It never occurred to me that I had a choice. I endured the pain of a chemical relaxer every 4 weeks to get my natural afro hair straightened. Mine was four weeks as against the recommended 6 – 8 weeks because my hair wouldn’t ‘take’ to the relaxer. It didn’t matter that I had sores on my scalp as a result, or that the pain was like putting acid on my skin, or that I got my earlobes burnt every single time despite the thick layer of Vaseline.
To the uninitiated, you will be forgiven for wondering if having straight hair is worth all that pain? You see while some people might have a bad hair day once in a while, as a black girl you are born with a bad hair day, or so society makes you believe.
And hence we live for the day our bad hair day will end, it’s like a right of passage of sorts. Mine was at 16 (some as young as 4) and my mother took me to a salon to have the Jheri curl – extremely greasy and smelly. The grease soiled my clothes and pillow cases but it was worth it because my hair had changed. I didn’t believe that my natural hair could be as beautiful if not more, until….
I started my journey of self-acceptance and self-love. I had gone through all my life believing and giving in to the idea that I was born with undesirable features. I didn’t really like myself. I was good at makeup (I think), I bought stylish clothes and of course had straight hair. To the outside world I appeared confident and happy, stylish looking even, but the disguises weren’t changing the way I felt about myself. After going through depression, I knew something had to be done, because I couldn’t go on living like this … literally. I phoned a therapist and cried all through our 30 minutes telephone conversation. I couldn’t afford to pay her but she got me thinking and I started reading relevant books. I started learning to love myself, to love and appreciate my size, height, body shape, my talent, but there was one a part of me that was still ok not to love, still ok to discriminate against, one part that embracing it actually produced negative reactions…my hair. That just didn’t sit down well with me. Why would embracing myself not include my hair texture? And this is where society fails black girls and women.
From early 20th century images of afro hair being depicted as ugly and undesirable to the 21st century images were the most popular and desirable black women sported mostly straight hair to the complete absence of natural afro hair in shampoo adverts, afro hair has been stigmatized.
1962 advert in Ebony Magzine
Despite this there has been some progress, with Victoria Secrets featuring its first natural afro model Maria Boyes in 2015 to British models like Poppy Okotcha and Toyin Toni proudly wearing their afro textured hair in magazine shoots and on runways.
You see the problem is not that we appreciate beauty but that the definition of beauty is so narrow, too narrow to include afro textured hair, so while society is waking up to the damaging effects of its narrow definition of beauty, advocating for body acceptance, even skin colour acceptance, hair discrimination still goes largely unopposed.
According to a recent study by the Perception Institute, black women face social stigma for having textured hair with black women facing far more hair anxiety than white women. Their research also showed that when the stigma towards afro hair is internalised it can undermine the ability for black women to be their full selves, affect their professional trajectory, social life, and self-esteem. The anxiety caused by this social stigma has also lead to unhealthy and damaging hair practices leading to primary school age girls suffering traction alopecia.
In an interview I conducted with Dr. Barry Steven of the Trichological Society he said: “Routinely using hair extensions and chemical relaxers on school children can lead to permanent baldness by the age of 20.”
In my attempt to dismantle narrow definitions of beauty and hair and to help myself, my own daughter and other girls like her fully embrace their image, I started the Project Embrace billboard campaign to showcase more diverse images.
The need to widen what it means to be beautiful and have beautiful hair is crucial to many girls and women’s self-esteem. We live in a beautifully diverse society and we need to reflect that.
My hope is that the Project Embrace Billboard Campaign can contribute to that vision. And you can be part of it too by backing the crowdfunding campaign here: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/project-embrace-billboard-campaign
Photographer – Akpe
Stylist – Christelle Deroche
Hair – Angela Plummer
Photographer – Karl Lake
Stylist – Kay Cunnigham
Photographer – Jacob Pitcher