Natural black hair, whether worn as a small afro or a cloud of curls, is having what fashion calls “a moment”—its biggest, perhaps, since the birth of the afro as political symbol during the civil rights era. Growing up a mixed-race kid in the ’80s, I remember watching The Wiz with Diana Ross (being remade this winter as NBC’s annual live musical—will the new Dorothy also have a ’fro?) and feeling connected to Jody’s soft halo on Canadian kids’ TV classic Today’s Special. Yet it wasn’t until Scary Spice ziga-zig-ah’d her way into the world that I stopped relaxing and straightening my curly hair and started considering it cool, or even covetable. I recall feeling a pleasurable jolt, a recognition of style as self.
Recently, black women’s hair has been getting press for reasons as diverse as the kink of our curls. On How To Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis, as feisty law professor Annalise Keating, removed her sleek bobbed wig to reveal her buzzed crop—a first for black women on prime time—and blew up Twitter. IRL, Halle Berry took her ex Gabriel Aubry to court for allegedly lightening and straightening their six-year-old daughter’s hair. Zendaya provided a classy defence for her Oscar dreadlocks in Weedgate, and brought down E!’s Fashion Police, one host at a time.
In “Don’t Cash Crop My Corn Rows,” a school project-turned viral video, The Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg zeroed in on traditionally black hairstyles worn by white celebrities and articulately explained the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. And when newbie Dominican model Lineisy Montero walked for Prada’s fall show with her afro seemingly untouched, The Guardian took note: “…one can’t deny the power in the image of a single afro among 41 slick ponytails and the message it conveys to women who have faced enduring, yet completely erroneous notions that the kind of hair that swings and blows in the wind is most beautiful.” One out of 41 isn’t a great stat, but it’s a small start.
In my twenties, I used my big, unruly curls as a visual signifier of confidence (bedhead makes guys think of, well, bed, right?) and it worked. Men told me I was sexy, exotic, cool. People would reach out to fondle it, then stop short with a shocked, “OMG! I was just going to touch your hair!” their outstretched hands left dangling in the air. But I cut it off just before I started working at FLARE in 2013. I was secretly pregnant, and loved that my hair now only took 10 minutes to dry. And it required only minuscule amounts of product compared to the usual venti-size dollops of cream, gel and conditioner I typically used to fight frizz and force my curls into shiny spirals.
When I returned from maternity leave, however, I let it grow out. Did I want to recapture some of my twenties edge? Absolutely. But thanks to my hair heroes (see the roster below), I was also ready to embrace my natural texture. I no longer have time to diffuse my mane daily or care if my curls aren’t uniformly smooth and glossy.
That’s the thing about natural hair: it’s not about perfection, never has been, never could be. It shouldn’t matter whether or not Prada, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy or anyone else recognizes it as fashion-worthy. But it does matter, and here’s why: young women consume thousands of images a day. And having a mirror in which you can recognize your own beauty is power.
Past and present hair-oines