The Baggage of Black Hair
When you’re black, your hair isn’t just a matter of style—it’s a badge of otherness.
I stand in the office bathroom mirror adjusting my carefully curated outfit, feeling naked. Just days before I had taken out my synthetic, waist-length braids, and I was left with my natural, shoulder-length curls. My hair in that state would have made me feel self-conscious on any day, but that night I was meeting Max for a first date.
What I saw in the mirror was more cute than sexy; more androgynous than feminine; more haphazard than put-together — not to mention the 20 extra pounds of New York pizza and bagels rounding out my insecurity. My crown of curls felt not like an aesthetic choice, but a burden.
What I saw in the mirror was more cute than sexy; more androgynous than feminine; more haphazard than put-together — not to mention the 20 extra pounds of New York pizza and bagels rounding out my insecurity.
Even so, moving to New York has been one of the best things for me and my hair-related neuroses. Living in Crown Heights — a historically black (and Hasidic) neighborhood — has exposed me to more women who look like me than I’d seen in my entire life in Colorado. There, my parents traveled at least an hour to Denver to have my hair braided; here, I can throw a rock and hit a braiding salon. When I lived in Iowa, white hairstylists would nervously giggle as they fingered through my dense curls; here, I can walk in to any number of black hair salons, and they’ll just chastise me for ruining my edges with too-tight ponytails.
While having black hair in a black neighborhood is logistically easier, the deep-seated insecurity that accompanies otherness remains. A large part of that insecurity isn’t due to an innate lack of self esteem: Throughout history, we have been conditioned to believe our natural features are the least desirable of all ethnically-based features. Kinks, curls, cornrows, full lips, and big butts are only widely deemed attractive when celebrated by white women (or, less frequently, by black men). And even then, those features — the ones that generally come naturally to us — are seen as edgy or deviant, a persona to try on before returning to a more culturally “acceptable” appearance.
This context is no comfort while I fuss with my quickly-frizzing twist-out before my date. What kind of impression would I make on this particular white man, my Tinder date? Would he snicker, saying my hair that “looked like I’d put my finger in an electrical socket,” like a white college bro once said? Would he gawk and sneakily take my photo like a white California bro did in a Brooklyn bar just weeks before? Would he offer suggestions as to how I should style it next, like the white Philly bro who wanted to “bring the hood out of me” did?
Beyond what I thought this man would see in me, I was dismayed with what I saw in myself — and further, dismayed that I was dismayed. If I were a stronger, more self-assured woman, I would be proud of my hair. I would know how to style it and make YouTube tutorials and feel like a queen. In that mirror I would be able to see myself not as my hair (or my lips, or my nose, or my complexion) — and what those features represent — but as woman who has hair, lips, a nose, skin.
Instead, I skulk out of the bathroom after nearly an hour and get on the R train, still contemplating ways to get out of my date. It takes a lot more confidence than I had at the moment to overcome a lifetime of being told you’re not beautiful the way you are.
And as it turned out, what Max thought about my hair wasn’t as consequential as the fact he and his ex maintained a “complicated” relationship — a detail I learned at the end of our otherwise enjoyable date. Maybe it’s a sign that I could stand to put more energy toward my discretion in men than I put toward worrying about my hair.
But who knows? It’s complicated.