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On curly hair, authenticity, gender roles, culture and Instagram friends

This post started as an Instagram caption for this photo, and suddenly, I realized it was a blog post about my naturally curly hair, so here we are. “Here’s my silly ‘omg look at this greenhouse full of plants’ face,” it began, because indeed, this photo was taken on a video shoot inside a greenhouse and it’s no secret I’m easily delighted by plants.

But a second beat rose up in the moment behind that sentence, and I wrote, “But, today was somewhat significant to me bc it was the first time I went on a shoot without straightening my hair.”

Oh wait. There are feelings here, and feelings are meant to be felt. Okay. Let’s do this.

About a month ago, I decided to stop straightening my hair. I stopped because I saw a photo of myself on a night out with friends, my hair very straight, and though I felt fine about my appearance that night, looking at the photo, I suddenly felt inauthentic, incomplete, and unrecognizable.

But, of course, as with most things, there were also dozens of seemingly unrelated things that were building for a while: a good friend of mine is an expert in cultural narratives around black women’s natural hair and we talk about identity and appearance and different expectations on different women a lot, and have for a few years now, so I’ve been thinking about my own complicity in narrow and homogenous beauty standards for a while. Add in my jumping out of a plane in August, which I still feel the ripples of in my life, in small and unexpected ways. Not long after the jump, I was deployed to do not journalism but disaster relief in hurricane-impacted areas in September and don’t know if I even looked in a mirror for most of that time, or cared what I would have seen; it’s a different mode of being in that setting. Also, and unrelated to that, I confess I had a rough autumn stretch in which nearly every part of my life seemed to be stuck in this weird and terrible “good try but you lose!” loop, proverbial rugs constantly yanked out from under me at every turn, it seemed, to the point it finally became laughable, but nonetheless was a stretch that called for a lot of self-reflection.

There are probably more contributing factors I’m overlooking, and definitely one or two conversations I’m leaving out, but I list these things, in particular, because I can track back to them so clearly from how I feel now and see how profoundly they each contributed to all this.

But in any case, about a month ago, I stopped straightening my hair. I’d sort of attempted to let it be curly a couple of times before, and I realize now that each time I did so, I was still approaching with both a complete lack of knowledge of how to care for curly hair, and with an old trope deep in my psyche, one that said curly hair was something to be tamed, that it was too wild, too much, and needed extremely careful supervision lest it become something ugly and messy and I risk looking unkempt. (It’s no wonder. Many magazine hair tutorials we all grew up with assumed the reader is a white woman with straight hair; many still assume as much. Also, growing up, my mom’s hair pre-grey was straight, and my dad kept his curly hair too short to curl, so what did I know about curly hair?)

It was only when I started really learning about what curly hair needs through the serendipity of making new curl-embracing friends through social media (hint: much like humans, it needs encouragement and tenderness; not opposition or suppression), and allowing it be its full self that I realized and began to experience how much socialization and emotion were at play here, and how many beliefs and subtle limits I’d been carrying around in my hair.

As I also pointed out in the aforementioned Instagram post, for a long time it was said curly hair is harder to light well in a studio and gives the eye too much distraction on camera, which I internalized for years as: if I want broadcast work, it’s straight hair only. But more than that, even, I perhaps internalized it so deeply that I didn’t even allow the idea to enter my mind. Worse still, I believe there’s also a chance this might have allowed to me avoid confronting my own privilege on the matter, thus not fully being my most authentic self on some level because it was sure to be in opposition to the standard definition of “pretty” hair. Goddamnit. Sure, there’s value in seeing, and better late than never, but I do hate it, nonetheless, when I catch myself being socialized.

But interestingly and not surprisingly, while I wouldn’t have thought I *wasn’t* comfortable or confident in front of a camera before, I felt deeply more myself and more comfortable in front of a camera today than ever. And I watched some of the video back and thought, “oh I looked and sounded nice in that shot” instead of “eh, good as it’ll get.”

I have a lot more to say on this topic. More about how wearing my hair curly has led to strange men on busses demanding to know my ethnicity, as if I have an obligation to make myself easy for them to categorize. Also more about “jokes’ from white, male frequaintences that suggest “this hair thing” is all well and good but aren’t I going to do something about it? Like, I’m not just going to *let it just be like that* forever, am I? And, as such, more about how consciously choosing authenticity and self-acceptance is sometimes extremely threatening to others.

But, that’s another post.

What this all amounts to is maybe small and dumb and obvious to some. I mean, on one hand it is just hair after all, and on the other hand plenty of women have dealt with this shit for ages in far deeper ways, but the process of letting it be and making amends with my hair is proving to be enlightening, and proving to be what really amounts to radical acts of self-love.

How perfectly ridiculous that after years of wrestling my hair into submission in a quest for everything to be easier, thus allegedly happier, and thus allegedly freeing and liberating myself, how perfectly ridiculous that ease, and joy and liberation were so easily found when I simply submitted to my hair. It’s not insignificant to me to realize how much has been bound up in my hair all this time, things I didn’t even know until I decided to let my hair be extremely itself.