By: Sama Nemat Allah
(Art by Yasmeen Nematalla)
I remember thinking the straightener fit so perfectly in my hand because it was meant to be there.
But then again, that thought might have reverberated loudly because I was stuck so resolutely in my it’s-a-sign-from-God era. Some of the characteristics of this epoch include but are not limited to: a fervent inclination to view any and all events; sentiments and actions as sacred decrees from a higher being; mistaking compliments for promise rings; writing despondent eulogies when the frog in my throat overstays its welcome; believing the people who insisted I resembled Penelope from the Odyssey when my hair was straight.
Years later, in an arbitrary English class, my professor will offer us Penelope’s name as a quintessential example of the “White Goddess” archetype. Imagine that.
I had a dream once where I existed in a vacuum. And when I woke up, I looked vastly different. I am often plagued by thoughts of the time I’ve wasted thinking about how I am perceived. Quantifying that number seems too arduous a task and I imagine I’d be too unhappy with myself once I unearthed the result.
Before last year, if you had asked my life’s accomplices to describe me, they’d invariably paint you pictures of pin-straight hair and smooth locks devoid of frizz. I’ve been alive for almost two decades and I’ve spent the predominance of that time picking up straighteners and holding my breath as I set my hair aflame.
It’s fine. I’d whisper to myself, often soundlessly, with box-springs in my throat. It’s worth the damage if I am able to carry on being beautiful quietly. And as I write this, I’ve decided to coin the phrase quiet beauty. It refers to the abstraction we chase when we knowingly do irreversible damage to our bodies under cruel commandments of a system that promises the privileges of eurocentricity if we comply, quietly.
I remember feeling compounding sentiments of nausea and lethargy when the decision to stop straightening my hair cemented within me. A lockdown that would preclude me from seeing anyone indefinitely – save my sisters, who, God bless them, approach my ever-changing extrinsic features with reverence – sounded like an ideal time for experimentation.
Until recently, I had only a slim recollection of what I looked like with my curly, kinky, Egyptian hair. It was a distant memory that I was more than happy to forget. My curly hair was big and loud and messy and so hard to manage.
I realize now that maybe those characteristics are just my unobservable features personified. I realize now that this is partly why I worked so hard to burn them off.
As my curls began to take on a form that was foreign to me (but I’m sure gratifyingly familiar to them), I felt indifferent. After all, my straight hair hid me so well and I would miss its mediocrity, until, on an odd day, I looked in the mirror and couldn’t help but cry. I felt a visceral feeling of belonging to a culture that no one ever associated me with.
And this wasn’t an unexpected or sudden realization, but it was a realization nonetheless; I’ve spent my entire life chasing, echoing and recreating the features of a white-supremacist standard of beauty. I mean, haven’t we all?
I internalized a ubiquitous notion that dictated that I would only be worth space, love and conversation if I emulated whiteness. Whiteness has historically been the default for all that is good, pure and correct so how could I not be tempted to indulge in the privilege myself?
And listen, the act of straightening one’s hair is not inherently racist. But for me, it was an act of assimilation; of following a cultural script of erasure. With every perm, every cosmetic and superfluous hair treatment, with every decaying root and putrefying end, I sanded down the string which tied me to my North African ancestry.
The anti-Black racism entrenched in all of this will not go unnoticed. Black people’s hair historically and contemporarily receives deep-seated and systemic discrimination, endemic to the relationship between their Black identity and Eurocentric schemas of beauty. The policing of Black hair and Black hair textures is an extension of colonial endeavours to eradicate African culture, history and heritage and supplement it with a hegemonic iteration of being.
But whiteness’ attempt to stifle the Black identity has been met with a beautifully radical resistance: a natural hair movement wherein hair emerges as a retaliatory agent against enduring impacts of colonial and aesthetical systems of power.
Of course, I blame colonialism and white supremacy and racism. But I also blame myself for benefitting from and perpetuating a system that marginalizes and continues to extinguish the lives of Black, Indigenous, racialized, disabled, queer and fat folks.
This isn’t about hair. It’s never been about just one thing. It’s about a million little things, and a million bigger things and a system that fails us so egregiously because it promised to do so in its original blueprint.
I think we’ve spent too long making ourselves, and our voices and our hair smaller. I’m really ready to take up space. I’m also really ready to make space. I’ve realized recently that in making space for my community, for my marginalized neighbours, I make space for a world devoid of coloniality and the ways it teaches us to be small and silent so it can be the biggest body in the room.
I had a dream once where I existed in a vacuum. When I woke up I looked vastly different. In that dream, I was beautiful loudly.