'It's Complicated'

Image from Malikah’s family archive

Image from Malikah’s family archive

Words by Malikah Hart

For all the women out there with curls, this is for you.

I really believe that curly, textured hair is so beautiful. I’ve been lucky to have received that message for most of my life and was fortunate enough to go to a pretty diverse primary school, where looking around the playground I saw a spectrum of textures, colours and styles. I had the freedom to wear my hair in a multitude of styles (depending on the time/effort my poor mother could set aside to style her child’s thick, curly locks, that were so long that she could sit on it). It was particularly hard transitioning to a secondary school, where I was one of the (barely) 5% of BME students attending. I feel privileged that I made it to age 11 without knowingly feeling like a minority, without consciously feeling that I was different to everyone else.

Looking back on one incident during my first year, which left me feeling ashamed, self-conscious, degraded and embarrassed, was when I had worn my long, thick curls down one day to school, and the boys threw canteen food in it. This was when I also realised that not everyone wants to celebrate or accept diversity as I had formerly known it. We move forward and we grow up, but it's safe to say that I never wore my curly hair down again for school. I’m not writing this to dwell on that incident with those shits. I was a victim to bullying all through my time at secondary school. It was because I was different and kids can be mean. Now the same boys that used to bully me and throw food in my hair, sheepishly approach me in the street or in the bar and utter “Malikah?! When did you become so beautiful?”

My response is, “I was always this beautiful and you were just never looking.”

My name is Malikah Hart. I am mixed race; my father being St. Lucian and my mother being British. I have a crown of natural dark brown, 3B curls that go down past my mid back. Although I have a lot of hair, my curls are soft and the strands are pretty fine - which means they tangle and break pretty damn quick. Now, my plans for my life do not include having snapped, damaged and dry ends, which is why in my second draw you’ll find an array of durags, bonnets and silk pillow cases. If you are a part of the curly hair crew means you will know you have to tailor your hair care routine seasonally, depending on your specific curl pattern, length and density. For me, it’s kind of like having a plant, where it blossoms and thrives in summer, but needs that extra treatment and protective style in winter. My hair takes a lot of care and protection in the form of *deep breath* - moisturisers, creams, tangle teasers, leave-in-conditioners, oils, curl definers, serums, sprays and many more. What can I say? My haircare empire basically embodies the inventory of the hair store. I predominantly have my family to thank for teaching my mother how to deal with my hair. For a white woman with long straight hair, she sure did do a good job with maintaining my curls and teaching me that my hair is both beautiful and manageable.

I would label my relationship with my hair as ‘it’s complicated’ and I have been in this relationship for about 13 years now. It all started around secondary school (as per my traumatic experience above) where I aimed to mimic the European beauty standard I saw around me. I would frequently straighten my hair to the extent where it damaged my natural curls. Looking back, they remind me of frayed bits of twine *big yikes*. During this period I would essentially treat and style my hair like a white person would. This involved shaving the left side panel of my hair (the story of how the bitch grew back is a whole other episode), bleaching my hair *yikes* and dying it extreme colours. Whilst all of the above is perfectly fine (I currently have an undercut and lighten my hair), the mistreatment of my hair stemmed from pain, insecurity and subservience.

Being picked on because of my hair created this emotional connection with it, be it acceptance or resentment. It took me until the grand age of 21 to finally take a step back and make a choice. Where I had once seen my curls wilt from heat damage and processing, I was at a crossroads where I saw an opportunity to prevent that from happening again. In short, I went natural for love, love for myself, my hair, my culture and my future. This emotional connection with my hair is familiar among many young women of colour. My hair is a part of who I am and my cultural roots. Whilst embracing my curls has been a journey (one that I’m not ashamed to admit I’m still on), I do feel much more comfortable and accepting of myself. I still straighten my hair to switch up my style, but it's no longer out of hate or insecurity.

It’s through my experience, and of those around me, where I’ve seen that it’s common for young women from my generation (and prior) to go through this ‘right of passage’, where we battle with our hair and damage it. Sometimes it’s hard to see the beauty in which we were born with. Through lack of knowledge, resentment or misunderstanding - our curls suffer before they can flourish. It’s time to put a stop to young women with curls questioning their own beauty, identities and place in society because of their hair. For me, this discussion has allowed me to embrace more of my culture especially being mixed race and brought up in a predominantly white environment. I’ve realised that hair care is self care and can lead to self reflection and self preservation. This, in many ways, has helped me to ground a part of myself. I now understand that I’m not alone in this journey and that many women go through the same trials and tribulations as I have, so much so that I now feel comfortable enough to share this and speak about my journey to hopefully inspire others. My hair is not who I am, but it definitely helped me to find my true identity.

Over the years I have fallen in and out of love with my natural hair more times than I can count. My message to you is that it's okay! It’s okay to get frustrated with your hair, its okay to want a new style, its okay to try something new. But, your hair is beautiful. And through the ups and downs of this complicated relationship we were born into, through the sweat, heat damage and tears, we are beholders of a crown that defies gravity and is an emblem of our culture. It's our birthright to own that and display our hair as we display ourselves - beautiful, resilient and full of pride!