During my second year of teaching, my 3rd graders arrived at school dressed in new outfits and every hair on their heads combed, brushed, picked, or gelled perfectly into place. I greeted each student at the classroom door with the same question, “Which smile did you bring for Picture Day?” They all humored me, as children gracefully do, with some kind of grin or smirk. However, there was one that arrived in tears. I’ll call her Madeline. It broke my heart to find out that Madeline’s absolute devastation centered on her hair. In her words, it was “too poofy” and “all messed up.” Madeline remained upset all the way up to our scheduled picture time. It didn’t help when the photographer handed her one of those super cheap, super thin, plastic combs (not made for her hair type) so that she can “fix” her hair.
In actuality, Madeline’s hair was styled beautifully in its voluminous natural curl patterns and bold thickness. I never realized how long her hair really was because she always had a braid, a bun, or some other kind of updo. Though there was clearly nothing to “fix” with Madeline’s hair, I fully understood her embarrassment and uneasiness. Despite the gap in our ages, Madeline and I both suffered from the established standard of beauty and appropriateness that didn’t take into consideration the hair textures we adorned when we arrive into this world. It’s a standard that stubbornly stands the test of time.
As I attempted to comfort Madeline and affirm the beauty in her natural hair, I realized in that moment I stood before her with my own hair straightened out with a flat iron to tame my wild curls. Hypocrisy to a child will surely guarantee that any motivational message, despite the intention, will be lost. I knew all the right things to say but neglected to apply them to myself. Why?
I’ve come to believe that we all long for freedom to just be. We intrinsically seek to be fully accepted for all of who we are in all of our uniqueness, perfect imperfections, and personalized talents. For this reason, any criticism or judgement of who we are in our natural state begins to negatively impact our self-identity and self-worth. We begin to mask it, change it, deny it, and yes, even hate whatever it is that others reject. Too many of us exist in a state of functional trauma based on the rejection of our skin, hair, size, disabilities, gender, and whatever other ways we are born. Unfortunately, these burdens deposit tiny seeds of negativity that swell ever so slowly into sometime secret and sometime apparent shame.
However, with an offering of complete acceptance and worthiness of our Being, not only from others but more importantly to ourselves, we become validated and elevated to our higher Self. I experienced this feeling of affirmation when I made the brave decision nearly 10 years ago to embrace my natural hair. Being brave allowed me to unapologetically say to the world, “Accept me for who I am.” “I will not hide.” “I will not let you define me.” Suddenly a transformation occurred in how the world looked at me and how I felt moving within it. In fact, back when I straightened my hair, a compliment about it referred more to the hairstyle. Now it feels more like an acceptance of me and suggests a sense of belonging wherever I am for who I am. It may seem over dramatic but self love and acceptance both empower us in inexplicable ways.
Thankfully, there are increasing examples today of people standing in humanity’s wide gamut of truths. People like Jessamyn Stanley (yoga teacher), Nick Vujicic (motivational speaker), and Kaliegh Garris (Miss Teen USA 2019) currently come to mind but there are countless brave souls among us. I regret lacking courageousness for Madeline on her 3rd grade Picture Day but I am forever grateful for her sharing a vulnerability that inspired her teacher to be…naturally me.