Done with code switching: my journey to loving my natural Black hair

It’s more than hair and beauty, it’s about identity

I have been torturing my hair and skull for the last eighteen years. Every week my hair routine consisted of a full day of hair creams followed by an hour of applying heat with a hair dryer and half hour of hair iron. My goal was to look beautiful to others, and in order to achieve that my hair needed to be straight.

Working from home for the past months made me reflect on the way I look, not to others, but especially to myself. Because of the decreased pressure of looking good while working from home, I stopped straightening my hair. My camera was always off during video calls, so there was no one to impress and no need to look “professional” anymore.

After a few weeks, I noticed that not having the pressure straighten my hair was really good for my mental health. I felt good about not having to spend those hours on adjusting myself to fit in. I’ve recently decided to stop altering my hair with chemicals and embracing my natural looks. It has been a learning process. Here’s what I learned.

Black hair has been an integral feature of Black history

From tribal styles to dreadlocks, hair is an important part of Black history. It is one of the most visible aspects of the Black identity. The connection between Black people and their hair is a tradition that comes from the time of slavery and still lives today. Most slaves were illiterate and their family members were sold and separated, making it difficult to share generational knowledge. However, caring and styling their hair was a skill that could be passed down verbally and by hand. These skills that our African ancestors brought, still contribute to the way black people take care of their hair today.

In other regions of the world, the way Black slaves styled their hair was an instrument to freedom. In Colombia, Black female slaves used braids as an instrument to plan their escape. Historically braids were used with different meanings, for example depending on the type of braid it could be determined if a woman was single or married. These patterns of hair braiding consisted of a variety of tight and complex geometric designs. During the time of slavery Black women used this knowledge to draw escape routes from the haciendas. In their braided heads they drew guiding maps which would later lead their way to freedom. In the braids, they also kept seeds or gold stones they could use to build a new life in the place where they would arrive. Using this knowledge and symbolism, which were unknown to the masters, allowed men and women to escape from slavery. These Black rebels founded San Basilio de Palenque in the north of Colombia, which is the first free territory in America.

It’s racism, not my hair that needs to relax.

Why did I straighten my hair? To look good. And what does “looking good” mean? To look white. Growing up, I was a big fan of pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. I knew that I couldn’t be as blond and beautiful as they were, but I could have long, straight hair like them. Some of my Black role models were actress Gabriel Union, and singers Beyonce and Kelly Rowland from Destiny’s Child, who also had straight hair. That’s what I learned to consider as beautiful.

I could not afford the hair treatments of these celebrities, but as a teenager I discovered that if I extended my hair on the ironing table and iron it with the cloth iron it would look “beautiful”. I laugh now about that anecdote of my teenage years, but if I reflect on it I conclude that I actually hated my hair. Based on all the external influence and the lack of representation I saw, it made sense that I hated it. I was conditioned to hate it.

I’ve been considering going natural for a while, and I have had friends and colleagues encouraging me to do it. Their support made me wonder: am I exaggerating or is this ‘pressure to conform’ real? According to research, the pressure is real, especially on the workfloor. Racial discrimination against Blacks also includes discrimination against Black women’s hair. Black women are being judged differently based on hair texture and hairstyle.

There is a common practice called “code switching” which explains why I straighten my hair. According to Harvard Business Review, it involves adjusting one’s “speech, appearance, behaviour, and expression in ways that will optimise the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”

Showing yourself authentically is easier said than done, especially for women of colour. In the corporate world the norms of what is considered professional are set and enforced by Eurocentric beauty standards which are white by default. Black women are disproportionately impacted by them, and are excluded by design. A common survival tactic among Black people and people of colour is to adapt how we look to make other people comfortable with being around us. In a corporate setting chances are high that there are not a lot of people looking like us, so any adjustment we can make to fit in can make a big difference.

Black people are forced to negotiate our authenticity with our opportunities for advancement. And that is at every stage of your career. There is a famous video of Obama greeting the locker room of the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. In the clip, you see a clear difference between how Obama greets a white assistant coach and how he greets the Black NBA player Kevin Durant.

For women in general our appearance is an aspect that is scrutinised in our professional life. For Black women in particular, hair is a constant struggle that goes from self-love and self- acceptance, all the way to strategic choices for career advancement. Black, natural hair has been stigmatised and considered dirty and unkept. This stigma has led to Black women to adapt their hairstyles via different treatments. A study by Dove found that Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work. In 2017 the hair industry sold 525 millions of dollars worth of hair relaxers to Black people. 99% of the U.S. Hair & Beauty’s customers are Black. However, 70% of the businesses are owned by Korean-Americans. This shows that although Black women are being unfairly impacted by societal norms and corporate grooming policies, they are also not the ones reaping the economical benefits.

I have come across LinkedIn posts and comments of people comparing natural hair styles like an afro, dreadlocks, and cornrows with extreme styles like tattoos or pink-dyed hair. These are the same people who advocate for equality. However, they confuse equality with ‘sameness’. The fact that Black women can not be seen as normal while wearing the hair that grows out of their head naturally shows how narrow our beauty standards are. It’s these standards that make it so difficult for many Black women, myself included, to celebrate our own natural beauty.

What I’ve learned about my natural hair: it is empowering

I’ve been using a Brazilian Keratin hair treatment for the last five years. I’ve become addicted to it. I did it twice per year and couldn’t stand seeing my hair roots growing back in. I liked that it was easy to keep and it always looked good. I got compliments about my hair being straight and shiny. But I also began losing a lot of hair. I remember always having a big afro and now my hair was weak and thin. My hair brush was always full of hair in the morning. I knew that I had to do something about it. In March, after I started working from home, I decided to give my hair a break. During the Covid pandemic I was not going to straighten it or use heat anymore. But this soon proved to be not only good for my hair’s health, but also for my mental health. I was not feeling the pressure to look ‘professional’, or impress anyone. I could be myself and that included embracing my natural look. I have learned to love how I look, and to create my own rules about how I want to look, naturally. From this process, I have gotten three main takeaways:

Black, natural hair connects Black women. Our hair is an important aspect of our identities as Black women. Nappy, kinky, curly is just how our hair is, and that is ok. This is something we have in common. The African diaspora is huge, and oftentimes we don’t even speak the same language. However, we have a special connection with each other. An important aspect of that connection is how we look. It’s rarely about where we come from geographically, or about which percentage of Blackness there is in your genes. It is about looking like brothers and sisters. The size of our lips, the tone of our skin, and the texture of our hair connects us with each other, and with our ancestors. It is a sign of our heritage and our shared culture as people of African descent. It reminds us that we are not alone.

I wanted to be valued for my knowledge and skills, but meanwhile I was hiding my authentic self.

Black, natural hair is empowering. The history of the African diaspora has been marked by oppression and poverty. Our ancestors were fighters for freedom. Their sole existence was a sign of rebelliousness. In the past months I have learned that embracing and loving the way I look is a way to honour what they fought for. Many times I straightened my hair to fit in, and to not call too much attention to myself at work. I wanted to be valued for my knowledge and skills, but meanwhile I was hiding my authentic self. I was scared to be seen for who I am. And I am a Black woman. There are many other things that make up who I am, but they are all influenced by the fact that I am a woman of African descent. This single fact about my identity has boosted my personality and my capabilities. I’ve concluded that I do want my authentic self to be seen, and want to take my space and own my presence in every room I walk into. I am going to use my curls, braids, or afro as tools of empowerment.

Black, natural hair inspires the future. I want to be the difference that I want to see in the world. That difference starts by seeing more Black women in positions of leadership and power. One of the reasons why I am on this quest is because I want to empower the next generation, to help them believe that they can get as far as I get with their dreams and goals. When I was growing up my role models were straightening their hair to fit in. The entertainment industry is a hard environment for Black women. But times are changing and I do not want other teenagers to use a clothing iron on their hair to fit a beauty standard that already excluded them. I want to be a role model on how I go about with my body and my looks. For myself, and for the next generation of women who look like me, and for those who come from where I come from.

It has been a few months since I’ve been going natural, and I’ve learned that it is a journey. I learned that I was actually addicted to these hair products. I learned that I hated my hair and the way I looked naturally. But I am recovering. I’m learning to fall in love with my natural self.

If you are like me and looking good is important for your self esteem, but you don’t want to fall into outdated beauty standards, then it is important to own your look. My tips:

  1. Get a good treatment for natural hair, there are plenty out there. The good ones are usually more expensive, but see it as an investment. I’ve been using African Pride and so far it has helped me recover from the hair loss I was going through. Their products also smell great, so using their products is a treat.
  2. Be inspired by nice examples of natural hair styles. There are plenty of good sources. I personally go to Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration. Make sure you have a hair routine (at least once a week). Put in the time to try out the styles you think can fit your personality. It’s worth it.
  3. Have fun and be creative. You don’t have to look one way all the time. Change is good. Experiment with new styles and learn what works for you. Ask yourself: is this what the best version of me would look like? Or how a [insert goal here] would look like? If the answer is no, keep searching. If the answer is yes, own it.

I write about my learnings and experience regarding race, female empowerment, representation and leadership.

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