I am (not) my hair

My natural hair is curly. Like, super curly. Spirally, ringlety, haphazardly curly. I don’t remember ever liking my hair.

This probably rings weirdly to anyone who is even slightly familiar to me, but I actually hate being looked at. Or, more specifically, I hate being looked at in ways I don’t invite and can’t control. Oddly, this reluctance to be appraised or commented upon does not arise when people are being negative about me. Negative judgements are fine. Well, not fine but I can either shrug them off or I can spoil for a fight and I am not overly affected in the same way I am when people are nice to me. I can forget people’s negativity pretty easily, but I dwell on compliments I didn’t permit. Basically, I want to to dictate what people are allowed to like about me, when they are allowed to like it and how, but they have carte blanche to hate whatever they please. I don’t have a problem with the ugly side of my personality being on display, but the things I like about myself make me uncomfortable when other people notice and like them too without me pointing them out first.

I feel like I’m explaining in circles because I don’t really understand it myself but that’s how I have always been, since I can remember. I have a very vivid memory of being sat on the counter in Woolworths with my mum and aunty when I was around 3-years-old and the lady at the till telling me how pretty I was and in response I scowled and stuck my tongue out. My rudeness earned me a sharp tap on the mouth inside the shop (to make me retract my tongue) and a sharp tap on the butt when we left to remind me what a brat I was. And that was not an isolated incident. Every single one of my family members has a story about my sourness towards strangers who cooed at me in my pram or telling them to “shut up” when they complimented me. I was a right mardy little shit.

My hair has always been seen as an invitation to touch or talk to me. I used to blame my hair for marking me out as different to other kids, even though there are a plethora of reasons I have always always found it difficult to fly under the radar and assimilate and just be normal. My hair was the scapegoat. My hair would envoke largely positive but also, sometimes, mean reactions from people. I used to get asked if it was permed by white people who didn’t understand mixed genetics. I used to get asked why I didn’t straighten it by brown people who strived for the Western ideal of beauty. For most of the 90s, I was called Scary Spice by adults and children alike, which was fine to an extent. I love Mel B, I love that she looked like me at a time when no one famous looked like me, and I thanked her for this once and she laughed her Mel B laugh and hugged me and her boobs are the most amazing ridiculous boobs to have ever been crushed against my body. It was like that scene with Regina’s mum in Mean Girls. But! Ginger Spice was my actual favourite Spice Girl. So the Scary Spice comparisons wore thin after a while.

It was actually around the time that I got tired of being called Scary Spice that I stopped wearing my hair down unless we were going to some kind of family event and my mum threatened me within an inch of my life. I was just sick of it. Sick of being touched, sick of being talked about, sick of not looking like my friends if I’m totally honest. If my hair wasn’t big and noticeable, I could fit in better, which is essentially what most kids strive for. So it was plaits or a braid from then on.

Just after my mildly awkward teenage phase, I realised I couldn’t keep on plaiting my hair. I already looked young for my age and my hairstyle was making me look younger. I also couldn’t start wearing my hair down because the one time I did that (photo day) people were equal parts horrible and lovely and I didn’t want that level of attention ever again, just for going about my daily life. So for a year or two I had braids (plural) in the Afro-hair sense which just invited a whole new level of touchy and talky of the 100% positive kind, ie. my least favourite. I wasn’t Scary Spice anymore. Now I was Brandy. Unacceptable attention, yet again.

When I was 14, I bit the bullet and had my hair chemically relaxed for the first time. I liked it. I liked that I could do things with my hair that my texture and volume had never allowed before. I liked that I looked much more like my friends. I liked that I looked more like Beyoncé, who was already probably the most famous young brown woman in the world and setting a very white standard of look for black and brown women to emulate. My hair was long again, which I had missed since an ill-fated cut a few months prior, I liked that too. Yeah, it took me three hours to style from wet to dry, but from the back I could have been any girl in my year at school and because straight hair is just straight hair after the initial “Grace’s hair is different!” reactions, people never commented on it again, which was the important thing. I had assimilated. Finally!

My hair has been straight ever since. We’re coming up 12 years now, in fact. About 3 years ago, I started toying with the idea that I maybe wanted to go back to curly. Cover Drive had just had a #1 single, lead single Amanda looked banging, and her hair made me nostalgic for my own.

Then Solange, aka “Beyoncé’s little sister” went through a renaissance where she really worked those natural or traditionally “black” looks and was so cool and so beautiful that I started thinking maybe I would look my best if I looked the way I was meant to and not the way I had decided I should.

More recently, it seems like I see curly hair everywhere. On the tube, on tumblr, on TV, from Ella Eyre to Fleur East to Rihanna, Kelis and Nicki. I think I also see more brown women in general, which isn’t to say that brown women didn’t exist when I was young (in fact there was probably a lot more black television back then) but mixed-race girls, or Girls Who Look More Like Me seem to be in abundance at the moment and so on Thursday, I’m going back to curly hair.

Honestly, my main reasons for returning to natural are practical – I just can’t hack the amount of time it takes to style my hair straight anymore. I’m bored of doing it. I’m also in a strange transitionary phase of life – after an abysmal year, I feel like making a dramatically symbolic change, and nothing is more symbolic to me than my hair. The third reason is because I feel like having curly hair isn’t really a big deal nowadays. Not like it was when I was little. It’s like a strength in numbers thing. I don’t feel like I’m gonna be super different if I go back to normal.

I feel very apprehensive about it, so I shan’t pretend this is some kind of newfound hair confidence I have. I don’t think I could ever accurately describe how much I hated how noticeable my hair was. My skin has been prickling with discomfort as I wrote this, just with the memories of what it was like to have curly hair before. I might wimp out after a while and go back to straight, or, more likely, I’ll start having braids again. But I really would like to feel okay with my normal hair, because I never have and like… I think that’s my next big character development.





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