They say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but in these modern times, it has its norms. Look at supermodels. They are always tall and long- legged with perfect skin, teeth and hair. Sure, every blue moon we’ll discover a supermodel who has freckles or a lazy eye, and then we say that their beauty is unconventional but this is what modern humanity has become; a world of people who are under the impression that their natural state is odd; that perfection is something we have to achieve, instead of something we already are.
While I can’t speak for other races, cultures and creeds, it is a big problem amongst (South) African women. The media, society, the world of fashion and those standards of perfection often tell us that we are not good enough; that we are not perfect, and that our only sense of beauty is the unconventional kind. It can be quite insulting, as though the world thinks that we shouldn’t look the way that we do, but that sometimes it’s okay. This happens often, but especially when it comes to hair. When I was a young girl, role models for girls of colour were women like Beyoncé or Naomi Campbell, who, beautiful as they may be, still followed the Caucasian blue print of beauty. That was never fair.
Beyonce and Naomi Campell (below) have always been prime examples of beautiful black women, but as pictured, their hair is not natural African hair, and might influence young girls of colour into thinking their hair is only pretty if it follows Caucasian trends.
A big difference between my mother and I is that she lived her entire youth under the apartheid regime while I have no memory of it. It is no surprise then, that for most of my life my mother’s expectation of beauty was to have straight, soft hair. Coloured people could get away with being coloured, you see, as long as they looked white. I have countless painful memories of my mother combing all of the knots out of my bird’s nest because my dry, fizzy curls were unacceptable. The sad thing is that this mind-set was passed unto my generation. When I reached primary school, other coloured girls laughed at me and called me names, my favourite of which was “steel- wool hair”. Black girls back then, when we were only 11 or so years old, spent hours and hours getting extensions and weaves, and worst of all, was something that carried through to high school; dreadlocks, afros and hair that could not be tamed was frowned upon and banned.
For many years, in fact for most of my life, I lived thinking that I had to straighten my hair. Not because of what the bullies had to say or my mother’s influence. I honestly and genuinely admired Caucasian hair and wanted long, straight hair for myself. I wasted precious time trying to achieve it, and was never satisfied with the results. My hair was too dry, and too stubborn. One step in the rain and I was back to wearing steel wool.
It soon dawned on me that all of those chemicals, all of the time spent trying to be something I most certainly was not, were not only a stupid waste of time, but unnatural too. I was meant to have steel wool hair, and any attempts to change that were an insult to the universe that created me. So, when I turned 18 and no longer had to follow archaic uniform rules, I stopped caring and made a decision to do something I had always wanted to do: grow dreadlocks. It was the easiest thing in the world for me.
Six Years Later
When I stopped maintaining my hair it started to grow at light-speed. Everything changed. I was happier, more comfortable, my hair was healthier and due to the many compliments I received (and still receive) about how beautiful my hair is, my confidence sky- rocketed too.
Back when I straightened my hair, people would ask me “is this your real hair?” and although it was, I was never proud of it. It felt fake and superficial. Now when people ask me that, firstly I am all too eager to boast that yes, it is my real hair, and second, sometimes they don’t believe me and that feels awesome. I have never been told that my beauty is unconventional, but I have been told many times, by many different people, that my natural beauty is admired (and sometimes even envied).
But there is still one problem. My dreadlocks were never a decision based on religion or fashion or proving a point. The only reason why I started growing them was because I wanted long, straight hair, but was too lazy to put any effort into it. For this reason, my hair is messy and unkempt. I always get that one question, regarding the few loose strands of steel wool that never locked and stand straight up: “Why don’t you fix it?”
I don’t fix my hair because it is not broken. It is that simple.
This article was meant to offer advice to African ladies on how to make that step into having African pride. I was meant to put together tips on how to get rid of the weaves and the chemicals, and how to accept that we are beautiful too. But it’s not that simple. I understand the pressures of living up to beauty standards. I understand that we want to fit in, and be attractive, and feel good about ourselves. But ask yourself; are you really feeling good about yourself, if you are going through great lengths to be what you’re not?
The only advice I can offer, that will carry any weight and mean something, is something I know personally to be true. The only person who can change who you are and how you feel about yourself, is you. Stop feeding the system that tells you that you aren’t good enough, by deciding for yourself that you are. Be yourself. Because as I said, you are perfect the way the Universe intended you to be.
It’s not about African pride, because beauty is not a competition. All women, of all colours, have the right to feel good about themselves without changing a thing. Beauty is not earned. It’s something we already have but do our best to destroy with makeup and extensions, high heels and razors.
One more thing: Stop trying so hard. I realized I am pretty just the way I am, when I stopped trying. You can be anything you want to be, so why don’t you just be you?