Black Women Don’t Have to Look ‘Perfect’ All the Time
When I was a small child, I spent every morning on the floor watching cartoons while my momma secured my hair in tight braids wound with hard plastic bobos and fastened with butterfly-shaped barrettes. All of my outfits were perfectly color-coordinated and pressed free of any wrinkles. I was explicitly told not to let anyone touch my hair and was repeatedly implored to stop picking up rocks and stuffing them in my pockets.
Presentability was instilled in me from an early age. All the women in my family know how to dress, and I was taught to take a lot of pride in being put-together. There was little tolerance for anything perceived as sloppy, which could be a lot of things. To this day, my great-grandmother will look at a young Black girl with an unrestrained Afro and say, “Now they know better than to let that child out lookin’ like that!”
I recognize now so much of that mentality is tied to a desire to reaffirm that, as writer and businesswoman Judy Belk puts it, Black people and their children belong in this world that consistently tries to reject us. Belk describes the efforts of her mother and grandmother to combat Jim Crow-era discrimination with whatever tools at their disposal, including appearance:
She scrubbed us, dressed us up, greased us down, braided our hair, pushed up our chins and sent us out knowing that we would be judged more by how we looked than who we were.
It’s true that the rules of presentability in society have always been different for Black people. But it’s also true that the pressure to achieve a faultless look creates an undue amount of burden and shame for many Black people and women in particular.
As I got older, things started to change a little. The definitions for what was “acceptable” Black hair, for example, became less limiting—but not the expectation of perfection.
Going natural, I quickly learned how much I don’t like slicked-back hairstyles. Not for myself. The challenge of achieving perfect smoothness and delicately swept baby hairs that actually stay in place has never been worth caking my curls in the holding gels and edge control that left them hard, crunchy, and immovable.