Prior to a choppy-but-exhilarating haircut in the luxurious Los Angeles hair salon that is my bathroom, I was a straight-haired nobody. In the words of reality TV royalty Evelyn Lozada, my hair was a non mf’in factor. It was flat, boring, and damaged from years of chemical relaxers. Aside from sweeping my fragile strands into a bun or pony, I didn’t do much with my hair at all. Out of sight, out of mind.
No one was stopping me on the street asking for product recommendations, I wasn’t on the receiving end of unsolicited scalp massages and no one assumed I was taking part in a protest.
It wasn’t until I saw old pictures of myself with full, thick hair that I considered returning to my natural texture. In a matter of minutes I went from chemically straightened, bra-strap-length hair to a mini ‘fro that couldn’t even make an Afro puff. I had Viola Davis length but without the shape, more Brandy’s dad on Moesha. I was pretty impressed with my bravery, little knowing I was about to fall ‘fro first into a whole new world of stereotypes.
Forget about flying under the radar; now my hair is a “thing.” The first thing, in fact, that anyone comments on when they see me, but as Mr. West would say, that’s just the wave.
The natural hair mystique is nothing new, nor are the stigmas associated with black hair. Historically, black women have endured Tignon laws, making it illegal to show their hair in public. Employment discrimination against any style that doesn’t align with Eurocentric ideals persists to this day.
Although hair remains an outlet for self-expression in the black community, there’s an unspoken understanding that versatility and experimentation come at a price. At times, every choice feels just as damning as the next. Braided, loc’d, or weave’d up, there’s no escaping the categorical implications of style. If you’re black and you have hair, you’re a something.
For those who go natural, there are pretty much four categories: the Mel B, the Freddie, the Joan, and the Pam. You may know Mel B better as Scary Spice, the curly-haired wild child and undeniably most interesting of all the Spice Girls. Prone to outbursts and fits of rap breakdowns, she is the natural-haired woman with a feisty high kick and the heart (and wardrobe) of a cheetah.
The Freddies are the woke baes. In the Different World cast, Freddie was the resident hippie with a heart of gold. (I imagine she was vegan before it was cool and collected crystals wayyy before they went mainstream.) Her hair, along with bell bottoms and fringe, composed a look that was perceived as going against the grain. As Freddie began to inch toward adulthood in the final season, she enrolled in law school and her curls were subdued into updos. It was a sad day when Freddie started getting blowouts, lemme tell ya.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Joans. Nowhere near as lighthearted as a Freddie, Joans have issues, honey. Consider them the wacky precocious neighbor of your favorite sitcom all grown up, the neurotic whose innumerable idiosyncrasies and overall fussiness is equal parts endearing and unbearable. A Joan is a complicated handful, with big hair and even bigger issues. Played by Tracee Ellis Ross on Girlfriends, Joan overflowed with personality. Her hair was a huge part of the characterization, the cherry on top of her over-the-top personality.
On September 15th, a federal court ruled employment discrimination against dreadlocks to be legal. Last month, a Kentucky high school was the latest to come under fire for anti-natural hair dress codes. Around October of last year, I went on my first date as a natural. This was when I came face-to-face with category four — the Pam.
I’ll spare you the details, but if you’ve ever seen a throwback blaxploitation flick starring Pam Grier, you get the gist. A sexual dynamo who ain’t taking your shit, a real-life embodiment of Beyoncé as Foxxy Cleopatra in Goldmember. If someone thinks you’re a Pam, they’re expecting a whole lotta woman, and heaven help you if you’re not.
That’s the deal with being exoticized, it sets the standard before you can. It starts the conversation before the introduction. It shrouds something normal in so much mystery that you have to go out of the way to expose your truth or worse, overcompensate. In it’s own way, exoticizing feeds stereotypes and wards off authentic inclusion. Fellow unintentional statement makers, remember the ancient adage, as old as time itself, “Believe in your flyness and conquer your shyness.” (More sage advice from Mr. West.)
Photographed by Angelica Van.