Beauty. Strange as it is, the word itself holds a lot of power. Six little letters, yet some women define their total worth by it. Women without such an extreme need often still hold the word in such high regard that it is pleasantly startling when someone asserts their beauty beheld. If an equally complimentary adjective is substituted, or when the compliment is directed toward features or appearance (i.e., “your eyes are beautiful” or, “that color is amazing on you”), one may feel a lesser conviction, nonetheless unsettling, instead of the little ego boost intended.
When were we taught to feel ashamed or guilty for our beauty; and why is it so affixed to our self-worth? In order to combat these effects, we train our daughters to see and accept their beauty, bolstering them daily; yet we admonish them if they seem a little vain, with good reason. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance; the first is covetable while the latter creates a distaste for those who embody it. The question remains; how are our girls to grow confidently, embracing their individual beauty without placing higher value in, and comparing themselves to, the images popular opinion deems acceptable?
Black women on multiple continents have begun to eagerly accept our natural beauty at such a rate that some question whether those adopting the lifestyle change are truly making an informed decision or simply following a fad. Others, like myself, don’t really decide at all. I grew tired of perming my hair for multiple reasons: I don’t like spending all day in a salon for what should take a couple of hours at best to handle; I don’t like spending money I don’t really have on a contrived need; I don’t agree that my hair should control or limit my activity choices (or even whether to be active at all); and more importantly, I respect my health and expect products and services I purchase to cause me no harm. My eldest daughter had just experienced a traumatic, unplanned “big chop” after a hairstylist at a trendy DC salon caused all of her hair to fall out by coloring her freshly permed hair. So four years, one month and a few days ago, once my quest to find the perfect style had bored me to tears; the experimental cuts provided by the last five salon trips had completely disappointed me; and in solidarity with my newly-natural daughter, I went to my stylist (and good friend) and asked her to cut all of my relaxed hair off. I was not afraid of having short hair; I’d cut my hair short many times. I didn’t know how long my new ‘do would last before my beloved straightening cream would come calling and I’d go running back like the addict I had become. But I just wanted a break from that “perm prison”– not to endorse some political statement. I was hardly qualified to join their ranks. I don’t believe I was even aware of the “movement.” Nor was I even slightly prepared for the unique transformation and life experiences this choice held in store for me.
I’d had my hair permed since the eighth grade and had some preconceived expectations of what it would look like sans relaxer. Watching my sister comb her just-conditioned wet hair once when we were much younger, I remember wishing my hair would curl like hers (and wondering just why couldn’t I get my “pressed” hair wet?!?!?). I fantasized that my hair would now probably be just like hers was back then, once this permed hair was out of its way. My mom had kept her natural hair covered or straightened non-chemically; so I couldn’t be certain, but I reasoned that her natural hair would have to be similar to my grandmother’s curly locks and my aunt’s loose waves. And when my babies were born, all three had beautiful curly hair. My hair would at least have the same qualities as my children’s hair had! I guess I’d forgotten how often I avoided combing my girls’ hair after washings when they were children. I must have also forgotten the shame I felt when, in tenth grade, I was ridiculed for waiting far too long to go and get my touch-up, all because of the jaded, romanticized memory I held of my natural hair texture. I was considerably underwhelmed, to say the least, once the truth was revealed, and a little frightened to be completely honest. I looked like a boy. Did it make me look “ugly?” My hair in the front wouldn’t curl like the sides and back; and none of it was as loosely curled as I thought it would be. There I was, in full panic, staring at myself in the mirror trying to figure out just what I would do with my hair, while trying to make sense of what I’d already done. I left the salon with no one to blame but myself and wondered how long it would take to grow back. The next day, my stylist (and remember, good friend) called to see how I was coping, and suggested I come back by to let her try something out. I agreed, and realized I was willing to try anything except slapping another perm on my almost bald head, so it wasn’t a total loss. She added color to the top and sides, and it was so incredibly beautiful (dare I say it), that I’ve not looked back since. That’s not to say that I haven’t had my share of bad hair days; in fact, I’ve had shares enough to cover a few other women’s bad hair days!
But that initial cut sparked the evolution of my self-discovery; and each successive style I’ve worn has contributed to this confidence I never had the audacity to feel before. Embarking upon a more conscious journey of self-exploration ultimately led me to an awareness of purpose, which continues to flourish. I live authentically according to my revised mission, allowing myself only to be completely honest in all areas of my life — truth in thought, word and deed. In validating my purpose, I summoned the courage to, as author Brene Brown proposed, dare myself to embrace my vulnerability. It hasn’t always been easy to honor this challenge, but always comforting to accept once I gave credence to there being a reason for my existence. Even when the outcome differs from my plan or confronts my expectations, that sense of purposeful mission outweighs my obstacles. My most authentic self was born when I declared my independence from the status quo. This journey began with what I thought was an insignificant decision about my hair; but has given me a voice and revealed my unique beauty — the beauty I had not initially seen. As my hair grew, my willingness to accept the compliments (that I don’t remember receiving as frequently) also grew. Both men and women, of African-Caribbean, Asian and European heritage alike, equally admired its fierceness. I began to realize those compliments could illicit certain feelings within me. Along with my growing confidence, it seemed I could actually feel a person’s admiration and level of sincerity, heightening my sense of humility when I expressed gratitude. When I began to release the fullness of my hair, as opposed to wearing it in tiny twists or pulled back into a puff, I started to lose the doubt I had previously been burdened by, ever fearful of what others may think of my abundant kinks and coils. I was actually happier with myself in this newfound freedom. I even offered advice to other women who would strike up conversations with me at the grocery store, at parties, in restaurants, and in the hallways at work, to vent their frustrations about products they were using, or more often, about developing the confidence to unleash their natural hair. There were countless women who solicited my support for the strength to toss out wigs and weaves in favor of “rocking” their natural hair everywhere — not just at home. It surprised me to know I was able to provide that support by sharing my own struggle with shame and self-doubt.
I found that I gave more compliments (with reckless abandon!); and noticed something even more startling. The compliments were no longer exclusively directed toward my hair; people were actively complimenting me! And the bigger my hair, the more readily the praise came. Now some could assume I have some deep psychological desire for validation through others, but that is hardly the point to take from the discussion. For the record, I do not actively seek or need this attention from others; this reflection is merely an account of the personal effects I have recognized as directly attributable to the transformation I realized, inspired by a lifestyle choice. And although my glorious mane often shouts at unsuspecting passers by, its presence overwhelming the room, “Look at me! Hey you, over here!” when I want her to quietly behave, I refuse to harness her desire to flaunt her beauty. My hair “shows up and shows out” for me on a daily basis, but only partially introduces me. I am no longer afraid of giving the impression of the angry Black woman some may stereotypically choose to see once my hair has announced our arrival. Indeed, she commands respect; and intrigue ensues. And because incomplete conclusions could be drawn by her spectators, my ‘fro affirms the very identity she helped me create, which by the way, belongs to a slightly less combative, and reserved, but confident individual; and forces me to express myself in a truly authentic voice. And nothing could make me feel more beautiful.
Beauty is Audacity.
Photo Credit: unknown