Ottawa·Point of View

How I learned to love my hair

"Our hair, our skin, our stories are what makes us who we are," writes Grade 10 student and spoken word poet Vanessa Brohman.

15-year-old Vanessa Brohman discusses her black hair and identity

15-year-old Vanessa Brohman on hating, then learning to love her hair 1:27

My struggle with my appearance started in primary school.

I was the new kid and wanted to fit in. Having certain clothes and hairstyles automatically made you more valued — or at least that's what I thought. 

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I slowly started to believe that being attractive meant long, straight hair. Not only did my friends all have it, it felt like everywhere I looked the image of beauty in magazines and commercials was women with long, straight hair, blue eyes and generally white skin.

That wasn't what I saw in the mirror.

Vanessa Brohman decided to chemically straighten her hair when she was going into Grade 6, but she still wasn’t really happy with how it looked. (Brad Brohman)

My hair couldn't be put up in buns and ponytails. (I thought buns and ponytails were really pretty at the time.) 

So I decided to chemically straighten my hair. But the chemicals changed the texture, from soft and unruly to dry and brittle. Sure, my hair was straight, but I hated how it felt.

And I didn't really know what to do with it. I kept destroying it with my straightening iron, and I still wasn't 100 per cent happy with it. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking to myself, "I still don't look like the other girls."

It took me a couple years to realize this wasn't the answer. 

Brohman and her adoptive dad, Brad Brohman (right), smile for the camera on a 2008 vacation. Both of her adoptive parents are white. Her birth dad is Jamaican. (Brad Brohman)

My mom suggested I cut it so I could grow my natural hair back. I was nervous, but I decided to suck it up and do it. 

It was really short. 

The next day, I went to school scared of people's reactions, but also excited. As I lined up to go inside, a classmate told me that I shouldn't have cut it and it looked better before.

This was only one voice, but to my ears it sounded like she was confirming all of my fears about how the world saw me, and what people thought I should look like. 

I didn't know if I could call myself black because so many people told me I wasn't. It made me feel pretty bad about myself.

You see, when I was growing up, kids would call me "oreo" — black on the outside and white on the inside.

I come from an adoptive family and both my adoptive parents are white. This made my identity confusing for other people and it affected how I saw myself. They would say that I don't act like what a black woman should act like. I didn't know if I could call myself black because so many people told me I wasn't. It made me feel pretty bad about myself. 

My childhood, my experience, has been different from other people of colour. But I am also proud of my birth heritage and want to represent my birth parents and their stories as well. 

Brohman eventually cut her chemically straightened hair and has learned to love her natural hair as she's gotten older. (Supplied)

Now I'm 15, and my hair has grown, as has my confidence in my appearance. It didn't happen overnight, but now I not only embrace my curls, they have become part of my identity. 

The world around me has often had really strong opinions about who I should be and how I should present myself.

The world around me has often had really strong opinions about who I should be and how I should present myself. I just want to share my story and say: I am still a person of colour. I am still black. My hair is a part of that, and a part of who I am. 

My hair is now in long braids and I love it. I think it suits me. I want to encourage other girls of colour to accept what God gave them and to know that your skin is part of a complicated yet beautiful history. 

Our hair, our skin, our stories are what makes us who we are.

As her hair has grown, so has her confidence. (Supplied)

About the Author

Vanessa Brohman is a spoken word poet, grade 10 student at Hillcrest High School and sister to four other adopted siblings.