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What People Are Really Saying When They Talk About My Daughter's Hair

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ALYSSA LYONS
Alyssa Lyons

"Wow. Look at her wild and crazy hair," the flight attendant remarked. Here we were, gearing up for our family vacation to Jamaica, and yet another person was commenting on my daughter's hair. I looked down at my toddler as we boarded the plane in Miami, and the words "wild" and "crazy" really weren't the first adjectives that came to mind when I looked at her mane.

The flight attendant's commentary rattled around in my mind for days, and I started to reflect on all the times my family has had to contend with statements directed at my daughter's hair. Whenever we're strolling in the neighborhood, whether it is in the supermarket or a park play date, someone always comments on my daughter's hair. "Look at that hair. It's so big," another mom will exclaim. "She has so many curls!" a passerby remarks. Historically, hair has had a convoluted and racialized relationship in America, and so I can't help but dissect the questions that are so often posed to my progeny.

You see, my daughter is multiethnic, born of a Puerto Rican and Irish mother and a Jamaican father, and her ambiguous racial identity lends itself to commentary about her hair. Sometimes, I wonder whether people are simply complimenting on my daughter's hair, and question myself for racializing the issue. I've considered that maybe people are simply complimenting her and that I shouldn't take it too seriously.

But then I realize -- it's always about her hair.

The commentators don't remark that my daughter is cute nearly as often as they talk about her hair. They don't rave about how she constantly has a grin on her face, or how she waves at pedestrians with an insatiable friendliness. They talk about her hair.

Recently, a Change.org petition was started to campaign for the maintenance of Blue Ivy's hair. Supporters alleged that Blue's hair was unkempt and developing matted dreads. Others suggested Blue needed accessories or braids, and one commenter remarked that she "looks like she's never seen a comb." To date, the petition has garnered over 2,500 supporters. This is disconcerting, and resonated with my experiences with my daughter's hair and unsolicited public opinion.

Media response to the petition was swift, with The Root's Yesha Callahan telling commentators we need to stop focusing on baby Blue's hair and quit demonizing women of color for their hair choices. Shortly thereafter, other outlets lauded Beyoncé for finally combing Blue's hair in light of petition. But here lies the problem -- why? Why do we have a fascination with the natural state of Blue's hair, and what was wrong with it in the first place?

The problem with Blue Ivy's hair (and my daughter's) is that it doesn't conform to traditional standards of white beauty. As a result, people who embrace their natural hair are otherized and subjected to scrutiny due to their lack of conformity. Even toddlers aren't exempt from the expectation to conform to traditional, and often white, standards of beauty. When you don't conform, you defy societal norms of beauty that are deeply racialized. The public becomes outraged, vilifies the hairstyle of a baby and the racialized hair care debate wages on.

Despite the visibility of the natural hair movement, we are inundated with media images that say natural is not beautiful. A recent Nicki Minaj advertisement portrayed the hip-hop artist with a long blonde wig, and Beyoncé is rarely seen without her bleached blonde mane. We don't know the extent to which these women are able to exercise choice over their image, but the lack of celebrity imagery surrounding natural hair is disconcerting -- especially for women who are trying to embrace their natural hair in a society that implicitly says they shouldn't.

Although the reactions surrounding Blue Ivy's is disheartening and suggestive of troubling racialized perceptions of beauty, there are actions that we can take to shift public perception and empower our young girls. We need to encourage interpretations of beauty in the media to be more inclusive. Women and girls of color should be able to coif their hair any way they see fit without being publicly denigrated. It shouldn't matter whether you choose to embrace your natural hair or wear some fabulous extensions. That choice shouldn't be governed by racialized standards of beauty.

When publicly scrutinizing toddlers and their parents for embracing natural hair is pedestrian, we have a problem. We need to deconstruct and redefine archaic and race-based standards of beauty. Let's make the conversation surrounding Blue's hair a teachable moment, and not a frivolous one. I know I will.