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Feministing Friday: Obsessing over my look and what to do with my hair


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My relationship with my hair has been tenuous my entire life. Like most little (black) girls of my generation (X) there was much hullabaloo over length, softness and coarseness.  I liked my hair as a child.  It was long, soft, thick and ‘good’ – a ridiculous term to describe the relative curliness, waviness and ease of combing through black hair. I will admit, that my positive opinion of my hair – and what it meant to my value of it (and my beauty) was shaped by the opinions of others around me.  I liked my hair because others told me it was worth admiring. This is my baggage.

Me, age 5 natural hair with my signature part down the middle and long plaits on the side.

My mother was never great with styling hair and so I never learned to how.  As a teen and young adult I had no idea what to do with my hair.  I religiously visited the beauty shop. In fact I really loathe most beauty rituals – makeup included, but here is the rub – I like to look pretty.

Me, age 15 - still natural with a press and curl.

Now I am older, presumably wiser, and I have learned that much of the standards of beauty I adopted were steeped in Eurocentric values and based on male preferences of feminine beauty.  It took me a long time to appreciate my own looks – the good and bad – for myself and be comfortable with it.  But it isn’t always so easy unpacking that baggage.

I’ve been #teamnatural for over a decade now. It was the most liberating thing I have ever done.  I love my hair, for its own sake. I like the texture, how it feels. I like how it frames my face.  And when it is styled nicely I feel amazing, authentic.  Over the holiday weekend, I let my sister flat-iron my hair – the first time in over 5 years. I am so tender-headed and I was ready to call the whole thing off 10 minutes in. But I stuck it out.  It took a few days to get use to how straight hair looks on me. Personally, I don’t think long straight hair looks good on me; but I do like how I look with short straight hair.  The end result was great; wore an up do – taking the hair off of my shoulders.

Straightened hair

Why does any of this matter? It matters because I noticed a very different reaction from people – men and women. It wasn’t just that I got all gussied up for a special occasion. I looked different – more adult – and I liked looking and feeling that way.  It also awakened in me my desire to have a more put-together professional look that made it easier for people to see me as a professional and not a student. Fully adopting a fresher more adult look will mean some changes – in my grooming behavior and how I dress.

I don’t like the pomp and stress of preparation. It’s a time suck to me and I feel impotent.  I am not a make-up fan. It all feels so distracting to me.  I don’t like being overly made up for non-special occasions. And dang it, I like my big obnoxious hair!

My everyday big hair

I'm trying out professional natural hair style options. What do you think?

I am now in middle of a style makeover – to find a more professional look. Like the folks on those TV programs I am full of angst trying to balance looking nice, getting affirmation from others with doing it affordably and feeling comfortable in my own skin. This means I am back to struggling about my hair. Do I have to get it straighten every time I do a professional engagement? Will I still look like me? Are there some nice natural styles that I can rock, too? It’s frustrating because how one looks – good or bad – can be distracting. An audience can miss everything you are saying because you’ve gone too far with the glitz or colleagues don’t take you seriously because you’re not polished. Uggh! Now throw in all of my personal issues with being a minority woman, with natural hair and a plus size body – and you have got a perfect storm of insecurities swirling in my psyche. I’d gorge on ice cream if I didn’t worry later about gaining more weight.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about whether I think I look or am pretty. I’m covered on the self-esteem end. This is about how I package and present myself to others – in a professional setting – that communicates that I am credible and to be taken seriously and still feel true to my inner self.

Anyone else worried about his or her looks in a professional setting? Do you worry about how others perceive you based on your looks? How has your style transitioned with your career?

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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