A prickly cringe blanket covers me sometimes when I talk about hair. Throughout my career, there's been a stark difference when addressing natural hair, wigs, and weaves; in contrast to the baby-blonde beach waves and sexy tousled shags that blow up on the internet. In office settings, I've participated in and eavesdropped on conversations about Black women and our hair—and always come out exhausted. The difference is this: There's always an explanation when it comes to Black women and our hair. There's always a method or reason to be explained—we can never just be.
Recently, for the first time in years, I was able to just be with my hair. When lockdown measures were put in place, I stopped styling my hair before work and a noticeable weight was lifted. My beloved NuMe flat iron sat somewhere collecting dust and my hair? Well, she was free for the first time in a minute. Months in a bun was my uniform and a silk scrunchie was the most pizzazz my strands received. I watched my hair transform from scorched and heat damage to tightly coiled curls with no pressure to document the process for social media. My hair simply was what it was. I felt great in my carefree bubble of doing absolutely nothing with my hair.
On social media, there was more chatter surrounding Black women and our beauty choices. Monique sparked an intense debate on Instagram after posting a photo of a woman in a bonnet at the airport. "If this is the BEST YOU CAN DO NO JUDGMENT DO YOU," the actress captioned the photo. "However, if this is not your BEST then do BETTER!" The post left social media divided, with people declaring their "stance" on whether or not bonnets were acceptable to be worn outside the comfort of your home. It's disappointing Black women were yet again placed in the center of a debate around our beauty choices (especially when physical and mental wellbeing during this critical time should be the priority). Still, I put the same pressure on myself to constantly look my best even though best is subjective out in the world.
"Mindset change and representation are equally important and can shift policy and perception as a whole."
Still, I can't pinpoint the moment that feeling began to dissipate. As my strands grew more in their natural form, things slowly began to return to "normal." As friends and family felt more comfortable gathering, the pressure of making sure my hair looked "presentable" returned. I practiced wash-and-go techniques (that took a minimum of two hours) to make sure my curls looked defined and glossy. I got frustrated, however, when that was not the consistent result. I slowly but surely became more preoccupied with the appearance of my hair, calling in products and booking appointments for braids and protective styles, while barely leaving the house.
Weeks later, another Twitter debate heated up about whether or not braids are acceptable to wear on your birthday and other special occasions. The response to the rather trivial question, while less divisive than the response to Monique's bonnet critique, still, once again, opened the door for Black women to defend their hair choices. "Braids can be worn any day of the year," one Instagram user said. "People have a problem with hair that's not even their own? What is this?" another added. It highlighted the unfortunate reality that, still, Black women have to be prepared for their beauty choices to be policed and defended—whether in braids or a bonnet. At the summer Olympics, swim caps designed to cover and protect Afro-textured hair were banned, creating even more barriers for athletes with natural hair or protective styles.
Cultural criticism of Black people and their appearance is by no means a new trial—though it's been rampant in recent months and years. Still, the debates on social media prove time again the world—and the internet—is not a safe space for Black women to exist however they see fit. It made me think about the latest strides to end hair discrimination, with legislation like the CROWN ACT, and how these conversations may contribute to the toxic cycle of prejudice, even within our communities.
Orlena Nwokah Blanchard, the President & COO of Joy Collective, took time to hear my frustrations and made a critical distinction between hair discrimination and bias. "Bias is prejudice. People may judge you or feel some way about you, but discrimination is when bias manifests as prejudicial behavior," she says. "Discrimination against Black hair shows up as denying Black people economic and educational opportunities based on their hair." Legislation like the CROWN Act looks at policy. It protects Black people from being discriminated against for their natural hair, be it in braids, buns, or locs because hair is an extension of our racial identity.
There's power in conversation. It's worth reevaluating what we deem acceptable and why Black women's beauty choices become viral conversations while our non-Black counterparts can accessorize however they please. "There are still so many generational differences about how we perceive the way we show up in the world as Black people," Blanchard says. "Many of us have experienced a world where it wasn't safe for you to show up a certain way that didn't assimilate as close to whiteness and Eurocentric standards of beauty. There was so much more at risk, which is why policy change is important."
Mindset change and representation are equally important and can shift policy and perception as a whole. The CROWN Act, and other significant cultural moments and protests, are proof of the power of Black public opinion. "The way we shift culture is by exhausting every opportunity," Blanchard says. "We have to use the power of imagery and storytelling to normalize Black hair and normalize the Black aesthetic that is rooted in the history of the African aesthetic. We have to reprogram ourselves as Black people in America. We have to reprogram the diaspora, but we especially have to reprogram the rest of the world, which has never understood or appreciated the African aesthetic."
"We have to reprogram the diaspora, but we especially have to reprogram the rest of the world, which has never understood or appreciated the African aesthetic."
Part of that normalizing starts with affording Black people autonomy over their appearance. It begins with championing each other versus being hypercritical. After all, we're already so hard on ourselves as individuals. Ultimately, a perfect world starts with leaving Black women alone and letting them navigate the world freely in their bonnets, braids, or not. Normalize letting Black women be without qualms. Oh, and if you don't have anything nice to say about one's appearance, keep it to yourself—a universal rule that should also apply to Black women. In the digital age, of course, that's wishful thinking, but, hey, a girl can dream.