"Pretty" has always been a conditional adjective for me. My entire life I've heard, "You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl." "You'd be prettier if . . ." Growing up, I didn't want to play outside too long out of fear of getting darker. I'd wish I had skin tones like my mom and dad, who are both light skinned. I'd hear whispers about whether I was my parents' child because there was no way I, a dark-skinned little girl, could have picked up genes from my dark-skinned grandparents. I digress.
Not only was my perception of pretty shaped by how my peers, family members, and society saw my deep brown skin, but my hair was always a topic of a conversation, too. My hair was my crown and glory, at least that is what I was taught. Every week, I spent hours in the hair salon getting my "nappy" hair chemically straightened. Getting a relaxer was a rite of passage for many black girls in the '90s, so that our hair was easier to manage and socially acceptable.
I didn't feel pretty unless my hair was perfect.
Throughout my teenage and college years, I spent hours in front of the mirror, straightening my hair until it was bone straight. I was known for my "pretty" hair. I would often have people ask what I was mixed with because normal black girls couldn't have "good hair," especially not those with dark skin. Having to always have my hair laid was exhausting. I didn't feel pretty unless my hair was perfect. My hair was my crown and glory, so that was the only way the world would see me as beautiful, right?
Shortly after I graduated from college, I went natural. Well, sort of. I grew my relaxer out bit by bit, cutting off the ends every six to eight weeks. To most people, my hair was still pretty, but I was again spending hours manipulating it to make sure it fit into the mold of the 3C hair type most find beautiful. One day, I cut it all off. I big-chopped it. I felt liberated. As a woman whose beauty was defined by the length and texture of her hair, without knowing it, I was redefining my "pretty."
I remember the reactions of my friends and family, and they hurt. I was told my face was too big to carry short hair. A member of my family told me I was ugly. I was no longer pretty to the people in my life who had always praised me for my looks.
For months, I was ashamed of my hair. I thought they must be right: I was ugly. I wore hats, wraps, and anything I could to cover up my hair. I just wanted to feel pretty again. A few months after I cut all of my hair off, I went on a trip with someone I was dating at the time (who is still one of my good friends). I was so excited about the trip . . . until I remembered that he hadn't seen me in person with my short, natural hair. I panicked. Next thing I knew, I was frantically straightening my hair in the bathroom, hours before I was set to go to the airport.
It's my pretty, and I will continue to wear it with pride.
As I boarded the plane, I felt good. My hair looked great. It may have been shorter, but it was bouncy and frizz-free. As I stepped out of the airport into the 90-degrees Florida humidity, my hair swelled up like a balloon. The next day, we were hanging out in the pool, and I could see him coming for me, but before I could stop him, he picked me up and threw me into the pool. I was horrified. I could no longer hide my hair from him. I came up for air, and he wiped the water out of my eyes, ran his fingers through my hair, and told me my hair was beautiful. It's a moment in time I will never forget. After he said that sweet thing, I looked at him and said, "I need you to go get me a blow dryer." I wasn't ready to show off my new natural hair. I was carrying all of the critiques from my parents, friends, and society about what made me pretty. I spent two hours straightening my hair when I should have been enjoying my time with him on my birthday.
Since that moment nearly four years ago, I decided to take ownership of my pretty. I wasn't going to let anyone tell me how to wear my hair, how long it should be, or what they thought made me desirable. The word "pretty" can be limiting if you allow it to be; I no longer subscribe to what those around me think is "pretty." I do what feels right to me. I love my natural hair and dark skin. It's my pretty, and I will continue to wear it with pride.