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Curly and Proud
Learning to embrace my natural hair
Angelina Nelson
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The first time I went to school with my hair curly was in 7th grade. I woke up and did my usual routine. I showered, ate breakfast, brushed my teeth and ran some leave-in conditioner through my hair. Because my hair was not straight, I didn’t feel as confident as usual about how I looked. But I had no choice.

Since I was 7 years old, I’d been damaging my hair by straightening it, using relaxers and putting constant heat on it so I would feel pretty. Images of beauty all around me didn’t include women of color with natural hair. So I thought curly and kinky were ugly.

But my hair was so damaged, it was breaking; I had to give it a rest. Plus, my mom and I were getting tired of spending every Sunday night doing it, and it was too expensive to go to a salon.

When I got to school, one of my Hispanic peers from my math class stopped me. Usually we just said hi to each other. Today was different.

“Angie, what happened to your hair?” my classmate said with a look of disgust smeared across her face, as if my hair was physically hurting her.

“Nothing. I just left it out today.”

I made a small laugh, and walked away. I wondered if I had masked my hurt well enough that I woudn’t come across as sensitive. I made my way to advisory. But the insult settled in.

Why I Hated My Hair

The stars on the TV shows I watched growing up had straight hair. My favorite show when I was younger was Wizards of Waverly Place. Alex, the main character played by Selena Gomez, had a light skin tone and her hair was dark, wavy and shiny. Sometimes it was straightened. There weren’t female characters with curly hair or an afro. I also watched That’s So Raven. The lead was played by Raven-Symoné, who is a woman of color, but her hair was straight in most episodes.

I thought of these actors as important people and since I never saw someone who had curly hair, I assumed that straight hair was more admirable. It made me dislike my hair.

Although I went to a racially diverse middle school, my two best friends were white. They have straight hair and I didn’t want to feel different from them. It was bad enough that I had darker skin. Straightening my hair made me feel like I fit in more. Even a few of my Spanish friends had their hair straight and when they didn’t, their curls still looked softer and wavier than mine.

Finally Seeing My Curls Represented

When I was in 8th grade, the show Black-ish came out. It’s about a black family in a white neighborhood. Yara Shahidi played the oldest child on the show. She was the first woman I ever saw on a popular show with naturally curly hair. The show tackles black stereotypes in a comedic way. But what I liked the most was that I finally saw a representation of myself on TV.

A few months after my discovery of Black-ish, I found a bunch of Instagram models who had big curly hair like me. I thought it was so cool that there was a community of girls with curly hair who interacted with each other. I saw myself in them. If they could be seen as beautiful and get complimented on their hair, then why shouldn’t I?

I’d also become friends with a lot of older black girls on my school’s soccer and softball teams who wore their hair naturally curly. They were older than me so I was influenced by them. They acted like they didn’t care what people thought of them, particularly how they wore their hair. It felt good to be around girls who looked like me.

Microaggressions

Still, I experienced racist and sexist microaggressions about my hair.

One day my mom and I went to get school supplies. At the store, a man led us to the right aisle. At the register, he said, “Next time you come here, make sure you do your hair.”

image by YC-Art Dept

I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. Regardless, I was insulted. I felt like less of a person because of this.

I know I am not the only woman of color who has had been discriminated against because of her hair. In a Time magazine article, “The Hatred of Black Hair Goes Beyond Ignorance,” I read about twins Mya and Deanna Cook. They were threatened with suspension from their Massachusetts school for wearing their hair in braids, a style that protects the hair from heat and sun damage. According to the article, at the same school, 17-year-old Jenesis Johnson, who had an afro, was told by the school administrator that her hair was “extreme and faddish and out of control.”

I worry about inherent bias like this when I go on job interviews. What if someone treats me the same way as the guy from the store? What if they believe stereotypes that would cost me the job opportunity? Making black women in the workplace feel like their natural hair is “messy” or unprofessional is just one more form of oppression created to keep black women in their place, which is at the bottom. In order to feel accepted at my job, I don’t want to have to straighten my hair so it looks whiter.

People have also touched my hair without permission. This is an invasion of my personal space. Being asked to let people touch my hair isn’t much better. Asking me to touch my hair feels like asking a dog owner to pet their dog.

One night I was walking to the train with three friends on the Lower East Side after we’d gone to a school volleyball game. As we were walking, we got a huge whiff of weed and a guy came up from behind us.

“Are you guys lit?” he asked.

“No,” we all said in unison while giggling nervously.

He was right behind me when he said, “Let me smell your hair.”

I couldn’t make out his face before I heard him take a huge sniff of my hair.

“Your hair smells good.”

I was frozen in place and my friend Daniella had to pull me to the side to move me away from him. To get away from him, we quickly made our way to a pizza shop on the same block.

I felt violated. I felt like the man could have hurt me.

Solange’s Song as My Anthem

I don’t think the guy would have sniffed my hair if I was white. Being black already comes with the stereotype of being “ghetto” or being seen as a criminal. Maybe having a full head of curls that draws attention to yourself amplifies this.

When I was in 9th grade, Solange released a song called “Don’t Touch My Hair.” It feels like my anthem. She sings, “Don’t touch my crown/They say the vision I’ve found.” I think she calls her hair her crown because it is only hers to touch and it is precious to her. This speaks for me because it has taken years for me to love my hair and embrace it. It has become a significant part of my identity. The song represents the journey many women of color like me have taken to love our natural hair.

If curly hair were more accepted on black women, I think Michelle Obama would wear her hair natural. I think she straightens it because if it were curly then she would have been seen as too “ghetto” and “too black” to be the First Lady.

I’ve also noticed that curly hair is not considered messy or unkempt on people who are not black. In 2015, Gigi Hadid appeared on the cover of Vogue Italy where she wore different brightly colored afro wigs—and this was considered fashion. Yet I was born with curly hair and am negatively stereotyped.

Still, I have learned to love my hair. I found beauty in a part of me I used to hate.

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(NYC-2018-11-10)

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