One day, I told one of my cousins that a guy I liked, had said that he preferred my natural hair to my braids, and her unfiltered, surprised answer was: “Really?”
We aren’t taught to feel beautiful
I understood that answer more than I wish I did. When he told me, I had trouble believing him, so I could see why she wouldn’t. The world has never told us black women were beautiful, and the few that were beautiful didn’t have natural hair like us. Their hair was perfect, was straight, like white women’s hair.
Some friends that I’ve gone to school with have never seen my natural hair. Taking my braids down has always taken a day, but when I was a teenager, I’d much rather spend Friday evenings and nights doing it, so that I could get my hair braided on Saturday. I remember thinking: “If you take your braids down on the weekend before, you’ll have more time, but then you have to spend a whole week at school with that hair.” Friday nights were therefore the only viable option, and if it meant no sleeping, then that was the price I needed to pay.
I started using hair relaxers as a young child. I was told one day that you weren’t supposed to do it too often, because the chemicals in it can cause hair loss. It didn’t come as a surprise, that that product I had been using for years, that was literally burning my scalp, that had to be handled with gloves and could not under any circumstances touch my eyes, was bad for my hair. I didn’t stop relaxing my hair, though. Who cares about health, when you can have the same straight hair as white women?
I’ve had braids for as long as I can remember. Probably for as long as my fragile hairs could stand to have them. I used to cry as a child, while they were braiding my hair. I would then be unable to sleep for a couple of nights because of the pain. Once, when I was still in Rwanda, I didn’t like my new braids and they were hurting me, so I took them off the same day while my family was at work. As a punishment, my hair was shaven off. I must have been three, and they shaved my hair until I came to Belgium when I was five. So, even though I still cried, even though I still didn’t sleep, even though it still hurt, I didn’t say anything when they braided my hair in Belgium. It was better than being bald. Now that I’m older, and that I’ve found a good hairdresser, I don’t cry anymore. But I still don’t expect to sleep well on the first night.
My hair, my source of shame
I have always been taught not to like my hair. I have been taught that relaxed hair is the only way my real hair can be beautiful. I have been taught that wearing braids was the only alternative to relaxed hair. I’ve been ashamed of my hair to the point where I’d rather not sleep on Fridays than show up at school with my hair. I have had schoolmates play with my hair, and I thought it was ok, because at least, it meant it was accepted. I have been taught to accept pain, to accept chemical products, instead of accepting my natural hair. And those are things that I’m still unlearning.
When I found out you weren’t supposed to take off your braids and put new ones right away, I remember thinking – “if you can’t relax it too often, and you can’t put new braids in right away, what do you do? Stay at home for a week?” That was only last year. I used to watch some of my aunts, some of my cousins, keeping their natural hair proudly, and feel envious that they had reached that level of acceptance, that level of pride, about their hair. I never thought I’d ever reach that pride. And I still haven’t.
On the way to acceptance
My previous boyfriend is the first person who I managed to believe when he told me he loved my hair. And then, only then, did I start accepting it. It took me more than seventeen years to start “accepting” my own hair, the hair I was born with. Not liking it, not loving it, not being proud of it, but merely accepting it. However, last summer, I walked around with my natural hair for a month. And yesterday, I got tired of my braids, so I took them down, without booking an appointment with my hairdresser.
I’ve now reached a point in my life where I’d rather have my braids, not because I hate my hair – although, I have to admit that the quality of my hair is abysmal –, but out of convenience. I want to wake up in the morning, brush my teeth, shower, put on some clothes, and leave my house. I have no time to wash and brush my hair for an hour and a half (I counted). I have no time to take care of it and condition it for half an hour before bed. I’m still learning to like my hair, and to appreciate it for what it is. I don’t love it, but at least, I don’t hate it anymore. That took me 20+ years.
The truth is, I don’t blame my aunts for teaching me to hate my hair. They’re as much victims of the system as I am. After all, we are all just trying to fit the Western beauty standards that are promoted as the only existing ones in the world, and even in Africa. We’re just trying to belong in a world that tells us that everything about us, from our skin color, to our noses, to our hair, is ugly.
But it’s not ugly. And we don’t have to belong. We can just be ourselves.
As someone beautifully said:
“My skin absorbs the sun’s rays and my hair defies gravity.
You can’t tell me I’m not magical.”