My hair was ridiculed at school  but it taught me to embrace body positivity
Yanshan Zhang

As a Black girl growing up, I was ridiculed for my hair – but it's taught me a lot about body positivity 

“I could try as hard as I wanted to be like the little white girls in my class; my hair didn’t give one f[*]ck about that.”

The year is 1996. I’m nine years old. I’m attending a small Christian school, Calvary Baptist, in the suburbs in Wisconsin. There are only a handful of students of colour, probably eight at most (two of those being my brother and sister), and no other Black kids. To add even more context to this story, this is my first time attending school with other kids because I was homeschooled until the third grade. My mom educated my siblings and I at home before shipping us off to a private school, where I was required to attend chapel each week and wear skirts that covered my knees.

Did my parents want to torture me? I wonder about that myself sometimes, but ultimately, I think they believed they were giving us the best opportunities they could provide and hopefully set us up for success.

I made friends easily. My class had only twenty kids in it, so it really wasn’t that difficult. But being the only Black girl made the experience interesting, especially considering none of my classmates had previously had any Black friends. This was the kind of school where the girls in the class all invited each other to sleep over at their homes. Sleepovers were still somewhat new to me. My mom was strict, and it’s just not something we did, because she was not having it. My parents kept us at home, where they could keep their eyes on us. But somehow, once we started attending this school, they started loosening up and allowing us to stay over at friends’ houses. I had a lot of sleepovers during this time – most of them I have no recollection of. But there are two sleepovers in particular that are etched into my brain. I’m going to tell you about one of them now. 

You know how Black women have entire songs dedicated to people not touching our hair? Cue Solange’s Don’t Touch My Hair. Well, there’s a valid reason for this. I was at one of my first sleepovers at a classmate’s house, and someone asked to play in my hair. Now, the grown-ass Chrissy of today will literally swat away the hand of anyone who dares to come near my mane (and I have had to do this too many times to count in my adult life), but nine-year-old Chrissy replied, “Sure.” The next thing I know, my friend has unbraided one of my pigtails and is caressing my hair, followed quickly by shrieking, “Eww gross. Why does it feel greasy? When was the last time you washed your hair? And why does it feel so hard?”

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As you can imagine, I was embarrassed and ashamed. And to make matters worse, then everyone else wanted to feel it, only to come to the same conclusion. I literally wanted to disappear. I had already felt different prior to this moment. I was tall and Black in a world filled with average-height girls with blond and brunette hair. And thus began my complicated relationship with my hair, which would last through my twenties.

So you know what I did to compensate? For starters, I insisted that I get a perm. For Black people, a perm is a process that chemically straightens your hair. I wanted long, flowing, silky locs like my peers, not the kinky and coily hair that naturally grew from my scalp. 

Taylor Gage Photography

Next, I stopped putting moisture in my hair. For the Black women reading this, do you remember Ultra Sheen hair grease? It’s the super-thick blue hair grease that our moms used to religiously grease our scalps with. Well, I forsook Ultra Sheen because I really just didn’t want to be different. Obviously, Black hair needs moisture, probably not Ultra Sheen – but listen, our moms were doing their best. As a result, my hair got so dry that one day I was brushing my bangs and kept noticing flakes flying. At first, I thought it was dandruff flakes, but to my horror, I realized that it was actually my hair breaking off into tiny pieces because it was so dry and brittle. That was a wake-up call. 

I could try as hard as I wanted to be like the little white girls in my class; my hair didn’t give one f[*]ck about that. Needless to say, I added some moisture back to my hair-care routine after that.

That’s one of my body shame stories. If you’re not Black, you may not quite understand what my hair has to do with my body. For many Black women, myself included, hair is deeply tied to our identities. It’s tradition. It’s a form of self-expression. It’s culture. On many levels, it’s just as much who we are as our bodies. When your hair has been constantly questioned, demonised, and touched by non-melanated strangers on the streets, trust me, it's part of your story. 

From THE BODY LIBERATION PROJECT by Chrissy King, published by Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2023 by Chrissy King.