Embracing My Natural Hair Was The Most Empowering Thing I've Ever Done

I wanted to reclaim myself, reclaim my heritage, stamp my foot to say this is me
Lekia Lee
HuffPost UK

Growing up in Bolton and Manchester in the 1970s, I was teased quite a lot about my skin colour. Being black and everything associated to it was ridiculed and I wondered what it would be like to look different, have a different skin, have different hair.

I was so relieved when I moved to Nigeria aged eight with my mum, because everyone’s skin was the same - I didn’t get teased anymore. I was happy to be just me.

Or so I thought. When I hit 16, I couldn’t wait to have beautiful hair. At my school in Nigeria all chemical hair relaxers and extensions were banned but as soon as you finished school at 16, you changed your hair. No self-respecting young lady was expected to have natural afro hair. So I started relaxing it, because that’s what everyone else did and that’s how you looked beautiful whatever your skin colour.

So began the cycle of self-inflicted agony every six weeks. The relaxing chemicals were always very painful - my scalp would get burnt and it would hurt like mad. But I thought it was something you had to do. In all the images I saw in every magazine - not just in all the mainstream magazines, but in the black magazines like Ebony and Essence too - everybody had straight hair.

When I returned to the UK in 1995 and started working in the media, everyone else was doing it, too. So I continued with my painful relaxing routine to disguise my natural curls.

But then I became interested in history. I started reading about British and African history and I became more aware of colonisation and how it affected African culture. I realised we had been made to see beauty through the eyes of colonisation and that the ethics of beauty were Eurocentric.

I remember when I was 10, I kept dreaming about what it would be like to be a white girl. I was teased about my nose as well as my skin and hair - what would my life be like if my nose, my skin, my hair was different? What would my world be like if I was white?

I’ve been told so many times by different people to bleach my skin. I’ve always resisted it as I felt it would be betraying who I was. But there I was, straightening hair - why was I betraying myself?

Aged 28, I had an epiphany. I didn’t see why I should be hurting myself every six weeks or covering my hair. So I cut off all my relaxed hair and let my hair grow naturally.

Black women kept asking me why I’d cut it.

But it gave me a sense of power I hadn’t had before. I wanted to reclaim myself, reclaim my heritage, stamp my foot to say this is me. I’d never thought of myself as beautiful. Now I was going to look at beauty through different eyes. I felt proud to say that with my natural hair, this is me. I Am Enough.

It set me on my mission to spread the message to all black women or anyone with curly hair, to embrace your natural locks - you are enough.

At first, I didn’t know how to handle my natural hair, to be honest I didn’t really like how my natural hair looked. But I soon learned how to love it and take care of it - there are so many products you can use and there’s lots of free advice out there on the internet.

But I always say the most effective transformation is in your mind, not the products you use. African women have been looking after their hair for millennia after all.

There are so many different styles too for natural hair - you can cornrow it, plait it, put it in a bun, have it in a puff, you name it.

I remember a friend saying to me, puzzled: “Now that you’re natural, what are you going to do with it?” My friend at the time constantly straightened hers. I said to her: “How many different hair style have you had in the last year?” And she laughed and said: “Okay, okay, I get it!”

So many of us women are not accepting ourselves because we compare ourselves to other women. But with your own unique look, you are beautiful, too. Embracing yourself and accepting your beauty is the best way of giving yourself confidence and I truly believe the most beautiful women are confident women.

Of course, it’s a personal choice, but using relaxers, weaves, extensions or wigs damages your hair. Naomi Campbell suffers from permanent bald patches as a result and it’s probably behind Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss, too. Afro hair is very delicate and breaks easily because of the curls. I’ve seen so many women and even children losing their hair mainly due to traction alopecia.

I believe when people see natural afro hair looking positively beautiful often enough, they will be able to accept their own hair and other people will see it as beautiful too.

That’s the idea with Project Embrace’s #afrovisibility current UK-wide billboard campaign - if you see people with natural afro hair over and over, it becomes normalised.

This is why we want black women and girls and anyone else with curly hair, to feel confident in the skin they are in and the hair that that they wear.

In the legend of Samson, when his hair was cut, he lost his power. But I got mine cut and gained mine. And when you feel empowered, you can achieve anything...

How It Feels is ongoing blogs project, which aims to shine a light on people’s stories, covering subjects where voices are rarely heard. If you want to get involved, please email ukblogteam@huffpost.com


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