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FEATURES Apr 16 2012 6:05PM

Issa Rae: How I Learned to Love My Hair

by Issa Rae, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
I love my hair. It took me a while, but I do. Growing up in Potomac, Md., among an ethnically diverse group of friends was great for my self esteem. I was celebrated for being different; for having superhero hair that defied gravity and recoiled with lightning speed elasticity. My hair texture was the subject of awe, confusion and probably envy. I loved it.

Until I moved to L.A.

Moving from a predominantly white school to a predominantly black school in L.A for Junior High was already a traumatizing experience in and of itself, but nobody prepared me for the "hair hierarchy."

If you don't understand how it works, the hair hierarchy rates your self worth by length and texture of hair. The longer, silkier and European your hair, the higher your self worth. The shorter, kinkier and African your hair? Go die.

I was taught this hierarchy by a group of girls in middle school who would taunt me for many reasons, none of which excluded my hair. This was in the mid-90s, when weaves were still the butt of jokes in the black community and braids with the burnt ends were JUST going out of style. Nothing could have prepared me for the hate and ridicule I'd receive for wearing my hair in its natural state.

Why were people concerned with how my hair looked when it grew out of my scalp? Why was it so offensive?
Of course my sixth grade brain didn't really know to ask those questions out fully understand the history and implications of my hair, so I just handled it the best way I could; by hiding it. Over the course of my middle and high school years, I hid my hair through braids, scarves, thin presses and hoods, just to avoid showing my real hair in public. My initial source of confidence became my burden of shame.

My mother was disgusted by my insecurities. "Why do you keep covering your head?!" she would yell, frustrated. But to me, she just didn't get it. I begged her to let me relax my hair like the other girls at my school. She warned me repeatedly that my hair was too soft to handle the chemicals in a relaxer, but I insisted. Perhaps my pleading eyes moved her to let me do it, but now I'm pretty convinced that she just wanted to say, "I told your bald-headed ass so" when my hair fell out ... because it did. A few weeks after rocking my fresh, relaxer, I noticed that my hair started to break off at rapid speed. I tried to defend my jagged, rough edges to my friends at school, "I had cut it ..." But I soon began to realize that I was worse off than when I started. 

The sad fact that I was willing to damage my own God-given hair before wearing it out in public was not lost on me. I knew that I had deep-rooted hair issues and sought to try to come to terms with my hair several times in college, by experimenting with natural hairstyles. But when I came home to "show them off" my little brother was quick to tell me that, aesthetically, my hair "didn't look right."

After college, I moved to New York and started experimenting with weaves. It was like cheating. I could still achieve the coveted top tier of the "hairarchy" while keeping my natural hair hidden underneath. The difference in reception to "my" new hair was astonishing. Guys who had never and would never talk to me before were suddenly attentive. Girls wanted to be my friend. Having a weave inspired me to start dressing differently and carrying myself with a higher self-esteem.

But all of that was short-lived. I soon moved back to L.A. and started noticing the damage that weaves were doing to my actual hair. Not only was my hair thinning from all of the under-weave braiding, but I had like nine different textures going on in my hair at the same time. My hair was having an identity crisis! And that was the last straw for me. 

I decided to cut all of my hair off as a way to start over AND to take a break from the stress that my hair was causing me. In doing so, it liberated me in ways I could never imagine. Not only is it a lazy person's dream, but having no hair showed me how stupid and trivial my insecurities about having hair were.

Now, my hair and I are best friends. We're growing out a new relationship and a mutual respect for one another. I'm learning to take care of her, respect her, and am no longer afraid to introduce her to my friends. It's the most wonderful feeling in the world to be comfortable in my own hair.

Issa Rae is producer/writer/director of several short films, music videos and web series. Her most notable series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, won the 2012 Shorty Award for Best Web Show. Follow her on Twitter @issarae


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