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Black Hair Trauma Is Real: And It Deserves to Be Taken Seriously

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When it comes to Black folk, our hair is everything.

It is a centerpiece of our culture; a language system enriched with a meaningful history of self-expression and of the world around us. 

Our hair brings us together, creating wonderful spaces for bonding and camaraderie. There are few relationships and memories more intimate than those between hair professionals and their clients or when a little Black girl has her hair done by her mom, dad or other close relatives.

And today, while the benefits of Black hair are rightly recognized and celebrated, sadly we don’t often address its deep-rooted, dirty little secret. 

In my 20 years as a hairdresser, connecting with clients, colleagues and medical professionals in dermatology and psychology, I’ve learned that internalized hair trauma is real, and Black girls and women are the most vulnerable. Not only does it drive how we see ourselves, it actually triggers emotional exhaustion and depression. 

The relation between hair and the Black female identity is critically close because we inherently have strong ancestral ties to our hair, most stemming from the oppression caused by the belief in white supremacist ideals. In a world built on Eurocentric standards with systems that remain in place to uphold them, one can’t help but fathom how problematic it can be on many levels. 

The majority of experiences and discussions about hair are oftentimes negative, especially among those with thick, coarse, coily hair. Their shared childhood memories of physical pain from pulling and burning, followed by the lingering emotional pain from criticism and shaming are all too common in our community and are worthy of deep-reaching attention and care. Black mental health professionals are even examining how being called “tender headed” might be looked upon as a form of gaslighting because it undermines the pain experience. And many young Black girls dread having their hair done, often anxiety-ridden and crying in anticipation of a harmful hair experience in the moments before anyone or anything touches their hair. This is not something children make up. It is a clear indicator of previous, bona fide emotional and psychological damage.

How We See Us

Hair is a major part of a Black woman’s identity. Whether it’s intentional or subconscious, we use it to communicate who we are and how we feel. And when it doesn’t look the way we want, then we sometimes view our self-expression as off

In the book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, author Joy DeGruy explores the theory of vacant self-esteem, where society imparted a low sense of self-respect, hopelessness and depression into the African American community and informed Black women in particular, of how they might not have value or worth if they didn’t look a certain way. As a result, African American women will often appraise themselves and each other, based on their appearance. It might also reinforce the notion of why straight hair is frequently believed to be the better way of attaining a certain level of acceptance and attraction.

Additionally, DeGruy’s theory supports the extreme source of shame surrounding hair loss for Black women, particularly in the crown and hairline areas. According to a 2016 study of almost 6,000 women of African descent by the Sloane Epidemiology Center at Boston University, almost 48% of respondents suffer from traumatic alopecia (hair loss caused by vigorous grooming methods that attempt to straighten the natural kinkiness of hair in order to make it more “manageable”, specific to African American women). For many, it has alarmingly dire effects on their well-being, so, unfortunately, the percentage might be much higher because the topic is often shrouded in silence. 

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How do we Take Care of Ourselves? 

Our hair (and our bodies) have suffered systemic oppression that causes grave physical, emotional and psychological pain. And although these centuries-old ideas did not begin with us, the prevailing negative feelings and narratives continue to impact our everyday lives.

Granting ourselves the freedom and grace to break our silence about hair discomfort and to seek support in safe spaces is paramount; it puts us on the road to healing and self-acceptance, by continuing to create new perspectives about how we see our hair. 

In her book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, critically acclaimed author Ytasha L. Womack states that “Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a Black cultural lens. It is an artistic aesthetic, but also a kind of method of self-liberation or self-healing.”  “Afrofuturism is often the umbrella for an amalgamation of narratives, but at the core, it values the power of creativity and imagination to reinvigorate culture and transcend social limitations. The resilience of the human spirit lies in our ability to imagine.” 

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Let’s continue supporting and empowering one another to stop these horrific hair cycles. And instead, replace them with healthy portrayals of Black hair so we (and our children) no longer suffer from it. 

I believe open, honest discussion is part of good first steps.

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