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How I Learned to Embrace Free-Form Hair -- and My True Self

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The author has worn braids, press and curl and pixie braids. - COURTESY OF VERNA DANIELS
  • COURTESY OF VERNA DANIELS
  • The author has worn braids, press and curl and pixie braids.

For years, I went to the hair salon and stared at the hot comb, just as my mother had before me. I straightened my hair, permed it, got sew-ins, dyed it. I overworked my hair and succumbed to what society and even my familial history told me was right.

But something in me resisted. I began to read books about my history, and watched as many interviews and commentaries as I could on what it meant to be black. I watched hair tutorial after hair tutorial, looking up natural concoctions that I could make and use in my hair: coconut oil, grapeseed oil, flax seeds.

The more I dove into my culture, the more I wanted to be free within it. I saw photos of my ancestors wearing their hair in its natural state, and I learned the purpose of it. So, in response, I chose free-form locs as the truest expression of myself.

For Africans, I learned hair had always been a part of our spirituality, and always served a purpose. Often, it was looked upon as a direct line to our ancestors and the Most High. Our hair acts as an antenna that taps into a higher vibration, an idea inspired by how our follicles grow upward, towards the creator.

But through the transatlantic slave trade and colonization, the very fabric of our beliefs and what our ancestors held sacred were stripped away. Historically Africans were made to cut their hair, and were separated from the beliefs and spiritual systems that had been at the center of their communities. Their African features were looked down on, and Eurocentric features were prized. More than a century after slavery, the perm was introduced. Women and men moved away from natural hair, and placed harsh chemicals that often singed their hair to obtain the beauty standard.

We see now the residual effects in research that links hair chemicals used by black women to fibroids. Black women in the U.S. have a rate of these uterine tumors that's two to three times higher than white ones. For a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the authors interviewed more than 23,000 pre-menopausal black women from 1997 to 2009 and found higher fibroid rates among women who'd used relaxers in their hair. Relaxers often contain lye (sodium hydroxide), which can cause burns and lesions on the scalp. The authors linked these burns to the occurrences of fibroids.

I've long been intrigued by the link between our ancestors' first experiences with European culture and the imprints left on our society in the present day. We live in a society of social media, where influence can be magnified as it confronts us in image after image, on screen after screen.

As a black woman, it is a constant struggle dealing with beauty. We go to get makeup and can't find our shade; access to natural hair-care products that work with our hair is limited, often manufactured by individuals who don't look like us; and of course, natural hair is deemed "unprofessional." Your African hair is called "nappy" and your body "fat"; when you turn to social media, you get choked out by the cultural appropriation.

Even in 2018, we are still trying to find our place in society without having to compromise what we look like. But it has always been a struggle for us, especially when it comes to how we perceive ourselves, and how black men perceive us.

My oldest brother, Courtney, and I often talked about my hair — he was the one person who just got it. I remember one particular conversation. We sat at his kitchen table, a mix of old and modern rap music playing in the background. I listened intently, this short dark-skinned guy in his 40s (my other brothers and I, being younger, always gave him trouble about his age) telling me what it was like growing up for him.

We got on the topic of black women and their hair, and I asked, "How was hair perceived when you were growing up?" His answer surprised me. "Guys wanted girls with 'good hair,' and a weave was something that we looked down on."

That was such an interesting concept. These days, when the conversation surrounding "good hair" sways its ugly head in circles of black women, women with more kinky textures feel less beautiful than their counterparts because of what society has set forth as beautiful. In 2018, a lot of the black women we see on social media with "good hair" have weaves or wigs.