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the perfect curl

My Journey to “The Perfect Curl”: Unlearning Antiblackness One Hairstyle at a Time

the perfect curl

Art by Keturah Ariel

They say that a woman’s hair is her glory, and I certainly agree. There’s nothing that I appreciate more than a new hairstyle and I love the versatility I am graced with as a black woman. I see my hair as my best adornment. Having my hair laid can make me feel like a goddess, but along with being my glory, my hair has also been my insecurity — and sometimes, my shame.

Although I went natural four years ago, I am still on a hair journey, fighting to accept my hair just as it is without manipulating it to attain a standard of beauty based on antiblackness.  I’ve spent most of my life exalting, rejecting and questioning Eurocentric beauty standards to unapaologetically accept and love my hair no matter what space I find myself in. I’d like to share my hair story with you. 

“The Perfect Curl”

I remember the first time I got a relaxer and feeling relieved that my hair was manageable for once. I was a tender-headed third grader, and getting my hair combed (with a fine toothed comb) was hell on earth for me. What a relief it was to finally be able to put a comb through my hair! The curls were so sleek and way cuter than my kinky, poofy mess. I have vivid memories of intentionally wetting my hair in the rain and being so gleeful knowing that no amount of water would cause my hair to kink up. If anything, it would form those sleek “Spanish” curls I loved so much. Those curls made me feel pretty and lovable.

“The James Brown”

During my teens and early 20s I spent countless years killing my kinks by any means necessary. My hair routine would consist of: blow drying, pressing, then flat ironing (all — not either/or.) My hair was constantly breaking, but I lived for the hissing sound of the hair grease hitting the heat. Sometimes, I’d get the bouncy hair I idealized, but most days I’d just look like James Brown. As you can imagine, these were not my shining moments. 

“The Big Chop”

It wasn’t until I began my natural hair journey in 2012 that I truly understood what my hair needed to be healthy and vibrant. I started learning about wide-toothed combs, and coconut and rosemary oil as well, and how water was actually good for styling my hair (go figure). The journey was liberating and exciting. It was empowering to feel the true texture of my hair and see my actual curls, and natural hair care became an obsession.

Related: I’m A Black Woman, I Straighten My Hair, and No, I’m Not Ashamed of My Race

I would spend hours reviewing YouTube videos created by natural-hair gurus, testing different products, desperately trying to find the sweet spot for my hair. Was I a 3C or a 4A?  What would give my hair that “perfect” spiral curl? I soon discovered a new insecurity: length. Once I cut off most of my hair, I was in a fight to preserve my femininity. I bought more makeup, jewelry and hair accessories to prove that I could still be pretty, even if I had short and kinky hair. No matter how many melanated beauty vloggers I watched rocking these beautiful hairstyles, it was rare that I found myself being able to pull those same styles off. It was difficult to see myself as beautiful with short, kinky hair, even though I was beginning to fall in love with it.

“The Protective Style”

That’s when the wigs came. The goal was to wait out my growth goals by wearing kinky wigs that emulated the curls I wanted to have.  I slayed many of these wigs and instantly won my confidence back when I was able to show off bountiful curls and live my natural hair dream instantly. When I was tired of wigs, I would go to braids. Every once in a while, when I decided to wear my natural hair out, I could only manage to put it in a quick updo because wearing my hair down never felt quite right. Nevertheless, I felt empowered by rocking my faux curls and left my James Brown days in the dust.

“The ‘Right’ Fro”

Fast-forward four years, and my hair has grown considerably. When I wear my hair fro’d out, it looks like the wigs I used to wear — and yet, my hair always feels like a struggle. It takes twice as long to get ready when I’m wearing my hair fro’d out, half because of maintenence, half because I’m mustering up the courage to step out of the house, praying that my beautifully orchestrated afro won’t shrivel up from humidity during summer months, or fog and mist during colder times of the year.

Theoretically I know that natural hair is beautiful, and I’m proud of my hair journey. But years later, I’m still worrying about if my curls are “right.” I’m still finding the need to police my hair and get it “under control.” I’m still trying to wrap it under some conformity, and some days my natural hair as it is still isn’t enough.

I’ve also experienced a new phenomenon; black women will stop me in the supermarket and in the street to compliment me on my hair. I’m always taken aback by this because I’m usually dealing  with some lightweight insecurity about the way my hair looks and I’m grateful for the love. I had one woman tell me, “I love your hair but mine would never look that way. If I tried to wear my hair natural, it would be a nappy mess!” I remember making similar comments to my friends who were going natural while I was rocking the James Brown.

Comments like this put into context why it’s important for me to make peace with my hair in my lifetime. This does not mean that I will never straighten my hair or wear extensions again, because I still love the versatility of my hair! However, one day I want my hair  as it is to be enough. One day I won’t manipulate my curl pattern in any way and will feel just as beautiful as that day when I got my first relaxer in the third grade. One day I won’t compare my curls to any other ones I see. That is my dream.


Heather was born in Chicago and raised in Pasadena, California and proudly claims Oakland as her adopted home. She has a B.A. in African-American Studies from Smith College (proud Smithie), and a Masters in Education Leadership from New York University. Heather's spent the past decade working in the field of educational equity and advocacy. She currently teaches Child and Adolescent Development at San Francisco State University and manages a blog called What's Happening Black Oakland? She also contributes to Blavity, a blog for black millennials. Heather's committed to writing interesting and relevant stories that aren't being covered by the mainstream media, while straying away from the single story that is usually imposed on people of color. In her free time she enjoys traveling and going to live shows.

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