Black people are allowed to be honest about our struggle with natural hair.
Twitter is an interesting place. There are always arguments and debates happening, many of them inconsequential to my existence. But this week, I was stunned by a Twitter argument about natural hair that might seem small to most, but feels incredibly significant to me.
Many people responded to the tweet with excellent points about why this person was being strong and wrong, and about the advantages of their looser, more “palatable” curl pattern. I was glad to see others speaking up, but of course there were also others who leapt at the opportunity to shame Black womxn specifically for daring to be honest about the realities of having natural hair and everything that comes along with it. For #BodyPositivityInColor, I wrote about how our hair sets us apart from every other race and ethnicity, not only due to its texture, but also due to our unique relationship to the law and the specific governing of Black hair. Anti-Black ideology about hair places a larger amount of undue pressure on Black people when it comes to natural hair maintenance.
With mental illnesses like depression, it’s difficult to motivate yourself to do basic tasks or take care of yourself, and that includes hair care. Black people suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD for a variety of reasons, ranging from the transgenerational traumas of chattel slavery coded in our DNA, to daily warfare with misogynoir in a white supremacist and patriarchal society. The significant symptom that links depression, anxiety, and PTSD is chronic fatigue, which is one of the reasons why they can all be completely debilitating to those living with these conditions, especially if undiagnosed and untreated. When experiencing fatigue, whether mild or severe, as a part of mental illness(es) or just general exhaustion from existing in an anti-Black world, hair care is just one of the many things that become an extremely difficult to manage and emotionally draining task.
I have experienced a lot of breakage and damage in the past because I simply could not find the strength to tackle my hair. It takes more than two hours to shampoo, condition, detangle, blow dry, and trim it. It is a physical, mental, and emotional labor to do this because of the amount of time that I have to spend standing with my arms above my head, using my fingers to detangle, using the blow dryer, etc. It’s frustrating and tedious and exhausting. I have stopped to cry in the middle of detangling or blow drying sessions many times before. And this does not include the amount of time that it takes to style it after the washing and drying process, or the time it takes to set the hair in twists or braids to be taken down the next day for a defined style. This does not include oil treatments or pre-pooing or deep conditioning or anything else someone with natural hair might choose to do as part of maintenance. Ask any natural about “Wash Day” and they will likely have horror stories to tell.
When you consider how many Black folks are coping with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and who are just plain tired from just surviving, and when you consider how anti-Black codes of acceptable/professional appearance operate, and specifically target Black womxn via misogynoir in some instances, wearing natural hair becomes something that is political in practice in more ways than one. The reality is that it is something that is simply unsustainable for some Black people. This is a fact that we need to recognize, in conversations about natural hair, Body Positivity, and mental health for Black people.
I know many people who have opted to simply shave their heads because of the emotional stress of maintaining their hair. I know many who almost exclusively wear weaves and/or wigs because it reduces that stress and allows them to dedicate their time to other things in their life; work, family, socializing, exercise, etc. If I were to add up the number of hours that I have spent on caring for my hair in the past five years, I am certain that I would be appalled by the sum. And for a lot of naturals, the maintenance is expensive. Visits to salons and braiders rack up a large sum. Whether it be buying conditioners and oils or bundles and lace fronts. It adds up.
Black womxn especially are not permitted to talk about the things that are difficult for us. We get called ungrateful complainers. We get gaslighted. We get victim-blamed. This disregarding of our valid emotionality is due to both the Angry Black Womxn and Strong Black Womxn stereotypes. Our anger, no matter how legitimate, is immediately dismissed as being irrational and aimless. And admitting to being anything less than unbreakable leaves us disowned and dubbed as weak and useless, because “real Black Womxn”/”Black Queens” are inherently strong and can withstand anything. Black womxn have Battle Fatigue, and no one seems to be interested in addressing our psychological wounds. We aren’t allowed to be vulnerable, in any way.
We also aren’t afforded the luxury of foregoing an intentional hairstyle and opting for “bed head” for a day or two, lest we be openly criticized and reprimanded for it. Anti-Blackness works so that anything less than “presentable” according to white supremacist standards becomes wholly unacceptable and especially egregious. If we insist on wearing our natural hair, then it has to be palatable. The curls have to be poppin’ and shining. The edges have to be laid. The afro has to picked just right. It has to look perfect, every moment, every day. Otherwise, don’t you dare come out of the house.
It’s astonishing to me that some people still refuse to even admit that this maintenance ain’t easy for most of us. It is painstaking work, especially for those of us with the thickest curls, coils, and kinks. We can admit to it. We are allowed to own it. Nothing about being Black is easy, including our hair care. And we should be able to talk about our struggles with it without people attempting to silence us or diminish the magnitude of the issue. At the root, this is very much about people not caring about the amount of labor Black womxn especially have to do to or what kind of daily barriers we have to traverse in order to maintain our hair.
If you struggle with your natural hair maintenance, you are not alone in your exhaustion. The crying fits. The panic attacks. Breaking combs and throwing hair brushes. The sheer rage at having to dedicate so much time and energy and money to our hair in order to look “presentable,” “professional,” and “acceptable” in a society where our hair is considered to be none of these things without first being tamed to fit white supremacist expectations. From our mothers, grandmothers, and aunties yelling or mumbling that we “need to do something to that hair,” to the hoteps who ask us to prove our authenticity and worth and “Queenliness” with our afros, to Carol in HR speaking softly to us about how our hair is “distracting” and “unprofessional.” The pressure to tailor our appearance in service of others is one that leaves us starved for a single moment of peace. Our hair is such a huge part of our daily battle against anti-Blackness, especially misogynoir, and we deserve to be able to wear it however we want or need, and we also need to be able to speak openly about the moments in which we feel overwhelmed, unsupported, and alone because of it.
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