The night before my high school senior portrait day, I sat on my bathroom floor, flat iron in hand, crying. My mom had gone out with a friend that night, and I was left to straighten my hair on my own. Looking back, I’m grateful that my mom refused to entertain my beliefs that straight hair is more beautiful. However, in that moment, I felt abandoned. I didn’t straighten my hair often enough to know how to reach the back of my head with my flat iron, and my mom’s refusal to cancel her plans with her friend and stay home to straighten my hair felt like betrayal. “She doesn’t understand how important this is,” I thought. “This is a special occasion; I can’t go looking like this!” This, of course, was my natural curly hair, and this was, of course, long before I wrote my debut photojournalism book, My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories from the Sisterhood in response to my sister Khloe being bullied for having an afro.
I found out flat irons existed at the start of middle school, and after that it was game on. I straightened my hair for almost every special occasion: school dances, prom, graduation… You name it. If the event was special -- if it was to be documented -- my hair was straight. This trend lasted through the first two years of college, and my peers’ comments about how pretty my straightened hair was only reinforced what I already thought I knew: My curls aren’t good enough.
Given the emphasis on physical appearance over pretty much everything else in our society, I don’t blame myself for wanting straight hair, for rejecting the gift of my curls that my ancestors passed onto me. I don’t regret straightening my hair for special events, because at the time, that’s what my younger self thought she had to do in order to be beautiful. But I’m not my younger self anymore.
So, how did I learn to love my natural hair in a world that tells Black girls our curls are not beautiful? Well, I’m sure it was a lot of things -- both conscious and subconscious -- but there are two moments that stand out in particular. The first was my time in the Ecuadorian Amazon in 2016, when I spent several weeks living with the local community. My days consisted of eating food from the land, going on long hikes through the rainforest, and jumping off the bridge into the river below, which doubled as a shower since there was no running water. And perhaps most importantly, there were no mirrors around me. I was forced to define myself in terms of how I felt, how I related to nature, how I interacted with those around me -- not by my physical appearance. I became, in a sense, a more genuine version of myself. A few months after I got back to the States, I got married -- and the thought of straightening my hair for the wedding didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t realize it until my mom pointed it out months later: This was my first special event for which I didn’t want to straighten my hair.
The second moment that stands out came in 2018, when I started working on My Beautiful Black Hair. During my last semester of college, I’d gotten a phone call from my father in France: my little sister Khloe, who was only four years old at the time, was being bullied by her classmates; they called her afro ugly, and she was so ashamed that she didn’t want to go back to school the next day. When it became clear that her white teachers weren’t going to stop the bullying or make it a “teaching moment,” I took matters into my own hands. “If Khloe can see that there’s a huge community of Black women and girls who love and embrace their natural hair,” I thought, “then she’ll realize that her natural hair is worthy of love, too.”
I set out to document a few Black women -- maybe a dozen -- and interview them about their natural hair stories. But what started as a small book idea transformed into a large-scale visual photojournalism book documenting the photos and stories of 101 Black women with natural hair. For the next few years, I photographed and interviewed Black women of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities, and cultures who all shared one thing in common: a deep sense of love and appreciation for their natural hair.
The women I interviewed shared stories about the “big chop,” about learning to embrace their kinks and their curls, about their family members’ various reactions to them going natural, about the ways in which they’re teaching the next generation of Black girls to love themselves unapologetically. Most of the women had gotten perms at some point, and many had started getting them when they were still children and didn’t even know what their natural hair texture was until they stopped perming their hair as adults. When Francesca Polanco, one of the women I interviewed, went natural, she said, “It was like I was meeting myself for the first time.” She explained that she only truly started embracing her Blackness -- and becoming engaged in issues that affect the Black community -- when she went natural. “My hair has helped me find who I am.”
This was a common theme amongst the women I photographed and interviewed: the idea that our hair can be, in a way, a part of our identity. As Black women, we are not beautiful in spite of our kinks and our curls, but rather because of them. Our natural hair is a gift from our ancestors -- a gift so powerful, no amount of colonization or slavery could steal it from us.
I set out to create this book for my sister Khloe -- and she loves her natural hair now because of it -- but little did I know I was also creating this book for myself. I didn’t know how much I was longing for affirmation that my natural hair is beautiful, is professional, is worthy of love. The Black women featured in my book not only affirmed my sister -- they also affirmed me.
Now, it’s hard to imagine a time when I would cry over my curly hair. I look back, and I want to hug the little girl sitting on her bathroom floor, flat iron in hand, crying. I want to look her in the eyes and tell her she’s beautiful. I want to remind her that her hair is a representation of all her Black ancestors who came before her. And I want her to know that there’s an entire community of Black women who have hair just like hers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: St. Clair Detrick-Jules, author of My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories from the Sisterhood (Chronicle Books, September 2021), is an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, and natural hair activist. Her work has been featured in Allure Magazine, Glamour UK, and BuzzFeed News, among others.