Natural Hair and the Importance of Role Models
I love my hair.
This month, for the first time in a year, I wore my natural hair.
While that in itself may not be considered a feat for some, for me, however, it was. Anyone who knows me — from past colleagues, to really close friends — knows that it’s usually a battle for my hair to come out. For instance, last year, I had promised myself I’d wear it more often, but only got round to doing so once. This year, I promised the same, however, without fail, as the time approached to get my hair done I’d go back on that decision. Weeks crept into months and eventually months became a year.
I’d sometimes sneak in a “wear” to the gym, the salon or running general errands on the weekend, testing the limits of my (self)acceptance; and while I learned to like what I saw a bit more each time, I loved the comfort of having it hidden better.
This post is not about hair.
I don’t remember the first time my hair was relaxed, but I remember clearly the sting from the relaxer. I had a sensitive scalp and so I was always filled with dread when the time for relaxing my hair came.
How much would it hurt this time, was all I could think about. In an unwanted twist of fate, I seemed to have the toughest hair in the family. What this meant was that the relaxer had to be on for slightly longer.
Like I said earlier, this post isn’t about hair, not entirely.
I grew up in a small, close-knit family with an older brother and a younger sister. While growing up, we weren’t raised with the consciousness of limitations. If you decided on something then you could very well be it. We were pretty much well rounded and my normal was topping the class, usually top 2, and in a bad year, three.
Other activities were no different — acting, debating, well, everything except sports. But then, we had good role models, my parents were very active in our academic lives and when we were in primary school my Mum actually won Mother of the Year twice.
As with my experience at school where being good academically was the default, so it was with my hair. I assumed that was the norm. Relaxing your hair was something you did because that was how hair was treated. I didn’t know there was any other way to be.
Coming of Age
Very early on in my career as a person in the tech industry, I didn’t fully understand the scope of the drive behind the desire to get more women into tech. I was studying Software Engineering, was still one of the good students and this was my reality. I believed that if you wanted something bad enough, all you had to do was go after it and get it.
And then it Hit Me
A male friend and I one day were in one of the computer labs catching up after class. Another classmate, who was also male walked up to us and proceeded to ask my friend if he understood a particular topic. My friend responded in the negative and our classmate promptly walked away. I was shocked. There I was, sitting next to both of them and no one thought to ask me. And guess what I knew the answer too, by the way.
Years later, thinking about my hair, I would finally connect the dots and fully appreciate the scale of the challenge. Like with my hair, it wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t wear my hair out. It’s that I didn’t know I could. I finally understood what it was with Technology and other fields predominantly male-dominated. Often times, it’s not that people feel that they can’t pursue a career in a certain field, it’s that they don’t even know that they can.
It’s a very subtle difference. In the first case, you’ve considered that perhaps you could, but have come to the conclusion that you can’t. In the second instance, it does not even occur to you that you can consider that as an option.
Role Models Wanted
The second more positive example was during a 5-week professional fellowship a few years ago. I was the youngest of the women in my group, half of which were married. Up until that point, I had always actively thought about my career but had never really given thought to what balancing that with a family would look like.
It was refreshing to see women who had spouses and kids of varying ages, still able to make time out to pursue their professional dreams, all while receiving support from their partners. The conversations were rather enlightening as I began to learn and think a bit more about maternity leave policies, forming a support group, etc.
The importance of Role Models
Media has a strong hold on us, much stronger than we’re probably willing to admit. While the term may have been abused and misunderstood, role models are important because they subconsciously give us permission and confidence to be ourselves.
It’s a concept that is sometimes hard to explain because it’s one of those things you don’t realize you don’t have until you do. Seeing women fully assume leadership positions, front and center — Wonder Woman; seeing a fully African, if fictitious planet, highly developed — Black Panther. The subtle message is having someone give you the silent go-ahead that it’s okay and more importantly possible to want or achieve a particular thing.
Role models, by all means, aren’t card box templates we need to fit ourselves into, neither are they perfect individuals that are infallible, but they offer glimpses of what our possibilities could look like if we so desired. So here’s to everyone, who by just being themselves end up paving the way for others.