Spotlight on Phoebe: Journey Back to My Roots…….Part 1

We shall not cease from exploration and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time (T.S Elliot)

This is the story of my exploration. An exploration that took me away from my roots, into foreign lands and right back to where I started. Where I should always have been. My name is Phoebe (aka Pheebey). I was born in Zambia, raised in Zimbabwe and have lived in Australia for the last 11 years.

For as long as I can remember, I have had relaxed (chemically straightened) hair. I think I was about 12 or 13 when I applied my first relaxer onto my hair. I was so excited. It felt like it was some rite of passage. I wanted to be like the older girls at school who had long (or what I considered to be long then) straight, silky hair that seemed to move with the wind. I certainly did not want to have my mfushwa hair. Mfushwa hair is a term, usually used in the negative, to describe natural hair in Zimbabwe. Mfushwa hair gave the impression to society that my family was too poor to get my hurr did and that I was unsophisticated! I certainly did not want people to think alI those things about me now did I? I loved my new silky straight hair. I was happy not to go through the Sunday sessions that involved a tug of war between my aunt and my hair as she tried to remove every kink, coil and knot, mould it into amabanzi (also known as uzi or threading) and present me back into “civilisation”  for another week!

Me with relaxed hair
Me with relaxed hair

After my first relaxer, I was more confident. I felt more beautiful. I had my regular touch ups when needed and during the school holidays, I usually had braids. So life continued. I moved to Australia to study and had my first weave. I loved my weaves. I barely saw my head and hair. I had a different weave all the time, usually long, straight and silky of course. I could change up my look anytime. After a while I started realising that my hair was thinning and my hairline was not doing so well. It was receding and I was still in my early 20’s!

My hair looking thinner
My hair looking thinner

I initially brushed these concerns off because when I looked around in my family, most of the women had issues with their hairline and they were managing it by hiding under the weave so that’s what I was going to do. I thought it was genetic – if the majority of women in my family had the same issue, then of course it was inevitable that I had to inherit this issue right? Anyway I didn’t think much of it, I just kept on keeping on – one weave after the other. My routine was shocking and this had obviously contributed to the condition of my hair. I only washed my hair when I got my touch up for my relaxer. I would pretty much go to the hairdresser after removing my weave the night before, get her to relax it and put on the next weave. There were usually no breaks in between (unless said hairdresser forced me to have one). So the cycle continued. Sometimes I would have my hair out for a little while and it was all good. I noticed my hair thrived during these periods because i did moisturise it and try to look after it…but once it went under the weave – out of sight, out of mind baby!

Rocking one of my weaves
Rocking one of my weaves

Anyway let’s fast forward to the end of last year because this post is getting longer than i thought it would be! It was around October. I went to get my relaxer touch up and dutifully carried my next weave with me to get it sewn in straight after. My hair burnt…like it had never before. It had burnt before – a patch here and there and it usually recovered – but this was different. After my hair was relaxed, my hair was too damaged and the hairdresser just refused to install my weave that day! Darn – I was not happy, but me and my weave went on home and it wasn’t until the next morning that I realised how many burnt spots I had. It was bad. During that week, as the burnt spots turned into flakes and the usual white dandruffy type stuff I decided I could not go on like this. I had to start looking after my hair if I had any hope of salvaging the little that was left. At this stage, my hair was very thin – a bit lifeless really – and a significant chunk of my hairline had disappeared

Where art thou hairline?
Where art thou hairline?

The week following this incident, I felt very depressed about the condition of my hair. Maybe depressed is too strong a word to use. But the feelings I had that week made me to start to think about why my hair was causing such a reaction. I realised that my hair had become inextricably linked to my identity. I was so obsessed with having straight long hair and had come to hate the look and feel of my natural hair. Even when my hair started getting damaged, I ignored this because having my own hair out and tending to it meant that – having my natural  hair out. The hair that I loathed and thought looked ugly.

At the time my husband and I were thinking of starting a family and I started thinking what kind of mother I wanted to be – especially if I had a daughter. How could I tell her and teach her to love herself when I didn’t even love the real version of me anymore? Living in the diaspora, away from my family and other influences I was going to be the main reference point for my children in relation to one half of their culture, heritage, ancestry. Yet I had spent so many years distancing myself from all these things – consciously and subconsciously. My obsession with my hair was just a metaphor of that. I decided that if ever I had children, and especially girls, I wanted to be the kind of mother they could look up to and feel proud. I did not want to be a walking contradiction that preached a message about being a beautiful and proud black woman when I was not. I had worked so hard to be a coconut that I had become like a tree without its roots. On the outside I was happy but inside I was in turmoil – something had always felt not quite right even when everything outside was going smoothly. I began to question a lot of things and to look inside and see what kind of person I was going to be going forward…(to continue reading Part 2, click here)

8 thoughts on “Spotlight on Phoebe: Journey Back to My Roots…….Part 1

  1. Hi Phoebe, I honestly don’ t like reading long narratives but I was just drawn to your article and don’t regret taking time to read it, I think a lot of black women can relate to this, for me however it was not until I worked in a place where everyone had long straight hair whether it was their natural hair or a weave then I realised how really bad the weaves looked and how this spoke volumes to our self image as Africans and particularly as African women. I could go on but eather keep it short/ Thank you for the post.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment and read Esnath. Yes I think a lot of my friends are going through the same whether they are ready to admit it or not. I certainly would not have admitted that my hair and identity as an African were so linked this time last year. I was busy trying to remove any visible evidence of my africaness!!

  3. Brilliant post Pheebs. One that I absolutely relate to. Once I decided I was going natural it took me a year to proudly rock my natural hair. When I stopped caring about what others defined as beautiful, that’s when I truly learnt to love me and love being natural.

  4. Firstly I must applaude your eloquent style of writing, beautiful! Who wouldn’t be drawn to it! Secondly thank you, its about time African women had these conversations within themselves and amongst each other. I admire your courage and honesty, I learnt more than just about hair! I’m in the middle of a weave war, they are quick to get tangled, they are all over my floor and they irritate my skin. You gave me all the more reason to listen to that inner voice and make amends.

  5. Thanks Janice. It also took me a while to actually go out in public without thinking twice about other people’s reactions. It was very hard because there was already an existing standard of beauty that did not include my natural hair. But I am hope we can change that eventually for our children.

  6. Thanks Thembi – never fancied myself a writer so I appreciate the compliment! Its definitely time to have an open and honest conversation within ourselves and with others. There are some naturals who just became natural without even thinking twice about it and there are some who go through an internal battle first, like myself. I realised that I had spent so much time trying to conform and fit in and thats why it was a very different journey for me. We are all different. So just do you!!!

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