As I drove down the 5 through downtown L.A. for Dove’s Self-Esteem workshop and town hall, hosted by Shonda Rhimes (who has worked with Dove as their creative director for over two years), I started to think back to who I was as a teenager.
Much of how I saw myself was defined by my hair. As a very young girl, I heard the negative comments about my hair with adults saying things like I had "bead-a-bees," which was essentially a way of saying my hair was nappy. But, in my teens, the insults became a bit more shrouded. My peers and family members were describing my hair as "good," with kids asking me what I was mixed with, which I which I later understood was problematic, as it perpetuates the idea that only a specific hair type is suitable, and you can't be Black and have "good" hair.
While part of me was disappointed that a self-esteem workshop focused on Black hair is necessary, I understand the need. "We know that Black girls cite their first experience with negativity about their appearance as young as eight years old—and most often these comments are on their hair," said Eggleston Bracey, the executive vice president of North America Beauty and Personal Care at Unilever. My first experience was at the age of six. If you're wondering how I can remember that far back, just like any trauma, it's impossible to forget.
When I walked into the conference room at the Los Angeles Department of Education, I was surrounded by teenage girls with braids, fros, and coils, which made my heart burst with happiness. Seeing powerful Black women like Shonda Rhimes, Esi Eggleston Bracey, Senator Holly J. Mitchell, and Janaya "Future" Khan looking back into their young faces knowing the choices they'd make in their careers would directly affect how young Black girls everywhere would move through life as Black women was immeasurably powerful.
Mitchell has already made a significant impact by introducing CA Senate Bill 188 , or The CROWN Act that recently passed in California and New York, making legislative space that is essential in protecting Black girls and women from hair discrimination. "I was proud to stand as a dreadlock-wearing woman in the California State Senate to stand up and introduce SB 188," she said to the room of students and administrators. She added that the bill's name "was not a coincidence because eights look like curls."
The panel didn't stop there, as we heard the real stories of Black girls nationwide that had been expelled, shamed, and punished for embracing their Blackness. We heard from young ladies like 12-year-old Faith Fennidy, who was was expelled last year from school for wearing her hair in braids. Fennidy's story is not uncommon given Black girls are twice as likely to be suspended as their white counterparts. In states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Illinois, that number jumps up to five times more likely.
As we talked, Faith shared with me that on the day she was forced to leave school because of her hair, she and her classmate Tyrelle Davis were both asked "if our hair was real or fake."
Fennidy's mom, Montelle added, "They went through the yearbook to try to determine if their hair had grown or if there was hair added.
"When I told them that it was my real hair, an administrator said no, it's not, because my hair isn't that long," Faith continued. With all she was facing, she still had the courage at 11-years-old to speak her truth, later deciding to use her voice and "be loud enough for everyone else who wasn't able to use theirs."
What struck me most about Faith was her ability to express her feelings with her head held high. "Having the support of my parents made everything a lot easier because I knew everything was going to be okay."
Faith's mother was a vital advocate for her daughter. "I embraced her decision to speak up about the injustice and unfairness that was happening to her. There was no way I could allow administrators and faculty to expel her because of her hair and conform to what they wanted her hair to be. She was so full of anxiety, and so was I about what to do next. There was a lot of fear about a new school and if she'd be accepted. So, it was really overwhelming."
There was no way I could allow administrators and faculty to expel her because of her hair and conform to what they wanted her hair to be.
Personally, I was lucky to have grown up in Atlanta, where I was surrounded by Blackness. Black teachers. Black art. Black leaders. But somehow, even surrounded by all of that positive influence, I still aspired to whiteness, idolizing supermodels like Kate Moss, Daria Werbowy, and Heidi Klum. With my teenage beauty icons in mind, I was curious about who Faith looked to for beauty inspiration. She proudly shared, "Kelly and Beyoncé show you what strong Black women are." I could relate. Kelly Rowland, Brandy, and Beyoncé exemplified Black beauty for me in the 90s, but I still wanted to look like the non-Black faces I saw in beauty ads or on the pages on my beloved Seventeen and Teen Vogue magazines.
At the closing of the self-esteem panel, Shonda Rhimes challenged school administrators to "Go home and start the conversation. As an administrator, you have the power to change the rules in your school, but at the very least, stand up for a child at your school to stop somebody from feeling bad. Every kid who gets stood up for and helped… it's a powerful move."
Ms. Fennidy echoed Rhimes' sentiments: "Stand for what's right because there have been laws and rules in place since the beginning of time to keep people of color oppressed, so we have to stand together as parents, aunts, uncles, and family and say, 'No we're not going to allow this to happen to our children.'"
As I sat at a table and made crowns with two eleven-year-old girls—symbols of strength, resiliency, and nobility—I listened to their struggles with intense bullying as a result of their hair and identity. They are fighting a similar yet different fight from the one I knew because of today's age of social media. But, at the same time, they're embracing their hair in a way I just started to explore seven years ago. I can't filter what they take in, but now more than ever, I feel a responsibility to them and my teenage self to be the writer I always needed. Many people might look at the job of beauty writers from a place of vanity without recognizing many of us (especially Black beauty writers) worry that cornrows will get misappropriated as boxer braids and what type of coverage different representations of Black beauty are put out into the world. Beauty goes beyond trends and new products. It is and will always be about representation, and I will continue to shape that narrative.