Recently, iconic supermodel and notable wig wearer Naomi Campbell posted a video of a little black girl with an impossibly fulsome head of long, thick, straight black hair, parted down the middle, and tumbling down her back.
It’s the type of hair that identifies princesses and mermaids in our fairy stories. It’s the type of hair that confers the powers of beauty, femininity goodness, and allure. It’s the type of hair that graces the heads of our most admired and recognised icons irrespective of their race; the type of women that we all want to emulate. What it’s not is the type of hair that typically grows from the heads of black women.
The footage starts with the little girl looking into the camera, staring confidently down the lens. This self-assuredness lasts for all of 3 seconds, after which the impossibly long and full hair is revealed for what it is – impossible! The child’s hair, which is in-fact a wig, is gently but unceremoniously pulled from her head, revealing cute mini bantu knots flattering an adorable little face.
The child however breaks down, going into full scale, zero to a hundred, meltdown mode. Now I know this could all be dismissed as “not that deep”, and read as nothing more than a toddler freaking out because her plaything has been taken away from her. This is quite a reasonable assessment, if we choose to disregard everything we know about context, the politics of black hair, and the subsequently troubled relationships many black women and girls have had with our hair as a result of a centuries long propaganda campaign against it.
The little girl is visibly distressed, and to me it’s painful to watch because it’s so recognisable.
For most of my life I had similar emotions about anybody seeing my natural hair. The idea of exposing it presented a threat far worse than a fear of public nudity. Despite the significant insecurities I had about my body at that time, I’m pretty sure that given the option, I would have happily opted for an outing in the buff, than being seen without my extensions or chemically straightened tresses.
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When I was a younger kid in Ireland without access to such luxuries as basic hair care knowledge or products, and when redundant attempts to tame my fro were made by trying to pull it up in bunches achieved with elastic bands emphatically not designed for that job, I remember crying on occasions when the elastic band-poorly equipped to contain the volume of my hair snapped, and I was left out in public, my hair exposed, an object of not only scrutiny, but ridicule. And when it came to tears I offered them up every night for years, along with prayers imploring God or magic, or whatever, to transform my hair into hair like the hair of that
When as a young woman, I read The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first novel in which the protagonist Pecola Breedlove spends a year praying for blue eyes, I recognised that Morrison was writing for me, as well as the millions of other little black girls who have so desperately desired blue eyes, straight hair, or lighter skin, not necessarily because we see
an innate value in these things, but because we suspect that is our lack of them that is source of the rejection, discrimination, and racism that we experience. While straight hair was my main priority, I also obsessed over having the blue eyes that my mother, and so many of my peers in Ireland possessed. I genuinely believed that if I too had these features, my worth and value would be recognised, and all of my problems magically
resolved. Yet in my late teens and early 20s my newly straightened hair, honey blonde extensions and artificially blue eyes -achieved with lenses- did little to improve my self-confidence, and I remained as painfully insecure about my appearance as ever.
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Morrison wrote that her motivation in writing The Bluest Eye, emerged from a conversation she had with a friend who had that same longing for blue eyes: “Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing,” Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her.”
Liberating myself from the power of that gaze, one that not only diminished me, but had warped my own perception of myself, took a lot of work. The self-confidence and assuredness I eventually achieved could only ever be attained by an embracing of my self, and part of that meant working with my hair, instead of against it, a development that was at that time still many years down the line.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong with changing the colour of ones eyes or in wearing wigs. There is great creativity in black hairstyling, and wigs represent one of the many methods of transformation and self-expression that we have access to. But for me today wigs and weaves are no longer the default used to hide the shame I once felt about my real texture.
For the little girl in the video, order is only restored when the wig is returned to her head and this is what I find concerning, the way she immediately calms down swishing her hair, confidence restored! I want to see black girls rocking that same level of unstoppable swag either with a wig, or - more importantly – without.
Emma Dabiri is a TV presenter, academic and the bestselling author of Don’t Touch My Hair