
But before long, there were a series of unusual remarks, stares, and whistles that got me thinking about society’s standard of beauty, who fits into it, and what it means for those that don’t.
“Its like having two girlfriends,” my boyfriend said to me when he saw me that night. This was something I had heard before from men whose girlfriends alternated between straight and curly hair. I was tempted to ask him which girlfriend he liked better, but opted not to.
Before I met up with him that night, I had several clients compliment my appearance. Three of them asked for my number, and one of them told me I look “Spanish.” He seemed startled that I wasn’t grinning at his lame attempt to flatter me by essentially encouraging me to identify with something I didn’t.
It was strange. These were all clients I had served before. They had seen me on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. They hadn’t said any of these things to me when I wore my hair naturally. Where was all this attention coming from?
Walking to grab tea from Tim Horton’s, an older white man said “How you doin’ beautiful?” I note his colour only because I haven’t been hit on by a white guy since the last time my hair was straight.
Strangely, my treatment from women also underwent a shift. The female clients I had that were typically quite rude or standoffish were either extra nice or extra quiet. Why? I wondered. Be rude to me! I can handle it. But then I thought about it.
Personally, when I am face to face with a woman who fits into society’s standard of beauty better than I do, it can be intimidating. I find myself to be either extra nice or extra quiet. Hm. Was I being paranoid or was this an inferiority complex? If so, does this mean our treatment towards people depends on how they appear? How well they fit into the “skinny with white features” depiction of beauty?
For the six months that I wore my hair curly, I felt confident. I felt like I had been a one-girl revolution who walked with purpose, making a statement with every step. But when I wore my hair straight, I felt safe.
What’s the difference?
With curly hair, my sense of approval, the validation of my beauty, and my self-love came from the inside. It meant that even without the series of remarks, comments and whistles, I knew I was beautiful because damn it, I felt beautiful inside.
But with my straight hair, I felt safe. I felt like I looked racially ambiguous; maybe Spanish, maybe mixed, maybe straight white with a tan. Or maybe even full-black, but light enough to escape the dreaded implications of what that might mean in today’s society for my success in a job interview or the preferential treatment that men or women may have towards me because it was validated to me.
The truth is; natural hair represents an absence of fear. And for a lot of men, especially the men who specifically go after a woman based on her closeness to “beauty”, nothing is scarier than a woman who publicly displays an absence of fear. Natural hair represents an ability to ignore the media’s messages about what beauty is. It’s like wearing a fluorescent yellow t-shirt that says, “Yeah, I saw the commercial for that new L’oreal crap and I’m not interested.”
Last week, I had to hand in something called a privilege diary for my Women’s Studies class. We had to detail how privileged or unprivileged we were in certain cases. I noted that the fact that I am a woman of colour makes me less privileged than a white woman. But the fact that I am a lighter skinned woman of colour makes me more privileged than a dark skinned woman. The fact that my hair can transition, naturally, from kinky curly to bone straight makes me more privileged than women who have to use artificial hair, relaxing treatments and the like, to be more like what the media tells us is beautiful.
Despite all of that, here’s one thing I know to be true: I am not my hair. But society sure has a way of making us feel differently. Especially women of colour.
Why is it that when women wear their hair naturally they are complimented by being called “unique” or “brave”? When I started wearing my hair naturally, people joked that I had “tamed the beast.” I still have no idea which beast they are referring to. But when women have straight hair, or straighten their hair, they're “sexy” or “beautiful.”
So to all the men, especially the black men, who felt the need to compliment me on my “remarkable beauty”, ask for my “digits”, or tip toe around my temporary whiteness, thank you. But men like you are a huge part of the reason black women have taken so long to begin embracing their natural hair. You are a huge part of the hostility that exists between light-skinned women and dark-skinned women. You are a huge reason the media hasn’t changed the message.
And what message does that send to young women? What message did it send to me when I was growing up? Because in retrospect, the media was a big, scary adult that whispered this in my bi-racial ear, “Kid, you’re gonna wanna identify with your white side more if you really wanna make it out there.”
It wasn’t until I saw the Charmsie’s and the Halfie Truth’s and the Lipstick n’ Curls of the world that I realized that curly hair is okay, natural hair is okay.
And it certainly is beautiful. And sexy.