Illustration by Kelly

A month ago I was riding the metro in Washington, D.C., when I locked eyes with a cuddling teenage couple sitting across from me. I smiled at them and turned on my iPod.

A few minutes later, my music-induced trance was broken when I sensed that they were talking about me. Through the strains of Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine,” I heard this high school girl with cocoa-colored skin and chemically straightened hair tell her partner that she wanted dreadlocks like mine.

In response, her boyfriend shot her a sharp look, rolled his eyes and snapped, “Really? Dreads are horrible, dirty, and ugly—especially on girls. You’ve got ‘good hair.’ If you want to stay with me, stay pretty and keep your hair straight.”

Giggling anxiously, the girl glanced at my iPod to confirm that I wasn’t listening to their conversation before reassuring him, “I was just kidding. I’ll keep my hair nice.”

I turned up the volume and took some deep breaths to calm my anger. Did they realize how hateful they sounded? As they walked off the train hand in hand, I fought the strong urge to scream, “Don’t date him, girl!”

I wish I could say this the first time I’ve overheard that kind of conversation, but it’s not. I’ve been hearing variations on it my whole life. As a southern-born African-American girl who attended predominantly white boarding schools, I am well acquainted with the sexism, racism, and colorism that shape people’s attitudes toward black hair. Strangers, friends, family, and ex-loves have tried to make me feel bad about my hair throughout my life. For a long time, it worked. But then one day I decided that I was done attaching my self-esteem to what other people think I should look like.

Although it has often been painful, the struggle to love my hair made me who I am today, and I’m grateful for that. Here’s how it went:

1980: When I was born, I had so little hair that my parents put a pink headband on my head so that people would know I was a girl. “Thank the lord she has hair now,” my grandmother still says. “She was a bald little something when she was a newborn. We were worried her hair would never grow.”

1984: My family Christmas card read “Peace on Earth” and featured a picture of me wearing tap shoes, my sequined dance costume, a toothy grin, and a huge sandy-colored Afro. I remember when my parents took the picture, and when I think of it now, I realize it was one of the last moments in my life when I felt totally confident and free, blissfully ignorant of mainstream beauty ideals or other people’s issues with my hair.

1985: I asked my mom why my hair didn’t bounce around like Punky Brewster’s curly pigtails. My mom laughed and told me that while my hair didn’t swing, it could do lots of things Punky’s couldn’t, and I should be proud of that.

I ignored her, and spent my days running around the house with a towel on my head, pretending that my short little Afro had been transformed into long, flowy locks. My mom told me not to break my neck tossing my “hair” like the white girls on TV and carefully monitored the ratio of my white Barbies to the black, Asian, and Latina dolls in my collection.

My parents had cultivated their own Afros since the ’70s and were especially sensitive about shielding me from media messages that reinforced a white beauty ideal. When they recognized that I was absorbing negative perceptions of my own hair, I received a birthday cake decorated with Rainbow Brite—with brown skin. They also gave me a copy of Camille Yarbrough’s book Cornrows to encourage me to be proud of my heritage. I loved the book because it reminded me of my original style icon, my mother, who wore beautiful braided styles and then unraveled them to reveal gorgeous waves that I envied and adored.

1987: We moved away from our mostly African-American community in South Carolina and I started grade school at a mostly white international school. After growing tired of being called “Medusa” because the ends of my cornrows were braided and decorated with the colorful beads that I loved, I finally begged my mom to fix my hair into a single French braid.

1988: During gym, we lined up to learn square dancing. I was paired with a gangly blonde boy from New Zealand who said he wanted a new partner, and not one with “cotton-candy hair. ” My cheeks burned as my classmates laughed. The teacher responded by silently walking me away from the boy and placing me with another girl as a dance partner instead.

Later that afternoon, I snuck into the bathroom so I could squeeze my afro-puffs in my hand. Did they really feel like cotton candy? My hair felt so wonderfully springy in my hands—why would that be a bad thing? A few days later, I asked my mom if I could get a “baby relaxer” from the brand Soft & Beautiful’s kiddie-perm line, Just for Me. My mom said I was too young and would have to wait until I was 10 or 11. I honestly liked my hair because it was soft and reminded me of my dad’s Afro, but I was tired of being singled out at school. While I understood my parents’ reluctance, I still to pestered them to let me relax it because I wanted to look like the other girls.

1990: During our annual family reunion, I heard one of my older cousins whisper to my straight-haired, tan-skinned multiracial grandmother, “It’s a good thing Jamia is a good talker and she’s smart, because she sure doesn’t look like much compared with her cousins.” I looked around at my family, observed the ones with lighter skin and silky hair, and contrasted it with my darker shade and kinky head. My face grew hot with anger, but I refused to give her the satisfaction of knowing she’d made me feel inferior. I thought to myself, I am smart and I’ll always be smart, and resolved to take that on as my shield.

Still, it got to me. A few months later, I convinced my mom to let me get my hair straightened. The lye in the chemical relaxer burned my scalp and my curls into what the product described as “bone-straight” submission. Thirty minutes later, I finally had hair that swung back and forth when I shook my head.

I loved feeling my hair move in the wind. But it wasn’t long before I came to resent how it would frizz up in the humid heat and kink up at the slightest hint of rain, and how the maintenance required for me to get in the pool prevented me from joining the swim team. Because I liked swimming so much, I decided to get hair extensions so I would be able to wash my hair without having to straighten and blow-dry it so often. All that fuss made me wish I had the courage to wear it in dreadlocks like my style icon, the high priestess of The Cosby Show, Lisa Bonet.

1995: Our family hairdresser, Betty, told me that I had pretty eyes like Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (RIP) and commanded me to ask my mom if I could stop getting braided extensions and get my hair relaxed instead. Betty gave me bangs to match Left Eye’s and showed me how to blow-dry my hair straight and wrap it at night. She instructed me to get $60 touch-ups every few weeks so no “nappy hairs” would ruin my look. While I had reservations about the cost and time investment required, I took her advice and basked in the compliments, even when they came in the form of underhanded comments about my natural look. I’ll never forget how, on one of my first dates, the guy looked at me and said, “Wow, with your hair straight like that you are almost beautiful.” I grimaced and turned my face away as he tried to kiss me. I wondered what he thought of his own cropped kinky coils.

1997: When I was 17, I saved money from my internships and summer job and took a trip to the city to get a “Hawaiian Silky” human-hair weave. My boarding school roommates named the weave “Baywatch Barbie,” as if it had an identity of its own. I noticed that the attention I received from boys skyrocketed. It made me feel ill that the weave made such a difference. Did these boys like me or my fake hair?

I waited too long to take the weave out—I wanted to get the most for my money!—and when I did, it had become matted to my head. Getting it off required me to rip out clumps of real hair and made my scalp irritated and flaky. I began considering putting an end to my war with my natural hair.

1998: I started my freshman year of college at American University in D.C. with a fresh new head of braid extensions. Even though I thought I had learned my lesson with the weave debacle of 1997, I was afraid to wear my hair free when starting college. After so many years of hiding it, I felt vulnerable wearing it natural and guilty for not being able to stomach the prospect of being marginalized or judged for the way I looked.

In my Dissident Media course in the communications department, I was assigned a research project on censorship in schools. I read up on the media controversy surrounding Carolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair, a children’s book that de-stigmatizes and celebrates natural hair. Even though I spent my time in school passionately arguing that Herron’s book be taught in schools despite parental objection, I still wasn’t brave enough to bare (or bear!) my own hair. I spent half of the money I earned at the computer lab and babysitting on extensions that took hours to braid into my curls, to make sure I looked “presentable.”

This same year, an elderly professor pulled me into his office and told me that I could have a long career in broadcast journalism because I was “articulate” and have a “young face that will ensure a longer shelf life as a female reporter.” But he also warned me that I could never work with my hair in braids and instructed me to think about changing my hairstyle to fit in more with more “professional” looks worn by other black women on TV.

I didn’t want to choose between my job and my hairstyle, so a few months later I switched my major to print, and then finally to public relations. I regret how much I took that professor’s words to heart, but I am also grateful for them. That interaction gave me a final push to begin pursing my passion, feminist media activism.

1999: I went to go see feminist royalty bell hooks read at Vertigo Books for the launch of her children’s book Happy to Be Nappy, a beautiful story about brown girls celebrating and embracing their natural hair texture. Paging through the book, I was delighted to see girls and boys of all colors using positive words to describe “nappy” hair.

On the internet, I discovered Nappturality, one of the earliest online communities devoted to natural hair. For the next five years, I visited this site every day to read stories and messages from women who were transitioning their hair from chemical relaxers and hair extensions to Afros, natural twists, and dreadlocks.

I longed to try dreadlocks, but my fear of being judged and ridiculed held me back—so every few months I forked over almost as much money as my rent to get my hair done.

In the meantime, I pasted pictures of Lisa Bonet and Lauryn Hill into my journal with the goal of inspiring myself to take the plunge and do what I knew in my heart I needed to do—stop hiding my real hair.

2004: After I broke up with a boyfriend who told me that I couldn’t pull off short hair or dreads, I cut all my hair off. I washed that man out of my hair, and years of self-loathing and racist conditioning went down the drain, too. For a week I went around town holding my Afro’d head high, loving the feeling of the air on my neck and the lightness of not having fake hair on my head. As my hair grew longer, I finally did what I’d been secretly longing to do for years, and started twisting it into dreads.

I wondered what took me so long. My hair was healthier and stronger than ever, and while most people complimented the change, others still asked whether my hair was clean, real, or fake. My grandma, always the head member of the hair police, asked me if she could pay me $50 to press and iron my hair back to “nice and normal.”

2005: While riding the metro in D.C., I felt a strange tug. I whipped around to see a white man in a business suit standing behind me with a smug look on his face. “I’ve always wanted to touch that kind of hair and wondered what it felt like,” he said, oblivious to my disgust.

A few months later, I was flirting with the gorgeous, shaved-head son of a family friend when he asked, “Do you always wear your hair in braids or locks? Do you think you will ever change it? You’re so pretty, so I was just wondering if it will always be like that—you could be even prettier.” I responded by rolling my eyes, laughing, and sniping: “People with no hair shouldn’t tell people with hair how to wear it.”

I realized then that my new style was a great litmus test for evaluating dating prospects. If a guy was going to try to change my hair, he was probably going to try to control me in other ways. If he was superficial enough to tell me how to style my hair, he was probably lacking the depth I was looking for in a partner.

2007: I was racing to a graduate school class at NYU when a homeless man began his catcalls. When I ignored his compliments, he began serenading me: “You dirty-dreads bitch, oh dirty dreads.” I ignored him in the moment but went back to my apartment raging inside. I went over and over all of the things I wished that I’d yelled at him, and then felt guilty about giving a random street harasser so much of my precious time and energy.

A few weeks later, the radio host Don Imus called Rutgers University’s mostly black women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” and I once again felt the weight of the culture of racist misogyny that fills our streets and our airwaves.

2010: When I heard Sesame Street’s natural-haired brown Muppet girl sing “I Love My Hair,” which includes the lyrics “Wear a clippy or in a bow / Or let it sit in an Afro / My hair looks good in a cornrow!” I wished that I had such a tune to hum when I was a child. Joey Mazzarino, the head writer of Sesame Street, told NPR that he produced the segment because his adopted Ethiopian daughter “wanted to have long blond hair and straight hair, and she wanted to be able to bounce it around.” It made me sad to see how little had changed for African-American girls since my days running around with the towel on my head, and grateful that this man, for one, was encouraging his daughter to love her natural hair.

2011: A friend’s five-year-old son looked at me with big blue eyes and asked, “Mia, why do you wear your hair so crazy?” I pointed to his wavy blond hair and said, “Well, why do you wear your hair so crazy? I love my hair.” He smiled and said, “I love your hair, also.” I told him that I loved his curls, too.

2012: Even though having dreadlocks seems more mainstream now—I see more people than ever before wearing them on the streets and on TV—I still get tons of questions about my hair from young women of color who are contemplating going natural.

I am still frequently asked the following questions:

Q: So…how long have you had your locks?
A: Eight years.

Q: Is it all yours?
A: Yes.

Q: Can you wash your hair?
A: Yes.

Q: It looks really clean. Are you sure it isn’t braids?
A: Yes. It is really “clean” and it is not braids.

Q: Can I feel it?
A. Maybe, if I like you. No, if I don’t.

Q: What does it feel like?
A: Hair.

Q: Does it hurt? [Often said while tugging at one of my locks without asking.]
A: No. But yes, if you pull it hard like you just did.

Q: Have you ever had difficulty finding a job because of it?
A: No, not that I know of.

While I still get these questions pretty frequently, I am less bothered these days by how other people respond to my hair. While the world hasn’t changed that much since I started dealing with my own internalized racism, I have shifted my attitude to embrace my hair rather than resist it.

It’s still a challenging choice to make, but nowadays there are many supportive and dynamic online communities and spaces for women transitioning to and maintaining natural hair. I keep visiting these sites to hear about other women’s experiences with going natural, because their stories give me hope that we are (slowly but surely) getting better at accepting beauty in all its forms.

The days when my hair defined me are over, but my ’do still reminds me of the changes I’ve made, the growth and the pain. My awesome dreads represent my hard-won liberation from expectations, judgment, self-hate, and racist and sexist conditioning. For that, I am grateful to my hair. Today, as Rookie writer Danielle says on her personal bio page, I wear it natural “on purpose.” ♦