I read the note passed to me as I sit in my year nine French class. I’m the only girl of African descent in a sea of white. I am hyper-aware the instruction is meant for me.
I read the note again and glance up to see if anyone’s looking at me. They are. All of them. I smile nervously, shaking my head theatrically. Looking again, I count and see that all my classmates’ have signed the note. They mockingly frown at me and then giggle. The girl next to me whispers, “now you have to do it”, grinning from ear to ear. I suspect she started the petition. I smile back and shrug, slipping the note into my pencil case. Out of sight, out of mind I hope.
In my white privileged high school I was one of only five girls of African descent in a year of ninety. I was acutely aware of my otherness. My self-consciousness rooted itself in my attempt to control my hair. Armed with bobby pins, hair ties and headbands I tried to conceal any signs of frizz. Looking back, I realise now that my obsessive desire to contain my curls did not go unnoticed.
Whilst I do not fault my peers for their curiosity, I had the crippling teenage desire to ‘fit in’, and so the acknowledgment of my lack of sameness was shattering. A part of me was also embarrassed that even if I wanted to fulfil my schoolmates’ fantasy, I couldn’t. I have a 3B/3C curl type, which means my hair is super curly but not kinky. My curl pattern is described as being a ‘s’/’z’ curve shape, rather than the coils needed to create the Angela-Davis-like ‘fro my peers envisioned. I wasn’t African enough.
My hair has been a complicated part of my identity. As an explicit reflection of my mixed heritage (half white and half Nigerian), my journey with it has symbolised my struggle with my hybridity. For the majority of my teen years, I straightened it for the important events: house parties. Subconsciously adhering to Western standards of beauty, I wanted to look like all my friends in an attempt to attract recognition from the adolescent WASP Neanderthals of the neighbouring school. Not original, I know. However, as I grew older and more confident, shedding my need for such restrictive validation, I began to wear my hair curly. As one of the laziest people I know, no longer having to spend hours burning strands of my hair was an easy change in lifestyle.
More deeply, adopting my curls expressed a desire to explore a part of my identity that I knew so little about. Eventually, and it’s still an ongoing process, I have learnt to nurture it. Switching between oils, gels and hair masks. I’ve gone through the movements. I’ve twirled and twisted, scrunched and released, and even damaged and dyed it in the newest chapter of my hair story. The otherness I once scorned, I now cherish. It has been (and still is) a journey to attain complete and utter hair love, but I have made great strides.
On the topic of ‘Hair Love’ – the name of the adorable animated short film, that follows the trials and tribulations of a dad styling his daughter’s natural hair – I felt such a sense of pride for its Oscar win. The mainstream media has been starkly absent from natural hair, and this lack of representation (let alone celebration), fed into my childhood obsession for ‘flicky’ hair. If I had grown up seeing women with hair like mine on screen, it would have made me feel proud – and far less alone. That’s why I see wearing my curls in all their glory as such a powerful act – it’s a rejection of what the mainstream promotes as beautiful. And I confess to a secret a desire that one day a little girl will see me on the street and gain the bravery to stop hiding her own crown.