At 27, I Still Hide My Natural Hair. Here's Why.

I can count on one hand the number of people who have seen me without a weave.
A recent photo of the author.
A recent photo of the author.
Courtesy of Carolyn Copeland

I wear a partial weave. That means part of the hair on my head is mine and the other part came from the scalp of some random woman in India.

With the exception of family members, I can count on one hand the number of people who have seen me without a weave. I have been wearing partial weaves since high school and didn’t begin admitting it to people until just a few years ago. I worried people would assume I was a fraud or that it would unveil deeper insecurities. I am a 27-year-old half-black, half-white woman. When my hair isn’t straightened and my weave is taken out, my hair is curly and frizzy.

I have a complicated relationship with my hair, to say the least. It has always been challenging for me to love and accept it. Even though I grew up in the diverse San Francisco Bay Area, my inner circle didn’t include many people who looked like me. I attended Catholic school for 13 years and was the only African-American student in my class until I reached high school. Although I was rarely treated differently because of my race, it did make me feel inferior in some areas. The biggest area: vanity.

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I was surrounded by mostly white girls with gorgeous, straight hair. I was always envious of how their hair would move when they walked or turned their head. Even Black Barbie had straight hair.

My hair was extremely difficult to maintain as I was growing up. My mother, who is white, eventually had to recruit my dad’s grandmother to teach her how to manage and style it. I spent countless mornings wincing in the bathroom before school as my mom attempted to comb through the knots.

The author as a young child.
The author as a young child.
Courtesy of Carolyn Copeland

My insecurity with my hair first developed in the second grade. One day at recess, a few of the girls in my class thought it would be fun to style each other’s hair. I decided to join in and let the girls undo my braided pigtails and restyle it for me. It was the first time I had ever worn my hair down at school. I remember my friends giggling as they ran their hands through my little Afro. I don’t think they had ever felt hair like mine before. In that moment, I didn’t think twice about letting my hair down.

When we returned to class that day, my teacher began passing out worksheets for our next assignment. As she made her way down my row of desks, she noticed my hair. She looked concerned as she made her way over to me.

“Did your mother say you could wear your hair down?” she asked. Thinking I might be in trouble, I shook my head no. “Oh,” she replied. “Let me find a hairband so you can fix it.”

Fix it. Like there was something wrong with it. I was humiliated. None of the other girls in my class were told to fix their hair. I put my head down on my desk and did my best to hold back tears. It was the first time my hair had ever triggered a negative response from someone. I couldn’t understand why all the other girls in my class could style their hair any way they wanted, but when I did it, it wasn’t OK.

In hindsight, my teacher probably thought she was helping. I had come to school that morning with adorably braided pigtails that my mom had spent a long time styling. Perhaps she thought my hair looked nice that day and worried I might get in trouble for ruining it. Regardless, my 7-year-old mind couldn’t decipher the difference between judgment and legitimate concern. That negative reaction has been burned into my memory for 20 years.

“I remember in second grade when my friends giggled as they ran their hands through my little Afro. I don’t think they had ever felt hair like mine before.”

When I finally got braids in the third grade, I was elated. It was the first time I ever felt confident about my appearance. Then, a year later, the braids were put in my head too tight, which caused chunks of my hair to fall out. The only recourse was to shave my entire head. That experience seriously punctured my self-esteem.

Once I got to middle school, I began straightening and styling my own hair. In high school, I began experimenting with partial weaves. That’s when I learned that it looked more natural for me to blend my own hair with someone else’s.

But even though I started feeling better about my appearance as I got older, my insecurity still surfaced at times. In college, I went to an amusement park with a group of friends. After going on a few roller coasters, the group decided to go on a water ride. Since I didn’t want to hold people back from having a good time, I reluctantly agreed. During the ride, a big wave of water splashed down on my head. Within a few minutes, my curly hair started peeking through my weave. My friends jokingly teased me about it the rest of the day. Granted, it was all in good fun and none of them had any clue how insecure I was about it. Still, I was embarrassed. I bought a $30 hat that I never wore again just to cover it up.

I could say, “Screw what people think. I’ll wear my hair any way I want,” but that decision can be risky in a work environment. In 2016, the Perception Institute released a study that confirmed that black woman experience hair bias in the workplace and that wearing it naturally can be a career liability. Researchers also said that black women have higher anxiety rates about their hair than white women. I certainly fit into this category.

I would never consider going into a job interview with my natural hair. If I did, I’m certain it would drastically decrease my chances of being hired. If I woke up one morning and decided to run a comb through my hair and head to work, it would look unprofessional to those around me. Regardless of how “woke” or enlightened my colleagues may be, I personally feel that it would harm me professionally in the long run. I can only assume other black women feel the same way. To my recollection, I have never worked with a black woman who wore her hair naturally.

“I would never consider going into a job interview with my natural hair. If I did, I’m certain it would drastically decrease my chances of being hired.”

I still never know how to respond when people compliment my hair. I used to respond by saying, “Thanks, I got it on sale!” But that response generates some perplexed looks and is typically followed by a slew of questions I don’t feel like answering. So now I simply thank them and digress.

I wish I could say a lot has changed since my childhood. As much as I want to believe I have grown past the insecure way of thinking that I grew up with, I have a long way to go. I straighten my hair and wear a weave because I genuinely like the way it looks and it makes my hair easier to manage. However, even if weaves weren’t my preferred hairstyle choice, I would still feel obligated to straighten it or style my hair in a way that is more socially acceptable.

Occasionally, I’ll leave the house and make a run to the store just after I wash my hair and before I’ve had time to style it. It took me a while to work up the courage to do even that, and I still consider it a victory. However, if I catch a glimpse of someone I know, it takes a lot of inner strength to avoid ducking into a different aisle. The thought of someone else seeing my hair in its natural state is terrifying.

My insecurity about my hair is certainly improving, but it’s a work in progress. I’m taking baby steps to force myself out of my comfort zone and allow people to see my real hair. But until the day comes that I’m comfortable with it, I’ll always be envious of the women of color who fearlessly reveal their natural locks.

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