For black people hair is a really big deal, especially for black femmes. From an early age having beautiful hair or ‘good hair’ has always been illustrated as having straightened or permed strands. Socially, I was very much made aware that as a black child my braids, twists and puffs were inferior to a white girl’s long straight strands. At that age I had a strong desire to be desired; I understood that to be desired meant to be beautiful. I understood beauty to be gendered as well, existing only within a context of femininity and the maturity of women hood. Worst of all I understood and idealized femininity within a context of social norms and whiteness.
So when I turned 13, like a lot of black girls I begged my mom for a perm, which in many ways was a right of passage into the feminine maturity I desired. When I turned 13, I also like a lot of black girls, begged for my mom to hand me a razor. With her permission I erased just about every hair on my body in order to achieve the mature, socially desired look. In this sense with body hair, having ‘good hair’ meant having no hair.
Eventually both the permed hair on my head and the lack of hair on my body began to lose its appeal. The perm fried my hair beyond repair and straightening took too much time; shaving created the discomfort of bareness and razor bumps – the constant maintenance of both became an unwanted chore. About 5 years later, amidst the growing natural hair movement started by black femmes, I decided straight hair is not for me; I cut off the perm and I now rock an afro. Now, just this year I have also decided to ditch the razor as well, a decision that was much harder to make.
More Radical Reads: Pretty Hurts: The Impact of Beauty Standards
Although no shave movements and body hair positivity are starting to gain traction amongst a lot of young women and femme people, the narratives and faces of these movements tend to be predominately white. There is a certain trope of respectability where not shaving is only acceptable, or even seen as radical, if one is able to embody a white ‘hippie’ alternative feminist aesthetic. In college I ended up entering such a white feminist space where not shaving was common. Looking around at the white femmes around me I marveled at how they were able to maintain their ideal delicacy, their desirability, their mature feminine beauty, hairy and all.
Looking back, now I realize that these perceived characteristics were a function of their white privilege. I didn’t decide to stop shaving until I met my friend Nya. Black, femme and beautiful, Nya owned her hair, her desirability and her femininity unapologetically, without centering whiteness. It was Nya who both initially inspired me and encouraged me to love and find beauty in all of my hair. It was Nya’s support and the growing visibility of other black femmes on campus that helped me feel comfortable with my decision.
It wasn’t till the summer upon leaving college and going back home did I become fully aware of the challenges of my decision. In the vastness of the city my hair and my body felt over exposed and I felt as though my hair was a spectacle. I began to receive a lot of invasive stares and at one point I was even called a Gorilla. My body hair was racialized as unkempt, animalistic; an act of laziness. I felt forced and shamed into conforming and covering my hair in certain spaces. Worst of all I felt farther away from my femmeness. Already isolated from the impossible social ideals and standards of femininity set in whiteness, my hair made me shy away from traditionally feminine styles of clothing to more masculine aesthetics, even when I didn’t always want to dress that way.
These experiences left me really self conscious. I was left in a place where I generally just began to lack the self confidence, the self esteem and the self love I was accustomed to. It was as if I was back in elementary school the hyper visibility of my hair immediately inferior and undesirable only this time it was the soft curls on my legs instead of the afro puffs and braids in my hair. Just like when I was 13, I felt an immediate desire to reach for the razor, to shave everything off, desperate to fit a norm, desperate to beautiful, to have ‘good hair’ to be feminine. This time however, I realized that it wouldn’t make me happy. It wouldn’t be a decision I made for me it would be a decision in which I prioritized conforming rather than doing what I wanted, looking how I wanted. I remembered the reasons why I had made the decision in the first place; the exhaustion and pain of constant maintenance, the rejection of feminine beauty standards I was pressured into maturing into and then simply the sheer fact I didn’t want to.
More Radical Reads: 8 Things That Happened to my Body After I Stopped Shaving
Ultimately I realized that a lot of the mental challenges I faced stemmed from my own internalized racism.
The values of femininity and the toxic whiteness I had ingested shaped and formed the characteristics of which I valued as desirable, beautiful or feminine. It was these internalized values reaffirmed by microaggressions and the anti-blackness surrounding me that made me unable to love my body, black, queer, femme, hairy and all.
Loving myself meant dismantling my own internalizations. It meant renegotiating and redefining my relationship with my gender and the feminine. It meant rejecting the toxic whiteness I associated to femininity.
I would actively check myself whenever I entered a head space of internalized self loathing in comparison to white standards. After that I reaffirmed myself that the choice for me to have body hair was my choice and my choice alone. I was brave in spaces that tried to make me feel less than or other.
Ultimately though, no one should have to force themselves to be brave in order to love themselves. Although self loves comes from the self the challenges that make self acceptance hard often come from external social spaces. Our understandings of which feminine bodies are worthy of desire, are worthy of being deemed beautiful must change especially in terms of what values and representation we create space for including, valuing and uplifting the hairy femininity and self confidence of people like Nya as representation. This is especially critical in front of children, who are most susceptible to internalizing the values they see modeled daily. Even outside the daily norm in our radical intersectional feminist movements and spaces we must also be cognizant of who we center, that whiteness is not what we center. Loving all hair, all bodies is essential- even hairy black femmes ones.
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[Feature Image: A brown skin individual with a natural curly afro stands outdoors in the middle of the street with hands on hip. They are wearing a green shirt that reads ‘I love my hair.’ Source:Dionysius Burton]