Taking Up "Hair" Space: 8 Black Women Talk About What Natural Hair Means to Them
Every Black woman has a unique relationship with her hair. I was like a lot of my peers in the early 2000s who grew up going to the beauty salon with our moms to get a relaxer and a roller set so we could have straight hair that was easier and "more manageable" — as we were told. I was almost content with this way of life (despite the fact that over time the chemicals were damaging to my hair), until one vivid moment.
I remember being 13, walking with my mom and passing this woman who walked oh-so-elegantly in a bright yellow sundress and sunglasses. Her most eye-catching accessory of all was a large, sun-blocking afro that swayed with every step. It was like she owned the sidewalk; we were so transfixed.
That was the first time I realized the true power of our hair. It takes up space and commands attention. When I quit the relaxer and went natural, I imagined that one day my hair would command the room, or the sidewalk like that woman's.
Whether we like it or not, our natural hair is a statement, and everyone feels differently about the statement they're making. I asked eight women of color what it means to take up space with natural hair — here's what they had to say.
"Taking up space with my hair started for me when I cut off all my hair last year and went fully natural. I was in an international school with people from all around the world who had never seen natural hair. Everyone wanted to touch it or say something about it. For me and my friends who also cut off their hair at the time, it was a reminder to them that white hair is not the 'default' and it's not the only setting. Black hair and Black culture are the blueprints and what everyone wants to see, but also don't want to see, because of reminders it brings of the past.
"As a visibly Black person, I know many other people just like me who haven't had the chance to take up space. If I can just do that small piece of rebellion with my hair, I am going to do that every day."
Taking up space with my hair means on Monday, it's just braids and I don't want anyone to make a big deal about my braids. By Tuesday, my braids are a reminder that I'm a visibly Black woman from the African continent with hard 4C hair — and I'm taking up space because it's something that has been passed down and something that is precious to me. Taking up space with my hair is an acknowledgement of the simultaneous realities that my hair — because of the texture, because of my skin color, because of where I come from and how I speak — is so many things at once. It's not just a twist out, or braids, or curls.
I will continue every day to take up space with my hair. And the day it gets long enough to become an afro, I am going to block people and I'm going to be happy about that. As a visibly Black person, I know many other people just like me who haven't had the chance to take up space. If I can just do that small piece of rebellion with my hair, I am going to do that every day."
"I feel closest to my Blackness when I love my hair. Because I have lighter skin and people often misjudge my race and ethnicity, my hair has become the means for other Black people to identify me as a part of the community. I was often mistaken for white when I was younger and I honestly believe it's because I didn't allow my hair to play a huge role in my day-to-day appearance.
I didn't wear my hair down in high school because it would attract so much attention. People would stare, comment, compare it to odd things — I felt like an exhibit. I almost always wore it up, and I didn't realize how much my hair meant to me until I didn't have it anymore.
After high school graduation, I dyed my hair blonde and it absolutely destroyed my curl pattern. I had been growing my hair for three years, and once it was gone I just wanted it back. I started to wear it down more, but it wasn't until I got to college that I felt my hair took up just the right amount of space in my life.
Growing up I felt out of touch with my hair. People would always tell me how beautiful it was, mostly other people of color. I wanted my hair to be straight so badly.
After the bleach damage, I grew my hair out and then chopped it off. Now, I wear my hair down almost daily basis and people celebrate it, rather than exoticize it. Once I stopped feeling like my hair made me a target for offensive comments and questions, it took up the right amount of space in my life. I was no longer ashamed of my hair and felt like I could embrace it."
"I think in a positive light. I think of my hair taking up space meaning that when I walk into a room my presence is felt. My hair is my crown and a piece of my soul. It is me.
Together we take up space because our space and presence embodies that of the kings and queens that came before me."
"When I went natural I didn't think my hair would be such a determining factor in terms of how people saw me. Oftentimes people would only associate me with my hair. They'd be like, 'the girl with the fro' or 'the girl with the curly hair.' People wouldn't even take the time to get to know really know my name; my identity was my hair.
Now I feel a little detached from my hair. It's not something that I really think is important to me. One of the things that made me so detached was that people started developing their own opinions and their own feelings towards my hair. People would say, 'I like your hair this way,' 'I like your curls this way,' or 'I don't like your hair in box braids.' My hair wasn't mine anymore — it was how other people viewed it.
My hair took up so much of my personality without me having to even speak, and I felt uncomfortable with that."
"The first time I really experienced [my hair taking up space] was freshman year of high school. I was half perm/half natural because I wasn't ready to do the big chop yet. I went to the hair place on Sunday and they put twists in and told me not to take them out until Wednesday. I went to school on Monday with a little hat on and in my French class my French teacher said, 'Just take the hat off.' She made a big deal of it and took like 15 minutes of class time to harass me about having this little beanie.
I felt possessive and protective over my hair, and I was insecure because this was the first time I was learning to deal with my hair as it grew out of my head naturally. I decided I was going to stand my ground, my hair is not causing any problems, and I'm not causing any problems. She kicked me out of class and sent me to the principal's office.
The principal wrote me a script and said I could stay in his office if I wanted and I didn't have to go back to class. This was my first time coming into my own when it came to my hair, and to be treated like my hair was a problem felt really problematic and made me emotional.
I went to the bathroom and took the twists out, crying. There were a bunch of girls in the bathroom and one girl said 'Your hair looks so pretty,' and even though I thought I looked like a little boy, I felt supported. I went back to my French class and everyone was supporting me (except my French teacher, who was still pissed).
"I'm not my hair, and if people are staring, then that's OK."
That was a good way to start my natural hair journey, because it taught me that for some reason, some people are not going to be OK with the way Black women's hair grows naturally out of their head. Because I stood up in that scenario, I never allowed their opinions to impact me. I'm not my hair, and if people are staring, then that's OK."
"I love when my hair is the biggest it can get — the bigger the better. And there's a lot of power behind my natural hair process. I've come a really long way with my hair where no one can really tell me anything about it that I would take to heart.
My family is Dominican, and I know personally for my family that straight hair is valued and seen as more beautiful because it's more 'tamed'. They either call curly hair greña or pajón, and I've seen that have negative connotations because it's supposed to mean your hair is big or messy or not kept well. So every time I have my hair take up space (as it should), for them it's a pajón and I should get it together or do something with it. But this took hours to perfect!
For the most part, I love my hair, big and beautiful as it is."
"Never wore my natural hair because I was told it made me look 'unkempt and wild.' I didn't want people to think about me that way.
It's my first year as a 'natural hair head.' So far, I'm feeling wild because I'm in control."
"Wearing my natural hair is like trying on a wedding dress. Even when everyone thinks it's ugly, I think it's beautiful because it highlights everything I like about myself — not what the world tells me to like."