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Oct 16 2016
by Liz Habersham

How I Learned to Accept Myself Despite White Beauty Standards

By Liz Habersham - Oct 16 2016

“Bad” hair is out and "good" hair is in. 

As an African-American/mixed-race female who has spent years with her hair as the bane of her existence, it fills me with inexplicable joy to be able to type that sentence. Spending my formative years in the deep South meant a very early and regular exposure to white beauty standards. Over time, this exposure developed into a fixation with features that I could only covet from Barbie dolls and women on magazine covers. 

In my youth, I fabricated an imaginary friend by the name of Lisa that I decided was the epitome of all things gorgeous. I recall eagerly running up to my mother and reciting her trademark features: blonde hair, blue eyes, pink dress, white stockings and black shoes. Although all of these features could indeed create a beautiful girl, I felt that my genetics would never allow me to be beautiful.

My mother is of fairer skin with soft, easy to manage curls, so she felt lost when faced with the daunting task of having to tame my unruly follicles. Together, we braved the unsafe parts of our local downtown, faced a multitude of unpleasant people and spent enough money to equate several yearly house payments, all to maintain an acceptable style for my hair. But even with the efforts my family put forth for me to be happy, Lisa was always in the back of my mind. 

Up until about the end of middle school, I wore my hair in very “ethnic” cornrows, and although my hair attracted very little attention I still felt anything but beautiful. There were so many days in between braided styles where I would look in the mirror and be surprised that it didn’t crack upon having to reflect someone so hideously ugly. I cried over my hair, and wished that one day I would just wake up and have flowing, straight locks. Maybe then I could blend in seamlessly with those around me and finally feel good about myself.

"I wore my hair in very  'ethnic' cornrows." (Photo courtesy of: Liz Habersham)

Around the age of 13, I began to notice black girls with long, beautiful hair due to the power of relaxers. For every black girl with straight hair that I encountered, I felt that I was seeing a miracle at work. Finally, I could stop struggling and tying my hair down in frizzy braids. Finally, I could get one step closer to Lisa. So, I badgered my mother until she realized that my obsession had blossomed into an unshakable determination. She took me to the salon and there it happened. My huge head of natural hair became soft, light and straight. I could not wait to break out into the world and show off the new me. My biggest insecurity had been washed down the sink and cut away, and now I would never feel ugly again. Or so I thought.

I continued getting relaxers throughout high school, easily having one of the most damaging hair routines of anyone that I have ever met. Naturally, my hair began to break off and thin, but my classmates loved my hair and I always received that oh-so-gracious compliment of having “pretty hair for a black girl.” I began to realize, however, that what I was doing was not natural.

"I always received that oh-so-gracious compliment of having 'pretty hair for a black girl.'" (Photo courtesy of: Liz Habersham)

Throughout the past few years, more and more news has continued to surface about the damaging nature of relaxers. This nature finally revealed itself to me one day as I was thinking about what to do next with my hair in its ever-diminishing state. I thought of how one day I wanted to be just like my mother, and how I wanted my child to love her hair just like mine urged me to love my own. I looked around and asked myself who exactly it was that I was trying to impress. Why had I been trying to hide this part of myself for so long? Soon after I began the transition to natural and cut off all of my hair.

Here is me after my big chop, excited by the huge selection of natural hair products in Target. (Photo courtesy of: Liz Habersham)

My problem was never that I could not obtain the Lisa standard, or have hair that I could brush and let the other girls play with. My problem was that I was insecure with who I was both internally and externally. I thought that enduring the burn of the chemicals on my scalp would awaken a sense of confidence in me that had been hiding for years. My problem was that this confidence did not exist.

My story is one that is unfortunately not nearly as unique as it should be. It took me too long to associate black with beautiful, and I know I was not the only little girl who looked in the mirror and cried over what I now know to be blessing, not a curse.

The internet and social media were two largely influential factors in my changing outlook on beauty. Black women and other women of color have now been able to reach out to each other and create a network of reassurance and support that is stronger than ever before. When I saw #Stoprelaxers2016 trending on Twitter, it almost brought tears to my eyes. It makes me so happy to know that there will be millions of little girls who will be able to look in the mirror and see nothing but beauty. My struggles with self-acceptance will hopefully be a relic that I can reflect upon by the time I have children of my own.

The abrupt and collective acceptance of natural hair on behalf of the African American community has also resulted in a gradual acceptance of features of other races. I notice that the same people who would laugh and point at my hair when I was younger now treasuring that part of me. The idea of Lisa has reformed drastically since I was little. To me, beauty is not a label associated with a single race, but an entity that presents itself in a multitude of forms and colors.

"Beauty is not a label associated with a single race." (Photo courtesy of: Liz Habersham)

I am still a minority and one of the few black girls where I live, but of those that surround me, it is encouraging to see that nearly all of us now wear our hair natural. Unlike when afro hair made its famous debut in the 70s, I do not believe that this is just a “statement” or a “trend," natural hair is here to stay and so is the love for ourselves and our community. Insecurity is out, and self-acceptance is in. 

Lead Image Credit: Liz Habersham

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Liz Habersham - University of Georgia

Somewhere daydreaming and listening to music. Trinidadian. #UGA20

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