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Black Women Are Not 'High Maintenance', We’re Oppressed

Last month, for the first time in my entire life, I discovered a sustainable hair routine that produced results that didn’t make me want to cry or tear my hair out due to frustration. In fact, I sort of liked the look of it. This has never happened to me before. I am twenty-one years old.

Want to hear what I do to reach an end result I feel okay with? The technique involves washing my hair in the shower with a sulphate-free shampoo, rinsing, dousing my hair in a heavy leave-in conditioner, leaving the shower, applying several lashings of two or three different hair creams, combing with a wide-tooth comb, french-plaiting my hair and securing it with two bobbles. At this point, my hair is still soaking wet, but I can’t use a towel on it as this takes the moisture out of my already thirsty hair. I then wait two days (yes, two days, my hair is hella thick) for it to air-dry, making sure to sleep with a silk scarf or du-rag, and on the third day I take my hair out with coconut oil on my fingertips to ensure the moisture is still all locked in. Then I’ve got to wear my hair half-up and half-down on the first day of having it loose because the way the curls sit on my head doesn’t quite look natural and the curl pattern needs disrupting a bit. The resultant curls will last three or four days if I sleep with a banded ponytail and my hair covered.

This is the aforementioned routine whose results I actually feel okay with (bear in mind, I don’t even like my hair at the end of all this, I just don’t feel self-conscious and unsightly when I step out onto the street). Due to having internalised a whole load of rubbish that tells me that the way my hair grows out of my head is not presentable, as well as facing microagressions and exclusion when I do wear it naturally, this is what I have to do. This is the routine that ended all of the searing and straightening, all of the wetting and greasing, all of the teenage tears in front of the mirror. I’m mixed-race, so I’m going to go ahead and admit that in comparison to a lot of black women, I actually have it relatively easy.

This is one of the many reasons why the stereotype of black women being ‘high maintenance’ is vicious and unfair. Dismissing struggles, such as the one just described, fails to acknowledge that the reason why we might be more prone to focusing on hair, makeup, clothes and general appearance is because the standards that we must attain are set so far out of reach. We can’t just roll out of bed and have straight, swishing, white girl hair and our facial features and bodies are often societally perceived as unattractive.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that relative lack of social status might correlate with an increased desire to demonstrate legitimacy through clothes, shoes, makeup and expensive brands, regardless of financial means. Oppressed individuals also aren’t spared the ‘beautiful on the inside’ benefit of the doubt that straight, cis, white men are; black men and women are often objectified and portrayed as only being as good the sum of their physical attributes. Thus, the archetype of the brand-obsessed black woman who wears Spanx, has 100 pairs of shoes, piles on her makeup, hates breaking a sweat and won’t go swimming because she doesn’t want to mess up her expensive weave belittles our plight and demonises it.

So labelling the girl who spends hours at her dressing table contouring her nose and cheekbones as ‘vain’; rolling your eyes at the friend who wants to go check her braids for the thousandth time in the bathroom mirror; ostracising the girl whose Instagram is a sea of selfies; sneering at the friend who spends hundreds of pounds getting her hair done in an appointment that seems to take half the day; and laughing at the African American student in Mean Girls who screams ‘oh crap, my hair!’ when the sprinklers go off, misses the point entirely. The only reason we may appear to be obsessed by our looks is because white girls have a head start at reaching beauty standards, as well as maintaining higher status even when choosing to dismiss them.

Which isn’t to say that white women have it easy. Isn’t it funny how we rarely ever label men as vain? The ‘OMG I broke a nail’ trope certainly extends to white women and similarly pokes fun at the fact that societally, women are told that they have to reach a certain beauty standard to even be taken seriously.

So, before you dismiss another individual as ‘vain’, ‘narcissistic’, ‘shallow’ or ‘high maintenance’, consider that this might be your cue to check your privilege. Being ‘effortless’ isn’t easy for everyone.