The great hair debate: Why is going natural still viewed as going rogue?

Natural hair isn’t professional… or at least, that’s what my hairdresser says. And it’s funny that she makes this argument since she’s the one who guided me through the dark and forbidding landscape of transitioning from processed hair (Fried, dyed and laid to the side!) to natural hair (Power to the people!). This was after years of getting a perm, admiring my glossy mane in the mirror for a few months, then watching that rich bouncy hair gradually give way to split ends, then mass breakage, and finally a sad limp mane that made me look like Scarecrow.

Me with a perm? I think this may have been similar to me on a GOOD hair day!

When my mom said that the same thing happened to her hair whenever she got a perm, I figured it was just genetic. For whatever reason — no matter what the brand or formula — our kinky hair had no love for that magic straightening elixir. I finally decided in my early 20s that I had had enough. I told my hairdresser to cut it off and start from the beginning. No more weaves. No more perms. No more hot combs. I was going cold turkey! Now about eight years later, I have a fro that is so massive that I keep it braided at all times so as to not overwhelm those around me with its greatness. LOL

But it never fails… whenever a special event comes up, whenever I’m about to have a job interview, whenever I shoot a photo for one of my book covers, my hairdresser goes all Brutus on me and wants to pull out the flat iron and hot comb so that I look “more presentable.” She says, “You don’t want people to judge you the wrong way — and you know they will.” I thought it was just a generational prejudice of hers because she’s in her 50s, but then I saw Soledad O’Brien’s Black in America episode where a teenager pointed out that she would never wear natural hair to a job interview. When I watched that segment I thought maybe the viewpoint isn’t just generational. A lot of black women are terrified of being perceived as unprofessional, militant, or worse… inferior, if they wear their hair in a fro, braids, twists, dreads, etc.

I want to give white people more credit than that. I know my husband (who is white) and most of my friends don’t seem to have a problem with my natural hair. In fact, they find the whole hair debate among black women pretty baffling. But then I point to examples that show the world at large isn’t as open minded as they are.

Remember that short lived period when Malia Obama wore her hair in cornrows and twists, a perfectly normal thing for a little black girl to wear who wants to run and play and not have to worry about her hair? Good God Almighty! Some of the comments I saw on blogs and news feeds about her hairstyles astounded me. One guy even said she was an embarrassment to the country and looked like a hoodlum. I mean… she was a sporting twists AND a peace sign t-shirt! To some, she may as well have declared herself to be Che Guevara reincarnated. Needless to say — whether she was advised against it or had changed her mind — Malia was never photographed wearing those hairstyles again.

Was she really THAT edgy?

Or what about the poor Louisiana TV meteorologist Rhonda Lee? The African-American newscaster was fired last year after she defended herself against a viewer’s criticism of her short, natural hairstyle. The guy basically went on a rant about how hippie hair wasn’t appropriate for television, so why could Lee sport a fro? When Lee tried to educate him on the subject of black hair via Facebook, her bosses at the station let her go.

Taking a stand on her hair earned her a pink slip

Wearing natural hair doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trying to go counter culture. It doesn’t even mean that you’re more in touch with your “black side” than a woman who straightens her hair religiously. But for me, even with the prejudice I may face because I chose to wear my hair natural, it comes with a sense of freedom. I don’t have to agonize over what my hair will look like if I step out into the rain without an umbrella or if it’s an overly humid summer day. I don’t have to make up excuses not to get on water rides at amusement parks because I’m worried that I’ll go in looking like Beyonce… and come out looking like a drowned rat! I have the freedom that many of my non-black girlfriends have had since birth — I am not a prisoner of my hair!

And now that I’m pregnant with a little girl, I consider it even more important to be at peace with my hair. Whether she’s born with straight hair, slightly curly, or a full-on afro, I don’t want her to have the same hang ups about her hair that have plagued black women for generations. It’s just hair!

- Black Girl Nerds contributor, Shelly Ellis


Shelly Ellis is a nerd, magazine editor, novel author, wife, and sleep-deprived mother of crazy toddler. Find out more about her work at

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Author: Shelly

Shelly Ellis is a nerd, magazine editor, novel author, wife, and sleep-deprived mother of crazy toddler. Find out more about her work at

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