I still remember the first time I was taught to be uncomfortable with my hair. I was 6 and one of my best friends, Madison, invited me to her house for a sleepover with other girls in our first grade class. Eventually, the night brought us to play a game called ‘Beauty Salon’ which obviously required us to wash and style each other’s hair.
Washing my hair was something I usually only did with my mom but figured that if everyone else could do it, I could too. The game was everything a kids experience should be: pure and fun. No one made a comment about how my perfectly styled hair turned into a curly afro the minute it touched the water. No one made any rude comments about how I looked different. No one cared at all.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized something was wrong. When my dad came to pick me up, I instantly saw his face fall when he saw the giant afro on my head. He politely thanked the family for hosting the party, then quickly grabbed my arm and rushed me to the real hair salon. It was a tense car ride to say the least. I could tell my dad was trying to figure out what to say because I was clearly confused, but the best he could do was assure me that we were going to “fix it.” When I got to the hair salon I was greeted with even more shock. Another customer even said, “you can’t just do what the other girls do, you’re not a white girl.” At that point I went from being confused to ashamed of my appearance.
With time I discovered that my parents were worried that everyone else was going to judge my hair because it was different. I was the only black girl in a sea of white kids and their families. I was different, and my afro proved that despite every other effort my parents took to help me fit in. But what my parents didn’t realize was that the harmful stereotypes are fostered by adults who continue to pass it onto their kids.
After the infamous hair washing incident, I was forced to understand the harsh reality of beauty standards in America. Black women historically have to work twice as hard for half as much. But to even get your foot in the door you have to “look the part.” Black kids learn this lesson at a young age whether it be through the way your hair is styled, the clothes you wear, or the way you speak. How we present ourselves matter because we constantly have to be prepared to prove society wrong.
Thankfully, throughout my childhood I’ve been able to witness a new wave of women that redefined what’s “presentable.” Celebrities like Kyla Pratt, Zendaya, Alicia Keys, Kelly Rowland, Serena Williams and more have proven that success doesn’t have a physical archetype. They’ve been seen wearing their hair in twist outs, weaves, locks, dreads and everything in between. Even though they’re not average women, having them as role models definitely does make an impact on beauty standards within the black community. They helped me celebrate my differences and gain confidence through them, and I know I’m not the only one fighting this battle.Article by: Bria McNeal