When I was six years old, for a few glorious hours, my hair looked just like Matilda’s. I can’t remember whose idea it was, but it took a pound of thick, white relaxer, my eldest sister’s heavy-handed grip, and a blunt pair of easy-grip scissors to make my hair fall limply across my forehead and graze my shoulders, its natural volume magically deflated into a sleek bob. My mother was concerned with how exhaustive and unhealthy it would be to maintain the hairstyle, and quickly took me to my father’s barber who, as my feet dangled over the edge of my seat, sheared most of it off. I was left with an inch or two of gender-ambiguous fluff, and I hated it. Each time my gaze met the awkward style in the mirror, I would close my eyes and return to the precious few hours when my hair was just like my friends’—straight and perfect.
My hair has always been a source of confusion, not just for me, but for those around me as well. Every hairdresser I have ever been to either marvels or recoils at the challenge presented to them by both the sheer amount of hair I have and by its unique texture. My mother is English but has Caribbean roots and has an amazing mane of tumbling ringlets that spring back when you tug on them. My father is Nigerian and has hundreds of tiny coils which form a mat so thick that it can hold a pencil stuck through it. My hair is somewhere in between—always changing and never fitting under standard party hats, much to my perpetual chagrin. I’m not scientifically inclined, but I like to imagine that the chromosome associated with my hair’s texture is as incapable of being de-tangled as the hair for which it codes.
As a kid, my hair grew outward in a perfectly spherical afro, not downward like my classmates’ locks, and was the cause of much neck-craning for anyone who was ever unlucky enough to sit behind me. Until I was eight I used to take swimming classes, and trying to comb through my hair after having stuffed it under a latex swim cap was a process which often ended in tears, prompting my early disillusionment with the L’Oréal Kids “No Tears” tagline. I was always ridiculously envious of how easily my friends’ brushes could glide through their hair; the hushed sweep of their combs only accentuated the jerky drag of my own. For the sake of convenience, from toddler to teen, I hid my hair in braids, twists, and every variation of these styles possible before deciding, when I was 13, that I wanted straight hair.
All around me—in the community I was growing up in, in the magazines I read, in the shows and movies that I watched—were girls with straight hair. Unconsciously, it became ingrained in me that my gravity-defiant hair was not beautiful, and never would be unless I willed it into submission with a flat-iron. The thought of letting those around me see how alien my hair was,alongside the thought of having my peers call me out for being a phony, made me sick with nerves.
I can vividly remember the sense of panic I had when, for a class activity in middle school, my teacher asked the whole class to line up in order from curliest to straightest hair. I had no idea where on the spectrum to place myself. In the end I awkwardly shuffled my way to the middle of the line. The idea of having to choose between these two sides is one that haunted me throughout high school.
By forcing my hair to resemble that of those around me, I gave myself a free pass to avoid confronting my racial identity. My flawed logic was that if I looked like my peers, maybe I would feel as unconfused and legitimate as I imagined they felt, as if replicating their hair would inaugurate me into the exclusive club that most of my friends had gotten into naturally. Every choice seemed dichotomous—braids were too black, weave was trying too hard to be white; I struggled to find a middle course. I felt like my mixed heritage had, without my permission, cast me aside from my peers, leaving me to wander between the two apparently contrary poles of my race. No matter what I did, someone armed with a comment like, “You’re not really black, though” or “Stop pretending to be white” would knock me back into this lonely space where my hair was the ultimate symbol of my neither-here-nor-there-ness. I didn’t understand how to be myself when it seemed like my personality had been both preordained by my race and also made null by the very nature of its hybridity.
I spent last summer in New York interning at a prestigious, but fairly homogenous, fashion magazine, and reading lots of Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Nella Larsen. Maybe it took seeing everyone at my internship trying—and failing—to embody a rigid and unnatural idea of beauty, or maybe it was just Zadie Smith’s good looks, but I realized that my hair and my identity could never be inauthentic unless I allowed them to be. Silently and subconsciously, my confidence, sense of self, and logic finally synchronized. This may seem gloriously simple, but it took years of doggy-paddling around the whirlpool of beauty, hair, and race before I was finally able to navigate myself away from it. Venturing into the yet unexplored frontier of my natural hair has been liberating; I can finally stop looking back on what was probably nothing more than an awkward bob when I was six years old as the peak of my hair’s beauty. Although I still anticipate getting tapped on the shoulder by people behind me in class who can’t see around my hair and having strangers occasionally ask me, “Is that really all yours?” I have never been more at ease with it. The rest of my life, I expect, will be spent happily untangling the infinitely divergent strands of my hair—and everything that goes along with it.