Three years ago I was hurled abuse in the street, and wrote this in my diary:

24/07/16

Very rarely do I wear my hair, or even part of my hair, loose. This is partly because to do so would mean preparing my hair to not become a matted chunk by the end of the day, which is a full-time job for which I don’t have the time, patience, or skill.

Today I wore part of my hair loose, probably actually the only time that I’ve done so in over a year. As I walked past two people in the street one stared, and then very much within my earshot, loudly said to the other

‘What a hideous girl!’

I looked back and the person was still staring, and said

‘Look, did you see her?’

This is the main reason why I don’t often have any of my hair out. So I’m beginning this self-portrait. It is not meant to depict me as I see myself, nor me as I gather that I’m seen by other people, nor me as I think that I should be seen by other people. I intend for it to be a portrait of what, to the best of my judgement, I am, and so far as I can tell there is nothing wrong with it.

For some time now I have had the intention of getting a botanically correct tattoo of Artemisia Vulgaris, or Mugwort. It is a weed, and I want it because it is a weed, and because its name is ugly. I don’t want it because as some sort of botanically philanthropic gesture of solidarity I have decided that I actually find it beautiful. I want it because it is what it is, and what could possibly be ugly about that?

If the truth is ugly then why do you expect me to favour beauty? If we’re going for beautiful instead, then why don’t we just save time and sort children into ranks of aesthetic grading? We sort their minds in that way after all. These questions are dangerous but they are only rhetorical. What I’m saying is that I don’t want you to think that I’m beautiful. I don’t want you to compliment me. My ego would like you to compliment my mind but this is not what I’m getting at either.

Since I wrote this three years ago a lot has happened.

I made the decision on that day that I was deeply done with westernised beauty standards. As a child, like everyone else in this country, continent, world, I had lacked images of women with African heritage hair.

The few black women who made it onto my TV screen and into the music videos I was watching either had a weave or straightened hair.

That affects a child’s psyche in deep ways.

From that day on every image of me would number one strike against the onslaught of images giving young children (girls particularly because of the gendering in the way we’re conditioned) the message that they’re not beautiful. This idea of beautiful and not beautiful needs to die. I decided that if a young black girl saw me walk down the street she would at least see one person embracing their natural hair that day.

I’ve since told this story to a number of white friends and been met with the same pained surprise:

What do you mean?

But your hair is beautiful!

There are loads of black women with natural hair and it’s so beautiful, I can’t believe anyone would say that!

This reaction is alarming, alienating, and prevailing. Soon after that incident black natural hair actually happened to come into fashion, and the zeitgeist started to develop a very limited capacity to view black hair as a good look.

It was in, and this is where it becomes alarming: many people who hadn’t experienced racialised pain from the still very dominant western beauty standards, had no memory of it. It had never been discussed, never been an issue on their doorstep in the first place, so it wasn’t ever there.

But it’s STILL here. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Westernised beauty standards are sewn into our whole cultural makeup. A hot trend, or a passing fad has no effect on that.

Just look at the way this trend for afro hair came about. It wasn’t in isolation. It was as a part of a fashion revival of the 70s.

My natural hair is not a look, I’m not going for a 70s thing, I’m not on trend. This hair grows out of my scalp. And when this trend passes, just like the 70s one did, it will still be growing out of my scalp. The difference will be that the fashion gods on high will have closed the window on this fetish and returned to the euro-centric colonial perspective that’s held so dear.

Not convinced? Even still during this natural hair trend my white friends use the term ‘afro’ as a derogatory term:

Such a bad hair day, it’s so frizzy! Looks like an afro!

Remember when you got that bad haircut and it puffed out like an afro!

There’s an inconsistency here where people often don’t see the double standard they’re holding because it’s unconscious. But it comes out in language if you look closely.

The word afro could not more blatantly refer to something of African derivation. If you’re talking about afro things, you’re talking directly about something of African abstraction. If it’s derogatory when you apply it to your white body I shouldn’t have to explain that it’s also derogatory coming from you, if you apply the same term to mine.

Compliments are another litmus paper for some of these biases. Up until the day I wrote that diary entry the compliments I’d received throughout my life followed a staggering pattern. If I’d charted all the compliments I’d received in my life it would probably look a bit like this:

If you’re on the receiving end of this you don’t have to look closely at all for the punchline, it hits you in your gut. If you’re not on the receiving end however it may not be so glaringly obvious.

Anyone giving one of those compliments is only able to see that one data point- that one gesture with a kind intention, and so the wider implication is invisible to them, as is the fact that that compliment carries their own unconscious bias (or sometimes conscious). But to the person on the receiving end the compliment reminds you that your nature is not accepted, that to gain any acceptance from a world skewed by colonialism you have to alter yourself and hide your nature, that you should be ashamed of the body you inhabit.

Since the trend for natural hair has come about and my hair is always big and curly the compliments have changed when I’m in London, but if I go anywhere else outside the trend bubble it’s the same as ever before.

Something else happened recently which goes a little way towards showing just how much our beauty standards need to be demolished. I took a trip to a remote village on the south coast of Italy. It was the sort of place where within 48 hours you have exhausted the full cycle of passers-by in the streets, and the faces begin to repeat. In the village there were very few families who were Black or of African heritage. But there was one family, and they had a young girl. We’d said hello once when I had visited their neighbour, but other than that we’d had no contact.

On the day I left the young girl and her mother were also getting onto the same bus into town. We smiled at one another and exchanged a couple of words before boarding. Then just as we were approaching my stop the young girl bounded up the aisle and planted herself in the seat next to me, holding out her mother’s phone.

‘Can we be friends?’

Feeling overwhelmed by the sincere actions of children I of course said yes and quickly put my number in. I knew exactly why she wanted to be friends. Because nothing has changed. Just like I had, she needs to see more people embracing black hair.

Mugwort (Artemisia Vulgaris)

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