A couple of weeks ago, I had my hair in long, luscious, beaded cornrows. With the help of synthetic hair and clean lines, my braider gave me 18″ of hang and major bragging rights—or at least that’s what I thought. After a full day of enjoying my new look, I met up with a close friend to do a hike. Excited to show off my hairstyle, I was greeted with an unfavorable response, “Wait what?” she said, “I thought you were embracing being natural. I like it, but… what happened?”
For context, prior to 2018, I had spent nearly every day manipulating my 4a coils and curls to society’s standard of what was “professional,” “neat,” “normal,” and “beautiful.” Some days that meant waking up an hour earlier for work to straighten my hair. Other days, it warranted a 2 hour hair appointment to chemically turn my frizzy coils to smooth, straight locks. I walked around on edge when my hair was in its natural state, forever fearful that someone would make a judgy comment — invalidating my lived experience.
By the end of 2018, I was fed up. Tired of conforming and tired of suppressing my hair from doing what it was naturally meant to do, I opted for the big chop. The aftermath was an immense freedom. But just because I chose to be natural in that moment does not mean that I don’t have the right to change my hairstyle when I please.
My friend’s comment was triggering because it wasn’t the first time someone had transferred their own biases and beliefs about my hair. Unfortunately, each misconstrued impression and judgment placed on my hair as a Black woman is not singular, but a collective narrative that tells me that I am different and do not belong. Each time I received unsolicited advice about my hair, I got tricked into thinking that how I chose to style my hair was not my choice.
The CROWN Act, a law established to end hair discrimination for Black people, represents a movement of choice, including the choice and the right to straighten or braid your hair if you choose, without being on the receiving end of discrimination. More plainly, the CROWN Act was created to legitimize our experiences and our choice in deciding what hairstyle to wear, so why is it so hard to actually execute this?
Sadly, many of the Black women and POC I know who are on the receiving end of these comments also experience a lack of confidence and self-worth. The comments can become so frequent that many people end up believing them, therefore adjusting to standardized ideals of beauty. Unfortunately, society enforces Black and Brown people to minimize our experiences and characteristics as if there’s something wrong with them.
The fact of the matter is, Black hair is inherently political. We opt to weave our hair and are accused of assimilating. When in braids or natural, we are praised for honoring our diaspora. The versatility of Black hair is too often posed as a double-edged sword: Great for the wearer but open for public scrutiny. Black women are repeatedly judged more by how they look than who they are, making it difficult to ignore public opinion.
But the truth is, how you choose to wear your hair should be your decision and no one else’s. It took me years to ignore public opinion and embrace my personal hairstyle choice. Once I chopped off all my straight hair and embraced protective styles, I felt myself become less of a target. I realized that the public needed to see the versatility of Black hair.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of We Should All Be Feminists, has a TED talk in which she discusses the danger of a “single story.” This concept is based on the idea that if you “show people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, that is what they will become.” My personal encounters with the public’s belief in this single story — that as a Black woman, I should wear my hair one specific way, and one way only — has disallowed other narratives to enter their mind.
This realization taught me that I was part of the problem. In order to expand the public’s single story, I needed to keep showing up and backing up my hair choices, regardless of how out-of-the-box it might have seemed to the individual making a comment. I must admit, this is an ongoing process. When I find myself listening to generalized public opinion, I remind myself one thing: The choice is mine because this hair is mine.
Here’s some tips on how to avoid buildup while wearing braids.