As a child hair always seemed fairly simple. There were people that could get their hair wet and after twenty minutes have it return to their silky-smooth style and there were also people like me who with a mixed-race heritage (half Venezuelan) were unable to engage with any water-related activity without caution. Put simply, swimming and torrential rain would terrify me! Where some people look ready for a 90s style lingerie ad with wet hair, my hair would go dry and frizzy leaving me feeling about as sexy as a toilet brush.
My somewhat complicated relationship with hair was not helped by the fact I was raised in a culturally British household which celebrated brands like John Frieda and Herbal Essence (fabulous for those with European hair like my Mother who can literally survive off of two haircare products). Hair has always been incredibly personal- I have vivid memories of the sorts of comments I would get. There was always some sort of fascination surrounding seeing a child with a natural afro- people would feel the need to reach for my thick curly hair just to “see how it feels” like I was some sort of display doll. I would get called Annie by the elderly, bushy in secondary school and was boxed into being Tracy Beaker for every world book day in primary school as she was the only book character with tight curly hair like me. At any rate I didn’t fancy being Annie or bushy or Tracy Beaker. I don’t quite remember when I internalised how I felt about my hair in terms of beauty standards etc. but when a crush said, “you’re as ugly as your hair” (a statement that makes as little sense now as it did then)- it hurt. I was nine years old and although he admittedly was just an ignorant young boy the words stung. Hair and the impact it has on my identity feels so real and at times massively unfair.
At times it is very difficult being mixed race, I have often felt within and without of cultures. I have always been told to embrace my natural curls but when you have grown up with a Nan that used to spray your hair with water and use a fine-tooth comb to go through it (an absolutely lethal combination), it becomes harder and harder to embrace something you have been conditioned to find discomfort and ugliness in. My Mom will always say “if only you would have let me put clips in you would have had such long hair” but I don’t think it’s that simple. I went to a predominantly white primary school and though my secondary school was more diverse I still had people passing comments on my hair. For example, it’s important for someone with my type of hair texture to wash hair infrequently within this context infrequently can mean as little as a week to two weeks. Understandably, this aspect of haircare can be questionable to folk that wash their hair every two days but just because my routine is different, it doesn’t mean I am any less clean I simply have had to adapt a routine to suit my hair needs. Equally, my hair can be dry so using hair oil was and is pretty normal for me. When I was younger and less adept at judging the right amount to use I would occasionally over-oil, one friend said rather brazenly “Emma why is your hair so greasy?” For me, I associated grease with dirt and a lack of cleanliness- what I was doing was merely moisturising my hair if not a little overzealously in my younger years. This constant push and pull between wanting softer European hair would always go against the current of my free-spirited curls that cannot be tamed even if I scraped my hair back with ridiculously tight hair bobbles.
I was eleven when I first went to a Black hair salon. It felt like all my senses were in overload because I actually felt like I fitted in. There were women with hair that was even tighter and bigger than mine that celebrated what they were born with. Women that would brush off being called bushy with a loud laugh and challenge their hair to be even bolder for the next comment. Smelling products like KeraCare and Dark and Lovely that were vastly different to the John Frieda frizz control or L’Oréal shampoos I was accustomed to was overwhelming. My simple request to the hairdresser was this: “I just want hair I can shake in the wind”. All my life I had seen women with long straight hair that could tie their hair into delicate ponytails, that could dye their hair any colour without damage or have block fringes that wouldn’t curl up under an anxious sweat. This simple request fuelled a dangerous love-hate relationship which resulted in me experimenting with a range of permanent and semi-permanent hair treatments. I didn’t care about the damage, I didn’t care about the maintenance, I didn’t care about how it would impact the way I viewed myself long term.
That was the first day of a long journey, I couldn’t tell you the ignorance I have received surrounding my hair. I am almost proud now when I see the somewhat surprised expression on people’s faces when I tell them my hair is naturally curly. My texture released hair (a semi-permanent process that makes the bonds in your hair softer) can give the illusion of me being born with relatively straight hair. I still couldn’t run into the ocean and I still have a lengthy haircare routine that involves me wearing a wig cap to bed, but I do still think it is better than the alternative. Though much happier now than I was as a confused child it is still so tiring. I’m tired of being ashamed, so ashamed that when I prematurely cut my hair to give it a break from treatments, I wore a wig for six months to conceal my shorter curly hair and in doing so I have hidden my culture and my history.
At twenty-two, my place within society in relation to my hair still doesn’t feel totally confirmed. I often wondered whether men would value me and my “different” hair- whether they’ll question why I wear a wig cap to bed or why I wash my hair every two weeks.
Hair and my relationship with it is skin deep, it is my culture, my heritage, it forces me to acknowledge who I am. It has been a friend and an enemy; I have felt led on by societal standards and empowered by those who stick their fingers up to the norm. Though I still straighten my hair, I am far more educated now with straighter hair than I was with curly. This is still a process and I am aware of that, with more products, greater discussions, and changing standards I feel there may be a day that I decide to finally wear my hair out.