I Am Not My Hair—Am I?

Recent controversies in the continuing saga of black women’s hair left me wondering whether we have our priorities straight — or natural.

WE’RE TALKING ABOUT HAIR?: Olympian Gabby Douglas was the first African American to win a gold medal in the all-around gymnastics category, but some people were more interested in her hairstyle. (Photo: Bob Daemmrich/Newscom)

What do Oprah Winfrey and Gabby Douglas have in common besides being hardworking African American females, and history-making ones to boot? Well, as you’ve probably heard by now, both came under fire last week because of issues with — wait for it — their hair.

It is no secret that within black culture hair is a pretty big deal — especially for women. Whether it’s one’s hairstyle or method of hair care, there is no shortage of opinions regarding the subject. Black women of all shades undoubtedly can say that at one point in their lives the status of their tresses has been a hot topic of conversation — and frustration.

Last week, when Oprah released a tease for the September issue of her O Magazine, where she graced the cover donning an all-new natural ’do, the chatter began immediately. In the article, O contributor Ruven Afanador said, “For the first time ever, Oprah’s appearing on the cover of O without blow-drying or straightening her hair.” Afanador writes that Winfrey enjoys wearing her hair naturally, because it makes her feel unencumbered.

But not everyone agreed that Oprah’s hair was legitimately “natural.” A controversy emerged in social media about what actually constitutes “natural,” because for some the remnant of any past chemical treatment means it’s not truly natural. Oprah needs to stop lying to herself, the detractors declared.

Soon after that, reports started circulating about criticisms of U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’s hair, that some black women didn’t like the ponytail or how she uses a gel to grease it back.

But why all the hubbub? What is it about black women’s hair that is deemed so worthy of scrutiny by other black women? It’s been said that a woman’s hair is her glory (1 Cor. 11:15), and if that is the case then why is the personal choice of her having a natural hairdo versus a relaxer so controversial?

Evan Miles, a writer for Journey Magazine, sought to unearth the societal implications associated with black hair and the roots to African American history and culture in his provocatively titled article, “Is a Black Woman’s Hair Her Glory or Gloom?”

Miles believes that for centuries, African Americans have been stripped of their heritage and forced to comply with a European cultural worldview that encouraged a new standard of beauty. According to him, “This meant taking the very essence of their being and denouncing it.” This is why Miles believes, perhaps more than ever, why black women are so adamant about regaining ownership of their hair and their own personal identities. According to him, black women’s various hairstyles “exude confidence” and self-beauty. He believes that it’s not only what is on the outside that matters, but also what lies deep within.

GOLDEN GIRL: Douglas waves to fans at the London Games following her gold-medal victory. “What’s wrong with my hair?” she said after hearing the criticism. “It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter.” (Photo: Brian Peterson/Newscom)

So if beauty is only skin deep, and what is inside your head is of more importance than what is on top, why is someone like Gabby Douglas included in this debate? After the social media storm debating Douglas’ choice in hairstyle surfaced last week, the 16-year-old gymnast remarked that she was confused by the commotion. “I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair?” she said. “I’m like, ‘I just made history and  people are focused on my hair?’ ”

And Gabby, of course, is right. Why is it so easy for us to lose focus when it comes to black hair?

Reading the many stories in the press this past week got me to thinking again about this complicated subject that is a black woman’s hair. In my quest for understanding, I began reflecting on my own personal journey with hair — the ups and downs, the highs and lows, and the path to self-discovery and self-esteem.

In my 26 years of life, my identity with relation to my hair has seen many twists and curls. Like many black women, I once sustained my silky strands by way of a relaxer. Four years ago, however, I decided to forgo that method to go “natural.” My hairstyles over the course of my lifetime have been a diverse extension of who I am and a direct correlation of my personality. Being natural for me has been less about a healthy head of hair or making a statement, and more about learning to redefine my own personal standard of beauty.

Granted it takes longer for me to achieve my desired look each morning, because of all the deep conditioning and blow-drying that I do, but I wouldn’t trade that diversity for the world. I love my hair and appreciate the fact that I can be different while being a reflection of God’s diverse creation. I’ve got an eccentric personality, and like my shoe or handbag collection my hairstyle is an extension of who I am as a person.

I feel like India.Arie said it best in her song “I Am Not My Hair,” when she sang:

I am not my hair/ I am not this skin/ I am not your expectations/ I am not my hair 
I am not this skin/ I am a soul that lives within.” Our hair, India reminds us, does not define us. It does not make us a better person or friend, and it does not determine who we are at the end of the day.

God created us in his very image, and he does not make mistakes. Instead of questioning his handiwork, we ought to embrace our unique style and diversity. So if rocking a weave or slappin’ a perm in your hair or wearing your hair natural is what makes you happy at the end of the day, then by all means love yourself and do you!

About the author, Amanda Edwards

Amanda Edwards is the newest team member at UrbanFaith, where she serves as Associate Editor. Amanda loves telling people’s stories in fresh and unexpected ways. She graduated from DePaul University with her bachelor's in communications and a master’s in journalism.
  1. AMEN! I think one of the beautiful things about a black woman’s hair is the numerous ways in which we can wear it! To quote lyrics from the musical HAIR:
    Gimme head with hair
    Long beautiful hair
    Shining, gleaming,
    Streaming, flaxen, waxen

    “Give me down to there hair
    Shoulder length or longer
    Here baby, there mama
    Everywhere daddy daddy
    I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy
    Snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty
    Oily, greasy, fleecy
    Shining, gleaming, streaming
    Flaxen, waxen
    Knotted, polka-dotted
    Twisted, beaded, braided
    Powdered, flowered, and confettied
    Bangled, tangled, spangled, and spaghettied!

    Anyway you wear it….

  2. Thanks Cheryl for the comment! It’s much appreciated!

  3. thanks for this (and we share a last name!). My 2 daughters are about your age and hair has been a popular topic in our household. My wife has locks — been natural for many years, and one of my daughters did the same (although she just cut her locks). Chris Rock’s movie about hair, as well as books such as the one you mentioned, shine a spotlight on something that seems so unique to African Americans — and still controversial. I’m old enough to remember Bo Derek sporting cornrows in the movie “10” and the firestorm that ignited!

    I affirm that it’s high time to keep encouraging our girls and young women — they need not take their “beauty tips” from European stereotypes, magazines, or any mass-produced propaganda designed to get their dollars. Our girls and woman are beautiful — in so many ways. Also, woman of real beauty have already been described in Scripture: “let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:4) .

  4. Well said Dennis! I agree wholeheartedly with what you’re saying. Black women need to learn to redefine their own personal standard and definition of beauty. We need to teach the next generation of female leaders now, while they’re still young and impressionable, to love themselves. I feel that if we as women begin to live and act that out, I believe our perceptions of ourselves, as well as the perceptions of others, will definitely change. Thank you for adding the scripture from 1 Peter, that further illustrates my point.

    And you’re right; we do share the same last name.

  5. Hi Amanda and a belated welcome to the UF team! As a curly-haired white woman, I can say that I feel the pressure to straighten, not only from hair stylists, but from other white women. The men in my life (husband and sons), however, have always preferred my curls. For me, it comes down time and being styling-tool challenged. My hair always looks worse when I mess with it and even if I manage to succeed with the flattener, I then don’t want to exercise because I’ve spent so much time in the process. I’d rather run or swim than be that invested in my hair. So, sometimes it looks really good and other times, well, it’s a wild mane.

  6. I truly think it’s sad that we feel as though we (as black women) have a right or duty to police the way other black women care for their hair. As far as I’m concerned, as long as your hair is healthy, it’s beautiful and nothing else matters. Wear it however you feel like wearing it, as long as your wear it with pride. It’s YOUR hair, and no one should make you feel inferior about the choices you make regarding YOUR hair.

  7. VERY well written Mandy! So very true…you make some really excellent and intriguing points!!!! So proud of you!

  8. Honestly, in order to properly set priorities straight you must set aside those things that aren’t important. I recommend just simply stop talking about it. Topics like this require attention in order to thrive, don’t give it attention.

  9. I would like to add for those of us who do seek the word of God for the true answers, always search the scriptures for what God says about these things.

    (1 Timothy 2:23)
    23 “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.”

    I’m not gone add nor take away from the word of God, any wise individual can clearly see the message here.

    (1 Peter 3:3-6 )
    3 “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. 4 Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. ”

    I have provided the word of God with brief comments. I know His word will only be accepted and cherished by those who are more concerned about pleasing God, instead of the world. Thank you Urban Faith for this site, its opened the door for opportunities of wisdom to be shared. Your website is an important example of what web-space can be used for.

  10. My Lord and savior Jesus Christ was perfect, and yet the world still accused Him, mocked His name, and crucified Him (Matthew 27). He is the perfect example of no matter how much you do right, someone is going to say or do something in an attempt to distract you from your faithfulness to God.

    Read the story about Stephen in (Acts chapter 6), how he was faithful to God, yet still he was wrongfully accused, seized and stoned to death. Even so, He prayed to God to forgive the people. There is one way that works for His glory, in every situation, and its God’s way. See once we start trying the fire back at the critics, our attention becomes focused on them, and another worker of evil part of the same team but with a different mission, its out trying to rob us of our children. I heard somebody say this and I quote, “keep your mouth shut man,don’t feed into it, if you feed into it, its gone do nothing but escalate.” Now if a rapper knows this, we have no excuse. God’s word is powerful, know its value by living it, or loose something valuable.

  11. Impressive! Very well explained. Thumbs up to this! Thanks for sharing.

  12. One obstacle to some black women wearing their hair natural or in kinkier styles, is believing that they’re unattractive to mates (to include some black men) while wearing hair in natural styles. More black women are beginning to love themselves as God loves them and wear a variety of styles with their hair in the state that God generates. The inferior mindsets of the past are crumbling.

  13. Very well-balanced analysis Amanda great work.

  14. Christine, thank you for the warm welcome. I appreciate your honest take on this very touchy subject.

  15. Am from Africa, living in Dubai. i had dreadlocks which caused a huge debate in my office, had to shave them off and to grow back the hair, am weaving. Because of the extreme heat, i can only wear the weave for two weeks. My boss hinted that am spending more time on my hair than my work which is ridiculous coz i do my hair on weekends. But the different comments from different colleagues are the annoying part. I have to brace myself every time i change my hairstyle for all the nasty, snide and racist comments i expect. Being an ordinary person, i dislike having to deal with this issue, but am sure its worse for public figures. I think lots of people are just ignorant about Africans and want to keep putting us down everytime they get a chance.