“Natural Hair Politics”

My mom never let me perm my hair. I remember begging my mom for the longest time but she was resolute- none of her three daughters would have relaxer in their hair. She had (and still does have) deep admiration for natural hair and how it grew on our heads- striking and glorious. Whenever I took my braids out in high school, I dreaded the few days before I braided it again, just in case someone from school saw my hair in its virgin state.

It’s only while in university that I finally adopted my mom’s perspective on hair and left it out in natural curls- comfortably. These days, I love watching people’s reaction when they see me after I take out my braids,

“Oh wow, you look so different!”

“You must be so comfortable with yourself, eh?”

“Are you going to comb your hair?”

and my absolute favourite,

“You look so humble and decent with your hair like that”

It’s a challenge to respond to these comments; to make people understand, so these days I just stick to a polite smile. I never quite understood Chimamanda when she said that hair is political. I never quite understood that by wearing your hair a certain way, you were making a statement about yourself. Not just to others, but to yourself too.

My perception on my natural hair became apparent when I was on a flight to Mombasa and someone seated next to me asked me where I was from,

“Eldoret”, I said, with suspicion as to why he was asking

He looked shocked. “Eldoret? I thought you were Somali or something”

Again, recently, I was identified as Somali and another time as Rwandese. Every time it happened, I got excited. I was being seen as exotic. Yet I often feel uncomfortable when someone says to me “You look very Kenyan”. What does that even mean?

And then there’s the male angle. I was recently having some quality time with a few of my friends when one of my guy friends said that he loves women with natural, curly hair. A female friend responded,

“Oh, so like Tessy’s?”

He hesitated. He didn’t mean my type of kinky natural hair. For him, and many guys, he was referring to the soft, natural, exotic type. You know, the type that doesn’t come naturally for many African girls.

I realize that there are levels to natural hair and its correlation with identity. You want to have your hair natural, but only if it can be identified as exotic. You’re not doing it right if it looks too natural or ‘too Kenyan’. Not forgetting the pressure to wear perfect make-up and dress to the nines to compensate for the way you wear your hair.

It’s just hair, isn’t it?

This piece was first published here: http://tessymaritim.com/natural-hair-politics/

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