I want to shave my head and go bald. I don’t want to deal with any of this. I just want to start over.
From the time I was in kindergarten, my mom and I would stay up at night with my neck held in one position for hours while we watched her favorite show, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” An overnight nurse with hair straight and sleek like Kandi Burruss, a singer-songwriter on the reality TV show, my mom worked on my hair from behind me on our red couch.
Braids gripped my scalp as tight as skinny jeans. Brushes and combs scratched my head for hours. Just For Me grease dripped down my forehead to make it shiny as the sun. Barrettes snapped in my ear.
Then my mom would tell me, “Aaliyah, you are so beautiful,” and I’d feel so special.
Sleeping on my hands to keep the barrettes from falling out was uncomfortable. But after almost three hours of my mom’s hard work, I would definitely be in trouble if the barrettes came out.
Walking into Shakopee Elementary the next day, I didn’t feel beautiful or special anymore. My suburban classmates touched my hair as if I were an animal in a petting zoo. They asked me weird questions:
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Why is your hair not like ours?”
Natural black hair is becoming more mainstream, with more representation of African Americans in media – Cartoon Network’s “Craig of the Creek,” the Netflix series “Nappily Ever After” and the Academy Award-winning “Black Panther.” That is a good thing. But each person’s lived experience shows a tough journey, including how I feel about my confidence, my cultural identity and my hair.
Being the only black girl in my class, I felt alone, embarrassed and insecure . Many of my classmates had long, straight, silky, bouncy hair. Going home and seeing everyone on my favorite cartoons and TV shows didn’t make it any better. None of the characters’ hair was like mine either – not Carly’s on “iCarly,” not my Barbie dolls, not even Beyoncé – and if I couldn’t have my hair like theirs, I just wanted to shave my head and be done with it.
I complained to my mom every day, asking her if she could please just straighten my hair. I couldn’t change her mind. She would tell me, “This who you are, Aaliyah, and you’re not changing for anyone.” I would show up to class with puff balls and afros, barrettes and beads. I became the weirdo on the bus, on the playground and in the lunchroom; the cycle continued throughout the year.
Eventually I convinced my mom to straighten my hair so it would be like Holly’s thick brown bob or Eden’s long blond hair with bangs. It was such a long process, and I regretted it every time the hot comb sizzled on my scalp. All I cared about was the end result, which was priceless–the reaction on my face in the bathroom mirror. My long and bouncy hair looked amazing. I felt beautiful again. I was so excited to go into school the next morning without my hair being the main topic–without being the weirdo.
But I was wrong.
“Wow, Aaliyah, now your hair is finally like ours.”
Ugh, I thought, here we go again. All I cared about at the time was looking like everyone else.
As I got older, I began going to beauty shops. I straightened my hair more often throughout elementary school and into middle school. My mom would battle with me, saying I needed to embrace my natural hair and stop trying to fit in.
“I’m only telling you this because I never had no one to tell me.”
But I didn’t listen. My hair started to burn every time I used heat with the flat iron. I started to lose my natural curl pattern.
As a seventh-grader, I knew this wasn’t me. I was tired of breaking myself down to be a part of a group that did not respect the real me and where I come from.
My dad gave me a book about the history of African kings and queens. It was something I had never seen before. Their hair was just like mine. They had beads and braids with gold, silver and green. I had seen that type of hair many times, but I had never seen it in a positive way–like it was a good thing to have this hair, worthy of being treated as royalty.
From that point on, I embraced my natural hair. On YouTube, I watched tutorials on how to manage your natural hair and styles that will help protect it. There became this big movement for natural hair online and in society. It made me feel less alone to know people struggled and worked hard to maintain their natural self like me.
In high school I still had times when I wanted to give up the struggle to fit my hair into a rubber band the size of a Life Saver and would wake up crying with rage because my hair would shrink up like uncooked noodles.
But times have changed. In 2018 Newsweek published an article called “How women of color are using natural hair to change mainstream predictions of beauty.” Janice Williams and Jessica Durham wrote, “Well, time’s up, straight hair: Women are pushing back, embracing their curls and coils.”
Big poofy puff balls were my favorite style. My baby hairs always stayed on fleek. My friends would see me at lunch and yell out, “Aaliyah, you poppin’, girl.”
I started to get more compliments at school about my hair, and people even started to wear their hair like mine. I felt pretty again. I saw more black girls in music videos, on TV shows and in news media who looked like me. Even people around me started to look like me.
I felt my natural self again.