My entire life had been shaped by the beauty standards of women who looked nothing like me.
By
Jennifer Neal

27 Jul 2018 - 12:46 PM  UPDATED 27 Jul 2018 - 3:05 PM

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with straight hair. After bath time, I would drape the towel over my head and pretend the raggedy tendrils of my Little Mermaid towel were long golden locks and I would strut through the house like this until my mother finally managed to get it off my head.

I spent hours perusing the catalogues of hair and fashion magazines, audibly lamenting the super-tight coil of my 4c kinks, which I thought to be hideous. Eventually, my parents capitulated and took me to a black hair salon to get my first relaxer – a lye-based chemical that burned my hair (and bits of my scalp and neck) into submission until I finally had hair that would, as I exclaimed excitedly after fact, “lay down.”

My entire life had been shaped by the beauty standards of women who looked nothing like me.

It was the beginning of my addition to what Chris Rock refers to in his documentary Good Hair, the creamy crack. One that saw me repeat this process every 4-6 weeks for the next fifteen years of my life. I managed my entire life around relaxer day. I stopped swimming, because it wasn’t good for my hair. I took vitamins to help with the breakage that of course ensued from using deadly chemicals to strip my hair of its natural elasticity, oils and structure. I became obsessed with length, and refused to let my hairdresser trim my ends, even as they evolved into straggly looking pubic puffs. I slept in all manner of evening headdress – from satin caps to stocking caps with the silk legs tied around my head like a turban…that is, when I even slept at all. The nightly ritual of dressing my hair in numerous layers of oils, anti-humectants, lotions, rollers and pins made it feel like sleeping on a bed of glass.

I spent hours perusing the catalogues of hair and fashion magazines, audibly lamenting the super-tight coil of my 4c kinks, which I thought to be hideous.

My obsession with hair restricted so much of my life – from mobility to the most important part of all, my self-image. As long as my hair was long and straight (and I was thin) I thought I would be beautiful, because my entire life had been shaped by the beauty standards of women who looked nothing like me.

My grandmother hung a portrait of me next to my great-grandmother in her living room, where we have our hair styled and parted in the exact same straightened hairstyle. “She was like you,” she said to me one day. “She had that good hair too.” When my sister cut off her long, wavy hair, my grandmother tossed and turned all night and left a particularly angry (and hilarious) voicemail on her phone telling her so. 

One day, while living in Japan, I checked the back of my head and realised that I had burned out an entire chunk with the products I had spent a small fortune air-shipping to join me in my year-long posting. It was more than noticeable. It was shocking. 

I spent the next month trying to decide what to do next, though the answer was obvious. My father who, to be fair, had invested a considerable amount of money in my life-long addiction, was fiercely opposed to the idea. He insisted that not only would I be less attractive, but natural hair would make it more difficult for me to find a job or a boyfriend…and as horrific as that might sound, he wasn’t entirely wrong. The sinister ubiquity of internalised racism is strong within black beauty standards.

As long as my hair was long and straight (and I was thin) I thought I would be beautiful, because my entire life had been shaped by the beauty standards of women who looked nothing like me.

What puzzled me the most, however, is when other people felt the need to give an opinion on my hair. White men on dates who love my hair natural because it sustains their stereotypical views of how black women should look; or black men on dates who prefer it long and straight (while also abhorring wigs, extensions and all the other methods women use to achieve this look) because it sustains their views of how black women should look. The look of dread I keep re-imagining from one partner who bit his bottom lip until it bled when I decided to cut it short again, or my brother who told me many times, many years ago, that “natural” beauty was the only beauty he was interested in – you know, like Halle Berry, former Miss America Vanessa Williams or Gabrielle Union; women who just woke up looking like that.

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Travel also put me through special bouts of grief. Because I didn’t know how to manage my hair on my own, I spent the first six years with natural growth wearing copious amounts of head scarfs and wraps. After moving to Melbourne, the first and last time I went into a white hair salon, a well-meaning Kiwi woman cried the entire time she did my hair. She tore out whole chunks of afro in the process until I looked like a woman infected with mange. When I tried frequenting other hair salons to see if anyone specialised in kinky African hair, the best response any enthused salon owner managed to muster was “Well, I’d like to try…”

Not exactly the kind of response that fills a would-be customer with confidence.

The sinister ubiquity of internalized racism is strong within black beauty standards.

Nothing was more heartbreaking, however, than when I finally worked up the courage to go back to a hair salon. I went to Preston, an area with many black-owned businesses and restaurants, and was turned away by not one but two salon owners – African women – who only treated relaxed hair, because natural hair was either “ugly” or “too difficult.”

I distinctly remember being puzzled by the devastation I felt. After all, it’s only hair – right?

More than a decade after going natural, I’m now completely obsessed not with straight hair, but with braids, crochet hair styles, wigs, afro twist outs and anything that I denied myself years ago. I’ve struck up whole conversations with complete strangers based on hair – it’s how I learned about a Ghanaian hair shop in South Melbourne that installed a beautiful head of box braids.

During the eight-hour session, I watched bemused as white woman after white woman sat in the chairs around me to have their extension tracks expertly re-adjusted by African women, when not a single white salon in Melbourne seemed to possess the skill to return the favour. During the entire day, I was the only black patron to frequent the shop.

One of the first questions I asked myself before deciding to relocate to Berlin was “Is there a black hair salon?” If there’s at least one shop that shelves products by Cantu, Shea Body, Onyx and of course, Palmers – then I’m set. Hair is how I’ve sparked whole new friendships with other black women from South Africa, Ghana, France, Martinique and the United Kingdom. And because black hair salons are still so few in this city, we visit each other's homes to do hair instead – and I can honestly say that it has been during these extended beauty sessions that I have found healing moments away from hostile spaces occupied by white people who stare, or worse “just want to look” at my hair by touching it with their hands without my permission. 

When I ask them why they think they’re entitled to do this, they just laugh nervously and say with a woeful sigh “I just wish I were like you. I wish I had that good hair.”

My inner nine-year-old can hardly believe her ears.

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