In an ideal world, our bedroom mirror would be a playground. But as black women we know that it is rarely that simple. Each choice we make about our hair or personal style is often linked to a wider context to do with navigating European standards of beauty, respectability politics and how we carve out our identities in a country where our natural hair is still the subject of debate, discussion and petitions to include afro-textured hair as a protected characteristic and stop school children being excluded for their hairstyles.
The attitude we have towards our appearance is shaped from a young age, which is why for 15 years the Dove Self-Esteem Project has been delivering self-esteem education to over 60 million young people in 142 countries around the world. The programme is delivered through schools, youth leaders and parents, as well as directly through media, and Dove has a mission to reach a quarter of a billion young people by 2030. As part of Refinery29’s Self-Service partnership with Dove, Black Ballad asked four black women from around the UK to talk us through their personal style as a means of self expression and how their self-esteem and identity has developed over the years.
It’s easy to put blocks on yourself to remain safely within your comfort zone.
Growing up I struggled with needing to have ‘permission’ and validation from others to wear things like high heels (I felt too tall) and lipstick (I thought it didn’t suit my lips) amongst other things.
In my teens, at 5ft 9in, I felt like I was always the tallest person in a group and felt conscious of adding to my height, secretly wishing I was shorter so that I could wear heels and not tower above most people. I wanted to be average and blend in.
In my twenties, I would look in admiration at women who wore heels that were my height or taller. I secretly wished I had their confidence. By the time I hit my thirties, I grew tired of playing it safe and wanted to try the things I had been avoiding due to my lack of confidence. I look back at my younger self and wonder what took me so long, but I recognise that when you’re sensitive and lacking in confidence, it’s easy to put blocks on yourself to remain safely within your comfort zone.
I tend to wear my natural hair in a ‘braid out’, which in itself is something of a style statement. I’ve been wearing my hair this way on-and-off for well over 10 year, which was uncommon to see back then. In my own family natural hair was to be tucked away, kept in plaits, canerows and under wigs and weaves. To have it out, in the way that I wear mine, always prompts disappointing looks of disdain from my gran and her generation. I often get comments like, “When are you going to do something with that hair?!”
The lack of love for me rocking my hair wasn't discouraging to me – I was done with spending lots of time and money at the hairdresser to get my hair chemically straightened only to have it become thin and break off due to damage. Some people have the overwhelming desire to reach out and touch it and for some reason ask me how often I wash my hair, but all in all, comments are usually positive – although I will occasionally get random silly statements from white folks, shouting out things like, “Sideshow Bob!”
Wearing my hair how I want is an instant boost to my self-esteem because it reminds me that I have let go of the idea that I can only wear my hair in a particular way to feel confident and socially accepted, which for me is empowering. The interesting thing about change is that people around you can unknowingly trigger your self-doubt with their seemingly innocent remarks. The key is not to think too much about any comments, good or bad, because in doing so you are essentially saying that how you feel about yourself is tethered to someone else’s opinion, which is never good.
I began to appreciate my beauty, embrace my size and love myself for the person I was on the inside.
Growing up in Liverpool during the 80s and 90s, the standards of beauty I measured against were limited. I attended primary school with four other black children; for Liverpool during those times that was considered diverse. Despite the lack of representation at school or in the media in those days, I felt assured and confident in my sense of identity and culture – values instilled by my first generation Senegalese father and Sicilian mother. Amongst my Sicilian family I knew some frowned upon my mum’s choice of African husband, but I felt so proud of my African heritage their ignorance didn’t bother me.
It became apparent the older I got that ‘beautiful’ is defined differently by different cultures. On my Senegalese side, big was beautiful as weight signified good living. However in Liverpool’s white majority, where size 8 was the normalised standard of beauty, that sentiment wasn’t shared. I was always bigger than my school friends, and obviously different.
Being bigger crushed my self-esteem internally for a while, although outwardly I looked happy and confident. During those years I remember longing to wear what my friends were wearing but the styles simply wouldn’t suit my shape. So I began making my own outfits. I’d have an image in my mind of how I wanted to look and instead of achieving it by buying off the shelf – which would be too short, too tight or whatever – I’d recreate the look using alternatives.
I’d cut, change, sew and alter my mum’s clothes, use fabrics that I’d buy from the haberdasher or from my collection of wax prints. I’d also ‘borrow’ from my older brother’s designer collection before unisex styling was a thing, and take pieces from my mum and grandmother such as silk shirts and oversized knits. During this period I developed my understanding of two things: how to dress for my shape and my personal sense of style and creativity. I enjoyed not dressing the exact same as my friends while still incorporating aspects of trends. Creating my own outfits and dressing to my individual taste reinforced my self-esteem and individuality.
At 18 I moved to London for university, and was completely astonished by the change in social norms. Curves were celebrated, mainly because I immediately socialised in all-black circles. I began to appreciate my beauty, embrace my size and love myself for the person I was on the inside. Drawing inspiration from two rich cultures that are a part of me, the classic, simple elegance of Italian style combined with the colourful, vibrant Senegalese styles to create my own look. Dressing to my size and shape, and celebrating my personal style makes me feel good every day. It’s now my duty to instil this in my own daughter.
It wasn’t until I started braiding my own hair that I found my true sense of feminine individuality.
As a child, my expression was quite stifled. I grew up mostly in church where I was forced to wear items that constantly made me feel self conscious – more so, I wasn’t allowed to wear trousers. It was around seven years old when I became painfully aware of my body shape and was bullied for it at times, so my main style focus was to cover up. Outside of church I appeared the opposite – a tomboy with no real ounce of femininity. My mum would complain about my clothing choices and often try to encourage me to be more ‘girly'. Instead, I hid behind comfort, eventually concluding that society’s woman was meant to be uncomfortable.
I gradually moved into bad habits and between 11 and 16 I purposely over ate so I could gain weight. It was grossly unhealthy – not just physically but mentally I was a wreck, perpetuated by cultural and social pressures. Long story short, after years of telling myself I wasn’t worthy, one day I realised: there isn't one type of womxn.
It wasn’t easy though. College saw me messing mostly with vintage as it was a good balance between expressing my differences and hiding my body. As soon as I hit 18, I began getting the piercings I’d always dreamt of, starting with my septum. At university I tried exploring more overtly feminine styles but in the end I’d feel really displaced, constantly adjusting what I was wearing, keeping my jacket on and not feeling authentic.
It wasn’t until I started braiding my own hair that I found my true sense of feminine individuality. Through doing my own hair I was able to define who I was on the outside in a way that actually aligned with how I was inside. It allowed my self-esteem and creativity to flourish, whilst teaching me to appreciate my quirks, including the fact that maybe I just liked dressing less stereotypically feminine.
I’m still very anxious and self conscious but not about my choices. I am very much anything I choose to be as long as I am comfortable. Maybe I’ll be dressed head to toe in menswear but with a full face of makeup and then the next day be in an a-line dress, Doc Martens and a fresh face. At some point I just became tired of caring.
My style is: what it is.
I see my style choices as a dark skinned black woman who is also plus sized as a way for me to be intentional about my own visibility.
My personal style through the years has been a journey towards exploring my own identity through my clothes and hair particularly around figuring out what ‘feminine’ looks like for me in comparison to what society has deemed this to be.
Looking at pictures of myself when I was younger I can see where my current personal style stems from – my mum dressed me and my sister quite unisex apart from our church clothes so I think I’ve always felt comfortable building a personal style around this.
I love to play with colour and bold patterns, and see my style choices as a dark skinned black woman who is also plus sized as a way for me to be intentional about my own visibility in some way – especially having worked for over ten years as a creative in the media industry where representation and conversations about women who look like me are rarely affirming.
I did a ‘big chop’ at university in 2005, around the time of the newly growing natural hair movement. Conversations and language around hair and what having natural hair meant for black women were a lot different than they are now and I think my own perceptions have changed since.
I’ve worn a variety of different hairstyles over the years and having locs was probably the most interesting experience; both personally in terms of really understanding my hair texture and patience with process of growing locs, and also from my interactions, especially with other black people and the various perceptions of what my identity or lifestyle was due to me having locs. Even when I decided to cut them off I was surprised by how invested people seemed to be about it!
Whilst shorter styles did take some getting used to after having locs for six years, I’ve mostly kept my hair in a low fade and have experimented with colouring it as I love how it looks. Also, I think that considering all of the ideas around hair length and value – particularly for black women – there’s a sense of freedom that comes with choosing to keep it low.