For Black women, hair and beauty are about so much more than just style
'It's not just a hairstyle for us, it's a whole piece of the culture,' says social work professor
For Black people, hair is not just hair.
Nor is it just part of a daily routine. Hair is personal, and it can be political.
I spoke with three Black women who shared their journeys to self-love and acceptance through their hair and beauty.
For Delores Mullings, PhD, a social work professor and vice-provost at Memorial University in St. John's, hair is a way to honour ancestries, provide care and mentorship for loved ones, and maintain community bonds.
"We brought that tradition with us, where we took care of our hair and each other at the same time," she said in an interview. "It's not just a hairstyle for us, it's a whole piece of the culture."
For Black people, the relationship with hair is often negatively affected by external factors that are rooted in anti-Black sentiments and racism.
As a university student and later as a professor, Mullings recalled constantly retwisting her delicate locs to fit society's rigid standards for "neatness."
By wearing locs, interlocking her coils to form distinctive waist-length ropes, she pays homage to her Jamaican ancestry. But it put a target on her back.
"In classrooms, I would have people ask me, how do I wash it, is it dirty, how do I sleep on it, is it real?" she said.
While beauty trends are constantly changing, Mullings said one thing has not changed: universal double standards for Black hair and beauty.
She is concerned, for instance, about a double standard of non-racialized people being allowed to wear traditionally Black hairstyles while Black people, especially men, are penalized for doing the same thing.
She contrasted how actress Bo Derek won global attention for wearing cornrow braids in the hit 1979 movie 10, and how she was attacked for practising her heritage.
"When I was in Grade 10 and 11 in St. John's," she said, "I was teased for wearing my hair like that."
She realized that nothing had changed when her children requested that she not dress their hair in cultural styles to attend K-12 classes in St. John's, for fear of the same bullying.
Mullings said beauty must be recognized in "its own glory," and is resolute in how she presents herself.
"I transcend the stereotypical, colonized notion of what beauty is," she said. "I feel free, unapologetically that my hair is my hair."
At the same time, there are cultural biases that are difficult to overcome.
"When it comes to making money and what shows best in cinematography, there is still the particular look … that if your skin is lighter, your nose is straighter and if certain body parts are bigger, you are beautiful."
'Time, patience and labour'
For Zuri Miguel, 27, a retail store manager in St. John's, love, patience and effort are key ingredients for a healthy relationship with one's hair.
"Black hair takes a lot of time, patience and labour. That takes love and acceptance for our natural coils," said Miguel, who grew up in Antigua.
Like Mullings, she has also experienced bullying based solely on hair discrimination.
Bullies criticized her curls' seeming inability to conform to ideas of "neatness" negatively affected her confidence and self-esteem.
"Growing up in a Caribbean society, we were taught to hide our natural coils with flat ironing or chemical treatments," Miguel said. "Fortunately, my mother was completely against that because she was afraid of damaging my hair irreparably."
As Miguel matured, she eventually shed those unjustified feelings of shame attached to her coils by investing in love, care and self-acceptance.
Adopting a routine hair regimen by learning what makes her curls voluminous and healthy has allowed Miguel to turn that labour to love.
Products for Black hair have recently become more accessible in Newfoundland and Labrador drugstores, but Miguel remembers a time not long ago when she had to stock up on months of necessary haircare products, such as shampoos and conditioners, on trips outside the province.
"When I came here nine years ago I had a suitcase full of hair products because I anticipated not having access to this basic necessity," said Miguel. "It was nearly impossible to buy the products I needed to maintain my coils, so I was forced to wear my hair straight which eventually led to damage."
She said popular shops like Lawton's and Shoppers Drug Mart have diversified their hair-care product lines to be more inclusive to racialized communities.
For Miguel, the discrimination and separation of both visibility and knowledge for Black hair is both confusing and unnecessary, as she believes that hair is just that: hair, and everyone has it.
"As N.L. becomes more diverse, I know that people can be curious," Miguel said. "So broaden your knowledge when it comes to Black hair. Perhaps making it mandatory in hair schools because hair is hair."
'It can be weaponized against us'
Beauty is a powerful tool for understanding oneself, but Ravyn Wngz recognizes that it can also be used to exclude Black women.
"It can be weaponized against us," said Wngz, a cofounder of Black Lives Matter Canada. Wngz, who identifies as an Afro-Indigenous, two-spirit queer individual, said her intimate relationship with beauty started out as a child, observing her mother's rituals of glamour and then creating her own.
For Wngz, beauty is a tool to help her navigate a world which does not seem to care about trans and Black lives. She's comfortable in it being "the bridge between trans and cisgendered folk" as she does not present as being a cisgender woman.
"It is an act of revolution to care for our hair," she said.
"For Black and trans women, there is no separation between notions of identity, beauty, hair and self-care, because these are affirmations of love to ourselves and our communities."
When Wngz was young, her mother prepared her for the harsh reality of racism. To reduce those harms, she learned she would have to present the best version of herself every time she left the safety of her home.
"[I learned] that I had to show up like I deserved to be here, because I do," she said. "I would have to represent myself in the way I would want to be treated."
In order to combat those harms, she practises "mirror and makeup therapy" as self-care. By routinely spending time looking at her reflection, she slowly becomes more comfortable. She partly credits this for her capacity for community and advocacy work.
Today, she no longer conforms to society's standards of anti-Black standards as it concerns "neatness" and Black people.
"Black beauty is fetishized," she said.
Trans beauty has always existed, but it has not always been recognized, according to Wngz.
She has drawn inspiration from different sources, including the ballroom scene in New York, where the Black and Latino queer communities created culture and space, as well as Black trans activists and icons such as Marsha P. Johnson, a revolutionary in the Stonewall uprising of 1969, Jackie Shane, a pioneer of transgender performance, and Laverne Cox, the renowned actress and singer.
Wngz laments the lack of representation in mainstream media. "I created an Instagram account because there weren't many trans images like me," said Wngz, who hopes that her "face journal" will inspire younger trans and non-binary people struggling to find that representation.
Beauty and glamour can be tools in a figurative arsenal, to afford Black women the opportunity to express themselves and buffers against anti-Black racism and "misogynoir," or racism and sexism directed specifically at Black women. But she cautions against hiding behind glamour. "I shaved off my hair so that every night when I took off my wig, I could see my original form and fall in love with it, '' she said.
Wngz told me about the politics of "naturalness" and protective styling. "I think sometimes when we talk about natural hair, it can go the other way," she said. "That if you wear your hair a certain way, you don't love yourself.… My hair has always been an artistic expression of what I feel like. It's about fantasy and world-building for myself."
Eye of the beholder
Beauty is subjective and therefore it cannot be exclusive, according to Mullings. In our exchange, she quoted bell hooks, the late, great Black feminist writer: "All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity."
While some in society may be excluded from interpretations of beauty, Mulings says, everyone benefits from the flawed system.
"So," she said, "all of us need to be a part of the solution."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.