Black, Latina and Fabulously Natural; How Loving my Hair Taught Me to Love the Rest of Me

“You are Beautiful.”

It was my daily morning mirror ritual. Having just chopped off the last of my chemically relaxed hair, I was struggling to come to terms. It was 2001, and “natural” wasn’t exactly a “thing”. I endured daily comments on my hair from “good-natured” friends wondering when I was going to “fix” it, to not-so-good- natured coworkers who went so far as to bring a stylist to our work site to give me a “consultation”. It was far from a popular move, and I realized early on that I would have to be my own encouragement if I was going to commit to this change.

“You Are Beautiful.”

I’d look in the mirror and I’d say it to my hair while applying the mountain of products it took back then to get some curl-definition (humectants? Whazzat?). Some days I believed it, some days I didn’t. Some days I just said it because it was a habit. But every day, as I oiled, spritzed, finger-combed and attempted to tame my unruly hair (first-year new growth, hello!), I said aloud I was doing these things because I loved my hair just the way it was and it was beautiful. And then it happened.

I didn’t have to say it aloud anymore.

As soon as I looked at my hair in the mirror, “you are beautiful” popped in my head. When someone asked me how I expected to get a man, it popped in my head. When someone asked me when I was going to “do something about it”, it popped in my head.  My hair became less of an identifying characteristic about me and just became a part of my total package. And soon after, people stopped asking me questions about it.

Now fast-forward twelve years, and I was stuck in a bit of a rut.

A few unexpected life-events had taken their toll on my body. I was recently single, recently looking for work, and re-entering the “pool” for the first time in a long time. I was also 25 lbs heavier than I was used to, and despite starting a fitness plan I could not get the weight to budge. Well-meaning “friends” asked me when I was going to “fix it”, family asked me how I expected to “catch a man” if I didn’t look like myself, and my confidence was at an all-time low. I have a background in pageants, so while I was aware looks weren’t the end-all-be-all (only 20-40% of pageant scores are beauty-based) I knew they were important, and my perceived lack of them was a major hit on my self-esteem. I stopped taking pictures. I shied away from events. I went on dates expecting the worst. My real friends were worried about me.

Lucky for me, summer was approaching. My naturalistas know that pressing your hair is pointless when the heat comes so I usually switch to wash-and-go styles. I was working some product through my hair and marveling at the return of my curls when a familiar thought popped in my head;

“You are Beautiful”.

I had no idea how I had ignored the answer staring me right in the face for so long.

When I originally cut my hair, it was for me. It was a decision I made for myself. Whenever I got run-down or discouraged, I took comfort in the knowledge that I was doing this for my well-being. No one had a say in how I felt about my hair and how I took care of it. Everything I did to my hair was for my hair, applied lovingly, and treated carefully. My view of my hair- my confidence in its appearance- was a habit carefully cultivated and routinely maintained.

It was then I decided that I would have to be my own encouragement if I was going to commit to this change.

It began with a daily affirmation that I was fine just the way I was. Whoever agreed with me was going to agree, and whoever wasn’t well, that’s their issue. I’m the only person living in this body. It’s the only one I have. I can’t hate it forever. Some days I believed it, some days I didn’t. But every day, as I made my meals and fit in a workout, I told myself I was doing these things because I loved myself just the way it was and I was beautiful. And then it happened.

I started to believe it.

I stopped hiding and began to wear more flattering clothing at whatever size I was. Little by little, I went out more. I committed myself to a summer of fun and documented it. I went to the beach and wore a bikini. I even took a picture of it and posted it on my facebook page! And while my body eventually responded to my workouts, I had gained something much more valuable.

Now, while I’d love to wrap this up neatly and declare all my problems solved, the reality isn’t even close. It was the beginning of a long journey of daily work. Do I beat myself up sometimes? Yep. Do I look in the mirror and see lumps and bumps I’d like to go away? Everyday. But I can definitely say I have more good days than bad days. I can say instead of groaning about working out ‘just so I could get other people to like me’ I smile at the care I’m giving myself. I can say that what I am doing is for me and me alone. I can say I am less focused on the result than I am about the daily journey. I marvel at my body’s newfound strength and what it can do. I’m enjoying ‘me’ more.

What about you? Did your hair journey teach you anything about yourself?

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Black, Latina and Fabulously Natural; The Work Edition

I had made a conscious decision to start wearing “natural styles” in place of my “straightened style or natural bun” work combo. My natural kinks at this point were almost shoulder-length, and I believed I was afforded at least a few professional-looking options. I tentatively walked into the office with two-strand twists and hopped on the elevator. My boss walked in after me.

“OMGeeeeeee, those braids are soooo cute!” she mused effusively, instinctively reaching to grab a handful. I cringe-smiled, and deftly angled my face away. “You look like Aunt Jemimah!!”

Sigh……

While combing the interwebs for topics, I came across a wonderful effort called the Professional Naturals Project.  The aim is to give examples of naturalistas in the workplace, how they handle difficult situations, and positive moments in their professional hair journey. They ask you to submit both answers to questions and pictures of your work-appropriate hair styles. While I’ve submitted mine (and I will definitely know if I have been selected to be featured) I wanted to give a few tips to women starting out on their journey!

DO Understand for Now Your Hair Means More to You than it Does to Everyone Else

That is to say sometimes, just sometimes….it is just hair. Not every comment, question or observation is an attack on your race, individuality or beauty. Some people are genuinely curious, and have a natural tendency to reach out and grab what’s “novel” (don’t believe me? In my pageant days I was a spokesperson for a medi-spa and was horrified by the amount of people that assumed it was okay to touch my breasts without asking, as they always assumed I had just had them “done”). Horribly-executed-but-otherwise-well-meaning moments are actually better times to teach valuable lessons than to react. Use the attention wisely. Soon, your natural hair will be so much a part of “you” that your obliviousness will become everyone else’s, but for now pave the way my friend.

DON’T forget that Corporate Settings Thrive off Uniformness, not Individuality

This is going to sound very unpopular, but hear me out. Corporations, especially larger ones, are much like fast-food chain franchises. The way they maintain order is by creating as much of a “uniform” out of the look and culture as possible. Entire bookshelves are dedicated to fashion tips for women to inject some individuality into the “corporate dress structure”. I am saying all that to say-you are not alone. Almost every ethnic variation apart from their one “ideal” has to give up something to the corporate structure-the key is to find your balance.

Unless you are in a Management position (and even then) this is not the time to “rebel” with your hair, fashion and makeup choices (and yes, unfortunately there are some horribly outdated minds that will see your hair as a “rebellion”). Study the  dress and styling’s of your female supervisors, or women in positions you want to be in, and then emulate as much as possible. If your hair is able you can also try natural versions of their hairstyles. Keep your makeup and style choices otherwise conservative if you are in a stricter corporate setting. Ease in “edgier” styles over time as they become used to your hair. It can be done almost anywhere if given the right amount of patience.

DO Remember Your Hair is a Part of Your “Total Package”, not the Package Itself

“I am not my hair” has been so overused is it almost cliché, but it really is true. Give yourself time to adjust to the change and then get on with your life. I have been relaxer-free for almost the entirety of my adult working life, so when I got asked what my workplace difficulties were I almost couldn’t name them-as they were no longer “challenging” to me. But while I sound confident now, the initial backlash was so harsh I had to wake up every morning for almost two years to give myself a “you are beautiful” pep talk in the bathroom mirror before work! It gets better, I swear it does-but the change will be within you. Once your hair goes back to being a simple reflection of your personality and not your identity you will find interactions to seem more and more “normal” to you. My natural hair doesn’t give me as much ‘freedom’ as the statement of being true to me across the board does. Getting to that point was not easy, but it definitely has been worth it.

What about you? Do you have any hair stories at the workplace? Share them with the Professional Naturals Project or feel free to add them below!

Yaya Alafia Debutes Baby Glow at “The Butler” Premiere

Somebody’s eating for two!!

This is turning out to be quite the fruitful summer. Just weeks after “Devious Maids” star Dania Ramirez announced her twin’s arrival via twitpic’d sonogram, America’s Next Top Model alum-turned actor (and natural hair icon) Yaya Alafia (formerly Yaya DaCosta) proudly displayed her curves and growing pregnancy on the red carpet for the New York premiere of “The Butler”!

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Yaya rounds out the impressive star-studded ensemble cast in the Lee Daniels movie, which follows an African American butler serving in the White House through the tenures of several presidents. The Butler also features fellow Latina Mariah Carey (not pictured below).

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The Butler hits theaters August 16th and I for one cannot wait to see it! It has been raking in the positive reviews and I am so happy to see a film take a much more nuanced and complex look at a too-often overused concept. I will definitely be chiming in with my review!

“Dark Girls”- Color, Culture and Tales from the Middle

My mother is physically embodies the “Black Woman”. Flawless chocolate skin, full lips, broad nose, intensely dark eyes and luxuriously thick, coarse hair, she’s the type of woman you picture in your head when you write or sing praises of the Black form.

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On the flipside, my father physically embodied everything you’d want your Black child to be in order to er…”succeed” in life. His skin tone would best be described as “cream with a touch of coffee”, and if his giant mass of corkscrew curls didn’t draw you in, his blue eyes (or green, or hazel) would finish the job.

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My Mother is Hispanic. My Father is American. This is my tale from the middle.

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My mother arrived in New York just in time for the Civil Rights Movement to come to a head; Black was an interesting thing to be when you had but a basic grasp of the English language. But she was a survivor, and navigated between the Black Panthers and Latin Kings with ease. I won’t bother you with the story of how they came together, but I will tell you a line was drawn in the sand when it was time to bring a “Dark Girl” home. And that’s all I have to say about that.

By design and default, Hispanic is my culture. I grew up bilingual, went to an all-Hispanic grade school and ate rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was in first grade the first time I heard it.

“You can’t be Puerto Rican. You’re too dark”.

I was hurt and confused. I am my father’s child; so in my house, I was the lightest. My Puerto Rican family was all chocolate; I didn’t understand what they meant. How can you tell me what I am? It was my first taste of the tug of war that would haunt me to this day -what you are vs. what they perceive you to be.

On one side you had my family, where my “fairer” skin granted me countless compliments from my extended family. Then I went to school, where I was considered “pretty for a dark-skinned girl”. My mother would braid my collarbone-length hair and tell me to be proud of being Black; my Grandmother would give me a laundry list of alternative terms to describe myself to others. At school the girls would toss their waist-length hair in my face, pull on my braids and ask me why my hair was so short.

High school brought new identity challenges. As this was my first experience in a multi-cultural setting, I believed I would be as welcomed as my mother was. I was wrong. While I was used to my ethnicity being challenged by this point, I was taken aback by the refusal to accept my racial identity.

I wasn’t “Black” after all. At least not Black “enough”.

It was the early 90’s, so Hispanics and Black Americans still sat at opposite ends in the lunchroom. I often lunched alone. I did not date. I skipped prom. The best memories I have of high school all involved times I was not in the building. I graduated with relief, believing the adult world was one where petty things like being able to properly check off an identity box so you could sit at the correct lunch table didn’t exist. Again, wrong.

At that point I defiantly designed to not fit in anyone’s box. I stopped relaxing my hair and left behind the trendier stylings of both cultures and adopted my own.  Armed with the confidence of owning what I was, I went out in the world…

..and tried to date.

I found myself back at square one, only worse. Facing projections and stereotypes from every angle, I fought to find my place. To one man I was a “novelty”, a trophy of the “light skin long hair” club. To another I was a charity case, as he’s never dated someone “so dark” but I’d “do”. Another man mused at my “spicy-ness” and lamented how he had to date “out his race” to find someone who “knew how to treat a man like a man”. I was the light, dark, angry, agreeable, feisty, submissive Black Latina. Despite my strict upbringing and the fact that I’ve yet to either cheat or date the unavailable, it was assumed I was “freaky” or always on the hunt for committed men. I lost friends as easily as I made them.

Despite sitting on this for weeks I have no “neat” ending for this post. This is a work in progress. I’d love to tell you that I found a way to resolve how I am perceived to the world, but the only resolution I’ve found is inside. My color, my culture, my skin, my hair, my identity; none of these are up for debate. I am who I am, and your issue with that is your issue, not mine.

This isn’t for sympathy, it’s just my story. And, if you dare, share yours.