Black Beauty

Hope was home for the recent holiday, and while she was here, she decided to cut her hair. Hope had decided some time ago that she regretted relaxing her hair and wanted to “go natural” again. After about 7 months of growing it out, we snipped off the relaxed ends and basked in the glory that is now her little Afro.

Ok, so maybe I basked; Hope seemed beside herself with shock, anxiety and the ever present teen worries about how others would see her.

When Hope came to home nearly 5 years ago, she had a lot of hair that I lovingly nurtured right on down to her shoulders. It was not chemically treated. I twisted it, coiled it, braided it, did all kinds of things with it. Hope was really proud of her hair; she got a lot of compliments. She learned to really embrace how her naturally curly, coily hair looked.

Hope has thick hair. It’s not just that each strand is thick; there are also a lot of strands. I swear when I first started doing her hair, I thought I was wrestling a carpet!

As she got older, and I shifted more of the burden of doing her hair to her, things got…difficult. My daughter’s care-taking abilities didn’t produce the same results, and eventually she decided that she wanted to relax it.

I hated the idea. I wanted her to love her hair and to learn to properly care for it. It had been years since I’d given up relaxing my own hair, and there was a part of me that took it really personally that my daughter wanted to relax her hair.

I had failed to promote the beauty of our hair.

I had failed to foster a sense of pride in our hair in its natural state.

I had failed to cultivate a sense of beauty that didn’t adhere to Euro-centric beauty norms.

I had failed to get her to love herself.

In spite of these failures, I also support one’s ability to wear their hair however they please. So, I asked her hair dresser to relax her hair.

Oh there was lots of hair swinging. There were smiles. There was hair flipping. Hope’s hair grew and then…all the things that happened before the relaxer happened. Poor maintenance; lazy care, heat damage, split ends and breakage. There were a couple of heavy “trims” that took inches off.

And I was spending a small fortune getting her hair done.

We ended up in the same place as before, which made me feel as though my prior failures had been confirmed in this hair relaxing exercise.

Then one night I was watching hair videos on YouTube when Hope said she regretted relaxing her hair. She thought it would be easier, but it wasn’t.

I still have teeth marks on my tongue from where I nearly bit it off so as not to say, “I told you so!”

So she begin the journey to grow her hair out with the first major development happening during her fall break.

I’m delighted that she grew her hair out and that she wants to embrace the fullness and textures of her natural hair. That said, I know that rocking a teeny weeny Afro (TWA) is a shock at first. You see all your other features and you can feel weird about them.

Is my forehead really that big?

Were my ears so noticeable when my hair was longer?

I swear my acne was not this noticeable with bangs.

My nose is big.

My skin is so dark.

My teeth are big.

I need earrings to distract from this.

I don’t like the way I look.

People will make fun of me.

I’m never going to look like Becky (No, you’re right and you’re not supposed to.)

It’s all so loaded. Helping her reframe her thoughts about beauty is hard. Helping her think about the fact that six months from now she will have a lot more hair is hard. Helping her believe that she doesn’t need to “fix” anything is hard.

Self-acceptance is hard at almost any age; it’s especially hard at 17.

I think she’s stunning. Her chocolate skin is dark and creamy. Her almond shaped eyes sparkle. With the hair away from her face, her acne quickly faded. I finally was able to coax a pair of small, classy earrings on her. With her militaristic posture and figure I’d kill for, I think she’s an 18 out of 10.

But to hear her tell it, I’m mom so none that counts.

Understanding how oppression shapes even the way we see our beauty is exhausting; really, it is. Teaching that…it’s not only exhausting but also infuriating. I silently rage thinking about the fact that my daughter questions her beauty because kinky coily hair isn’t universally seen as gorgeous. I cut my eyes at the folks at her school who looked perplexed like they weren’t sure to compliment Hope when she returned rocking her afro. I nearly cried when she cast her eyes down when she saw folks see her hair for the first time.

Hope is gloriously gorgeous. She already doesn’t know how lovely she is; the short hair is a radical change that makes her glow. She doesn’t believe that though.

That’s not my fault even though I feel like I failed in instilling that.

It’s all of our faults. That nearly exclusive white standard of beauty is so embedded in our psyche that our brown and black kids hardly know and appreciate African diasporic beauty when they see it. And that makes me sad and mad, really mad.

I look forward to the day when my daughter looks in the mirror, smiles at her reflection and turns on her heels to go knowingly, purposefully slay us all.

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About AdoptiveBlackMom

I'm a single Black professional woman living in the DC area. I adopted tween a few years ago, and this blog chronicles our journey. Feel free to contact me at adoptiveblackmom@gmail.com, on Facebook at Adoptive Black Mom, and on Twitter @adoptiveblkmom. ©www.AdoptiveBlackMom.com, 2013-2018. All rights reserved. (Don't copy my ish without credit!) View all posts by AdoptiveBlackMom

14 responses to “Black Beauty

  • Belladonna Took

    You know, for what it’s worth, and at risk of offending, I’m not entirely sure I buy what you say about a “white standard of beauty” being embedded in our psyche. I’ve been white all my life and I have NEVER felt beautiful, because I’m short and fat and I don’t dress right or wear my makeup right (or at all, now) or have the right kind of hair. It’s not just a white standard of beauty – it’s an impossible fashion-dictated standard of beauty that exists outside of skin, hair, or any other merely human feature. Yes, white seems to prevail – doesn’t it always? But who is that black model with the impossibly long neck? Back in the 70s when I was Hope’s age, she made me feel fugly – not because of her skin or her hair, but because of her shape, her height, her elegance. I could never wear long dangly earrings or a neck choker because I’m stubby and have a thick neck.

    I get that you want Hope to accept and, indeed, revel in the features that belong to her and that are part of being black, like her kinky hair. I get that it’s not worth a whole helluva lot when I tell you I’ve had exactly this conversation with several young black women with whom I have, or have had, close relationships … I simply don’t understand the need to straighten their hair with nasty toxic chemicals or, worse, shave it off and spend a fortune on wigs. WHY would they do that when they are BEAUTIFUL? But … fashion. That’s the devil we need to drive off, no matter what skin color she deems “in” at any given time.

    • Caitlin

      Oh Belladonna, we’ve never met, but I have to tell you that your first sentence is really very problematic. As you mention, you’ve been white all your life and you’ve never experienced the million subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that our society constantly tells Black people, especially Black women, that they are not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, light enough, feminine enough, and on and on and on. The “white standard of beauty” is not something for you to “buy.” “The white standard” is real, whether you buy it or not, and it’s incredibly damaging and has been for hundreds and hundreds of years. Listen, read, and learn from the people of color who are sharing their experiences. Your place is not to doubt or question their experience or say it’s somehow no different than your experience as a white person. We’re all on a journey, and we all need to learn, so let’s do it together. xoxo

    • AdoptiveBlackMom

      Hey Bella,
      I read your original comment and told myself to *wait* to respond so that I could articulate what I wanted to say and not do so on the fly. There is a lot of research on beauty standards, a lot! This isn’t new stuff and it’s not opinion. There is a very euro-centric, white, standard to beauty. We all know what that standard is. That standard extends from straight, preferably light colored hair and eyes and yes, skin, to thin facial features like noses, chins, to slim body types. Features that hint at difference–more curvy body types, broader noses, thicker lips, fuller fannies, and “tanned”/darker skin is exoticized and declared ‘hot or in’ sporadically. This does not mean that white women are not also damaged by this pervasive standard. If your central point is that this white supremacist beauty standard hurts everyone, then the short response is a resounding yes, but I’m not going to let anyone off the hook by denying that it is a standard set by white supremacy and perpetuated by the fashion industry–even if there are a handful of non-white models strutting their own twiggy bodies out there.

      All that said, I know what you meant; totally get it, but it sounded a lot like “all beauty matters.” And yes, of course, but the reality is that suggesting that the emotional and physical damage is the same is problematic and has been shown repeatedly not to be true. #facts In a world where white supremacy is pervasive, even in its most passive forms, it is still wildly oppressive to people of color and no matter what I will not wake up white tomorrow. We’ve got black and brown folks using lightening creams to counteract or strip our melanin. It’s not just psychically damaging, it is physically damaging for our skin and our hair to continue to manipulate it to get closer to the standard that will always remain elusive. I don’t like to posit it an oppression olympics, but the truth is that the respective distance, socially speaking, to the dominant beauty standard is farther for women of color than it is for white women. I’m telling you white supremacy is harmful to everyone and ultimately that’s what needs to be stopped.

      We cool! ❤

      • Belladonna Took

        Absolutely we’re cool – and thank you for responding, and also for responding to my email. I’d love to continue this dialog; thank you for the invitation – up to you whether we do so here or privately.

        So, to be clear, my comment was absolutely not intended to sound anything like “all beauty matters”. I’m painfully aware, through relationships with several black women and girls I love very much, that black women have numerous extra issues – skin color and hair being only the two most obvious – when it comes to fashion.

        My intention, in my comment, wasn’t to say, “Oh no, your experience isn’t valid; this has nothing to do with color.” As I said, white standard and values, do invariably seem to prevail – to everyone’s detriment. I was trying to point to what seems to me to be the more universal issue, in this context, which is that the fashion industry hurts all girls. And yes, you’re never going to wake up white, and I suppose in theory I could one day have woken up thin … but never tall, never with a long neck or slender ankles or the right sized breasts.

        I guess what I was trying to say, in part, was, yes, I understand that being black adds a whole dimension to the fashion thing. But please let’s not lose sight of the real damage fashion does to all girls by focusing on our differences. I assume Hope has friends who aren’t African American, and if so I like to think they can get together and agree on how impossible it is to meet the current accepted standards of beauty without getting hung up on whether the white girl or the straight-haired in the group has it easier, because ultimately we want them ALL to break free and express their beauty in the way that is right for them.

        I feel that I’m rambling but WP has done something to this comment that makes it impossible for me to see more than two lines at a time, making editing impossible. If I’ve offended, please put it down to clumsiness and lack of thoughtful editing, and not intent.

        Beyond that, thank you, I’ll accept your resounding yes, because that is exactly what I meant, and return it with one of my own, because YES, white supremacy is harmful to everyone, and that absolutely needs to be stopped.

        • AdoptiveBlackMom

          I appreciate the desire to point to the “more universal” issues around fashion hurting all girls, but that’s not what I do in this space. Certainly much of what I write about does touch on universal, shared experiences, but I created this space very intentionally to talk about race, gender and privilege on my parenting journey. For me, the ‘universal’ issue isn’t the fashion industry, but as I noted before that *white supremacy* is really the core issue driving the marginalization of *all* of us who do not meet that standard. I think societal unease/discomfort with naming this core issue is one of our biggest barriers to progress. It sucks.

  • AdoptiveNYMomma

    Your calm patience and reassurance to help her embrace her beautiful self will at some point click. Teen years are hard but you are doing all the right things and yes she will come to see her real beauty in her natural look.

  • Caitlin

    I share your anger and sadness about society’s expectations of Hope and the impacts those expectations are having on her, a vulnerable teenager. My cousin relaxed her hair (I think she called it straightening…I’m not sure if it’s the same thing?) when she was a teenager and I felt such a loss for her falling prey to the omnipresent euro-centric norms. She has a white adoptive mom who only gave a half-hearted effort to helping her understand and embrace her naturally beautiful kinky, coily hair.

    For the record, I think Hope sounds stunning and I love seeing women wear their hair naturally. Although, I often don’t comment on it, because I don’t want to participate in the fetishization of black hair. It’s sort of tricky to know when/how to compliment unless it’s a close friend.

  • Beth

    I think you’re doing a great job of encouraging Hope to see her beauty and she will get there. The message that you’re giving her, and role modelling for her, that the African American flavor of beauty is indeed beautiful, will get through.

    It sucks that Hope has to deal with all the complicated racial issues about hair and beauty, on top of all the normal insecurities that make it damned hard for any teen girl to feel beautiful.

    My heart hurt at the mental image of her flinching when other people saw her new hair for the first time. Ouch. What is wrong with those people anyway? When you see someone with a drastically new hairstyle, the appropriate thing to say is “wow, you look great!”

    My niece/godchild is an 8 yo African American girl with white parents who do nothing with her hair and it drives me crazy. I feel terrible for her, and I’ve tried talking to them about it but it doesn’t get through. It’s to the point where I feel uncomfortable when we take her out to the movies, lunch, etc, because I know people are looking at me and thinking “wtf is wrong with that white lady letting her child go around like that?”

    • AdoptiveBlackMom

      LOL, I see a lot of those fears in the TRA groups. I’d say start watching YT videos with her on black hair care and styling. Those mirrors will have a powerful effect. I know that watching them had an impact on Hope and they are fun to watch. I particularly like Naptural85 and Mahoganycurls. They are educational, beautiful and make high quality videos. Naptural85 also have a hair care line launching soon! Maybe making video watching your special thing with her can help empower her–even as young as 8 because it’s NEVER too young!–to talk to her parents about all the cool stuff she sees when she’s with you. 🙂

  • marieke

    I loved the way you described her. It really made me see a gorgeous young black girl rocking her hair!

  • vibrantwriter

    I am white, my daughter is black Hispanic. I am vigilant about keeping her gorgeous hair looking well-maintained because I learned the cultural importance of her hair. I thought her mom was exaggerating when she told me, “our hair is our crown, our glory” but I understand better now and I want my daughter to understand. I work hard to try to keep racial mirrors in her life, but I feel like I should do more. My daughter, who is only 7, has told me she doesn’t like her skin color and she wants hair like mine. So, I know I have more work to do to get her to embrace her own beauty and not the “only white is pretty” mindset so engrained in our society. So often I feel like my voice is a whisper in the cacophony of societal voices screaming “brown skin isn’t pretty,” but my daughter, like yours is a true beauty. I loved your comment suggestion about watching hair tutorial videos. My daughter and I watch them together occasionally, to get ideas for her hair and to see the masterful works of art the hairstylists can create. Thank you for posting. I am glad I found your blog so I can keep learning and in turn help my children by not being colorblind and not hiding in my own ignorance of white privilege.

  • Susan

    I am glad that you write about this. I think that your perspective and writing is powerful.

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