It’s tough being a curly girl in a straight haired world.
We love Shirley Temple and the Huxtable girls for their part in teaching young girls to love and embrace their curly textured tresses. And we adore women like Sarah Jessica Parker and Tamera Mowry-Housley who proudly rock their natural hair and are role models to younger girls. There is even a market for natural hair Barbie dolls that come in all shades and textures. But with all this societal affirmation that natural hair is a-ok, what’s a young girl to do when she’s told that her natural hair is a “distraction”?
That’s what allegedly happened to a 12-year-old girl in Orlando, FL not long ago. As reported by WKMG-TV, honor student Vanessa VanDyke, who sports an adorably full and fluffy ‘fro, complained that she was being teased by fellow students about her hair. According to the report, the school’s solution was to suggest that Vanessa’s parents either straighten or cut their daughter's hair, as it was a "distraction" to the other kids.
As controversy over the story quickly spread nationwide, the school issued a statement clarifying that Vanessa was not in danger of expulsion and that straightening or cutting her hair was not required. However, they still required that her parents “style her hair within the guidelines according to the school handbook” which states that “hair must be a natural color and must not be a distraction" and goes on to provide examples like mohawks, shaved designs and rat tails. It also states specifically that girl’s hair “must be out of the eyes, clean and well groomed at all times” with no faddish haircuts allowed.
But nowhere is there any guideline so specific as to ban certain naturally occurring hair textures and growth patterns.
Taren Guy is a natural hair expert whose YouTube videos on natural hair have racked up nearly 20 million views and amassed over 191,000 followers and counting. She said via Google Hangout how confusing the "distraction" comment seemed to her. “In my opinion, that’s kind of saying well my blue eyes are distracting, or my brown eyes are distracting. It is just as natural as eye color, skin color or whatever is natural about yourself.”
In defense of their daughter, Vanessa's parents made the argument that “African American hair grows out. It doesn’t grow down.” And recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology backs up those claims. For the first time, researchers developed the very first detailed model for a 3-D strand of curly hair. According to the research, "as a strand of hair curls up from the bottom, its 2-D hook grows larger until it becomes unstable under its own weight and falls out of plane to become a 3-D helix."
In not-so-fancy-physics terms, what this basically means is that curly hair shafts, particularly ones like Vanessa's that extend the length of the head and longer, form a 3-D global helix. With that their behavior is naturally more complex and unpredictable than that of their pin straight counterparts.
Vanessa’s story isn’t the first and likely not the last in which naturally textured hair is at the center of a storm of controversy.
Remember the Ohio school that came under fire for banning "afro-puffs and small twisted braids, with our without rubberbands" per their student handbook, natural styles that are fairly typical for young black girls?
Or the Milwaukee teacher who was suspended and charged with disorderly conduct after chopping off a first-grader's beaded box-braid. Apparently, because the girl wouldn't stop playing with her hair.
And the Tulsa school who reduced a little girl to tears after telling her she could not wear dreadlocks to school, as such styles could "distract from the respectful and serious atmosphere (the school) strives for."
Note: That same little girl got a special shout out from Melissa Harris-Perry, and her new school thinks her locs are just fine!
And while adults can be strong in the face of scrutiny from their peers over their natural hair choices, it is disheartening when such criticisms and put-downs are directed towards young, adolescent girls who are in their most delicate years in terms of self-esteem and self-image. As research from New York University's Child Study Center points out, "girls ages 8–12 are more worried about being teased and made fun of than they are about being attacked with a weapon or being kidnapped."
Maiya Batie, who is known to her hundreds of thousands of followers as MaiChickBad, is both a social media influencer on natural hair and a stylist in the Washington, DC area. She specializes in natural hair care with clients whose hair ranges from pin straight to the curliest of kinks. She notes that in recent years, she has been encouraged by an increasing number of clients wanting to know more about caring for their children's naturally textured hair.
Maiya shared via Google Hangout that she was just six years old when a chemical relaxer was first applied to her hair. “I attempted to go natural two other times, but at the age of 21 it finally clicked to me that this is my hair, this is how God made me and I just embraced it. So for (Vanessa’s family) to have nurtured her to embrace herself at such a young age, that is amazing to me. And that’s what we need in our community.”
Taren also faced similar pressures as a young girl. “I wanted to perm my hair very early on and I did get my first relaxer at about 12-years-old because I wanted to look like everyone else. I had big poofy hair and I didn’t think it was beautiful when I was younger. I wish that I had that kind of support when I was young so that I wouldn’t have to find out maybe in my mid 20’s that oh wow, maybe this is beautiful.”
Taren and Maiya, as well as other natural hair experts, share similar feelings of responsibility to encourage young girls to embrace their natural hair as a positive choice.
“As role models, we just have to be confident ourselves, and that will really rub off on people, especially the younger generation, “ Maiya says, “when they see adults wearing their natural hair and being proud of who we are, then hopefully they will follow in our footsteps and just love themselves.”
Taren recalled a time when a young fan, also named Taren, sent her a heartfelt video thanking her for inspiring her to also embrace her natural hair.
“Taren, my name is Taren too! And I just want to say that because I watched your videos, I LOVE my poofy hair!” Taren said when happily recalling the touching message.
“You never know who you’re inspiring when you’re being yourself.”
So what’s a kinky curly kid to do in a society that still tends to label their natural hair as unkempt, unprofessional, unattractive, or even “distracting?”
1. Own it and love it
Vanessa’s parents should be commended for teaching their daughter that she is fine just the way she is. By refusing to bend and change her hair, she’s teaching other girls to accept and embrace themselves for who they are. “If you’re fine with it and you’re comfortable and confident, it bounces off and other people just accept it, like oh yeah! That afro IS kinda cool!” said Taren.
2. Whether straight, kinky, curly, or relaxed, confidence is the best accessory
Choosing to wear your natural hair is a choice, and it’s one that should be embraced and accepted just as readily as any others. “A lot of emphasis is placed on hair and the value of a woman’s hair,” Maiya shares, “But if you want to shave it, curl it, straighten it, just be confident. Be you, be happy. Love you. Nobody is going to love you until you love yourself.”
3. Remember, it’s okay (and awesome) to be yourself, even when being yourself makes you different!
When asked about her full, fluffy hair, Vanessa told the station "It says that I'm unique…It's puffy and I like it that way." Vanessa may have been partially inspired by Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” the perfect girl-power anthem. The uber stylish offspring of power couple Will and Jada Smith has always stood out from the crowd. We’ve seen her rocking (and whipping) long braids, afro puffs, and even shaving all her hair off at one point. When asked what the song means, Smith told MTV very simply:
"Whip My Hair means don't be afraid to be yourself and don't let anybody tell you that that's wrong. Because the best thing is you."