First off, I’d like to start off by saying this will not be another piece about natural hair and it being some sort of liberation for the black woman. Nor will it be an exploration of the many different ways in which black women wear their hair. All good topics, but frankly we’ve had those conversations several times and I’m a bit tired of them. This a look into my journey not so much with going natural, but the influence of outside perceptions on my psyche regarding the issue. The internal battle that I faced subconsciously; One that I wasn’t even aware of until now.
I’ve always thought of myself as a very strong-willed, independent thinker. Not easily influenced by the crowd or general consensus. But even in my strength so to speak, there’s room for weakness. Second guessing. Influence. Everyone is influenced by perception to a certain degree but I didn’t expect it to show up in my hair choices. In 2009, I made the conscious decision to no longer relax my hair. Not because I felt enslaved to the creamy crack or because I wanted to “go back to my roots.” It was out of blatant curiosity about how my hair would look in its natural form and boredom with the traditional wrap as it’s affectionately called. If you’re unfamiliar with growing out relaxers, it’s a process that takes months. So most women are faced with two options. The big chop where they cut off all of the relaxed hair and start fresh. Or continue to wear it straight until the relaxer grows out. I chose the latter. I’d like to think it was out of convenience but if I’m being totally real with myself, it was fear.
For a good portion of my chemically treated days, I’ve wanted to go natural. What stopped me was how I would be perceived by other individuals, “Will my boyfriend still be attracted to me?” “Mom always says ‘your head is your crown.’ Will my hair no longer look good without the relaxer?” Yet and still I propelled through the fear and uncertainty. The doubt from those closest to me shocked me more than anything. Almost instantly, my decision was met with disapproval from some of my closest friends and family members. “You gonna do what?!” “But your hair is so pretty! Why would you do such a thing?” “I hope you get a job first.” One of the main things that stuck out to me was the words of my closest mentor. I had just got word that I was up for a full time position and I called her for interview tips. The first thing she said was “How are you going to wear your hair?” She didn’t mean pinned up or down; a bun or curls. She wanted to know if I was going to wear it naturally kinky or straight. She wanted to know if I was going to walk in there looking like Florida from “Good Times” or like her neighbor Wylona. “Straight but I do want to wear it curly eventually once the rest of the relaxer grows out.” I replied. My mentor, who is African American, immediately echoed the sentiment that I’d been receiving from most of my peers. “Good. Wear it straight until after the promotion. You don’t want to give them any reason not to give you the job. You want to look polished and professional.” I was a bit taken aback by her comment. Polished and professional. “O my job isn’t like that. People can wear their hair any way they want” I said. “Shantell. Wear it straight.” It was never brought up again and I wore my hair straight for the interview. I’m not going to say that was the first time that I realized how important people thought it was for me to wear my hair straight. About a year ago I applied for a freelance position with a popular website to be a contributor for their relationship column. It was kind of like “Dear Abby” but for a men’s magazine. They asked me to send some writing samples along with a head shot. The shot I sent in was professionally taken, but I had two strand twists; a natural style. Not even 15 minutes after sending my portfolio, I received a response from the human resources department saying that I wasn’t the right look. I took a look at the woman who I would be replacing and true enough she was a blonde-haired blue eyed woman with long flowing straight hair. Now I can’t say that it was due to my hair alone that I didn’t get the position despite being told that I was an excellent writer. But I do wonder if the outcome would have been different if I would have sent in a headshot of me with straight hair. I guess we’ll never know. But the fact that I even have to question that speaks volumes.
No white person has ever told me that my natural hair wasn’t acceptable. It’s African Americans and other people of color that give me the most grief. They’re the ones who are reinforcing the notion that natural isn’t professional and polished. When I went natural and rocked my fro, I got overwhelming support and curiosity from my white peers at work. I remember a white coworker saying that he loved my natural hair and not even two seconds after that a person of color asking him why because it was “nothing special.” Even when I wear my hair straight people of color make comments like “You’re back again!” “See? Wear your hair straight, you look so pretty.” Where the hell did I go and last time I checked I have always been pretty. As for me? I learned a long time ago not to listen to other people. If I did, my hair would be straight and curly at the same time because it’s pretty much split down the line in terms of how other people like my hair. The truth is that I love my natural fro. It’s funky yet subtle, just like me. In the same breath, I rock the wrap from time to time as well. While I’m comfortable wearing both styles, I wouldn’t be being honest with myself if I didn’t acknowledge that I did and still do care to some degree how I’m perceived professionally in terms of my hair. Anytime I have a major event, I straighten my hair. For weddings. For business conferences. For job interviews. One day I hope to just not give a damn and be comfortable with myself in all aspects. But until then I will continue to break the ice and the stigma of natural beauty.