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Identity crisis, or fashion?


MARYAM MAHMOOD

Identity crisis, or fashion?

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WHEN I WAS ABOUT 13 years old and starting to become aware of what was fashionable and not fashionable, I urgently began my pleas for my mother’s consent to straighten my hair.

You see, I just wasn’t fitting in at school, where most of my female classmates either had their hair straightened, curled or pressed.

Natural black hair was not going to cut it. Coming from a home where both my parents still sported the ’60s Afro, I knew my chances of straightening were very slim. Straightening my hair seemed to be a great step in the right direction and a sure way to fit in at school.

After a few more well thought-out pleas to my mother, she was ready to consent. However, my father remained adamant that we were not Indians and straightening was out of the question.

According to the Collins Student’s Dictionary, identity is the state of being a specified person or thing. Back in those days my identity was always a bit confusing since I didn’t see myself resembling the stereotypical Caribbean female. My mixed ethnicity saw to that.

Stereotypes of females portrayed by the mass media in one way or another have been known to influence women of all ethnic backgrounds. Shows such as the famous Miss Universe Pageant promote unrealistic standards of beauty.

According to Nasser Mustapha in Sociology For Caribbean Students, Caribbean societies downplayed cultural diversity and defined itself primarily in terms of European standards and culture. From the outset, however, the many cultures were still negotiating their relationship with one another and took time to evolve into the stratified system that emerged.

At the top were the Europeans, being the dominant group, who established their language as the nation’s official language. Further down, people of other backgrounds were advised to model themselves on “their superiors”.

Glaring evidence of this seems to be reflected in how some black women now clamour to purchase hair in order to feel beautiful. Globalisation has fostered this unrealistic ideal of beauty; what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

Slavery no doubt was a precursor and contributor to this “modern” way of thinking. It was a dark period in history when our identity was challenged and stripped away, to be replaced by a new one, entrenched in inferiority and subjugation.

Although many black women straighten, press, curl or texturise their hair to make it more manageable, many more take such steps because of not feeling beautiful with their naturally occurring hair. In some instances, this exists on a subconscious level. 

Much of what is considered fashionable in Barbados and the wider Caribbean emanates from the United States. Therefore, it is only fitting that we carefully examine the American experience.

According to Cherish Green of Ohlone College, US, in her thesis entitled, Understanding The Effects Of Mass Media’s Portrayals Of Black Women And Adolescents On Self Image, “black beauty is typically defined as light skin, straightened hair and small facial features”. 

During adolescence, black girls are both developing a racial identity and learning what society’s ideals of beauty is . . . . They also suffer feelings of inadequacy and report emotions of anger, pain and confusion towards traits such as skin colour and hair. Many black women carry this internalised shame and self-hatred of their appearance from adolescence into adulthood.

Some medical specialists are of the opinion that the hazardous effect of human hair or weaves being used by black women will show up in their children and future generations through mysterious diseases and cancers. This is the result of attaching foreign hair to their own hair or the scalp, which infuses foreign genetic material into their own body constitution.

As we count down to 50 years’ of Independence, let us reflect on what our ancestors fought so hard to achieve, and what those who spearheaded the drive for Barbados’ Independence envisioned for the inhabitants of this island. The Barbadian experience is a unique one and as such, we need not follow trends and foreign standards blindly. Sometimes being true to oneself requires reshaping the way we have been taught to think.

One of the most striking things about being black is that black comes in many different skin tones, hair textures, body shapes and features. Like all other ethnic groups, black is beautiful too. As the late great Robert Nesta Marley once said, “emancipate yourself from mental slavery, no one but ourselves can free our minds”.

– MARYAM MAHMOOD

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