(Updated January 17, 2021)
I was out with some Shipmates once, and one of them said, “Damn, what’s wrong with your hair?! Do you ever comb it?”. Talk about a gut punch. Having a man, let alone an African American man, tell you that your natural hair is something to be dealt with is not the best way to build self-esteem. I was mortified. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the last incident surrounding my hair, and it would spark a lifelong battle with identity, beauty, and acceptance of myself and my strands.
When I left for boot camp, the last thing on my mind was hair. My mind was consumed with being yelled at, exercising, and shitty food. So, when I left home, it was washed, blow dried and shaped into a big, beautiful afro.
That didn’t last long.
The moment I was done with the initial intake process, the infamous barber in boot camp wet my hair and chopped it off — along with my confidence. I don’t remember being that embarrassed since the 7th grade. With my confidence out the door, my femininity and a portion of my identity as “Gabrielle” were right behind it. Now, I was “Seaman Recruit Pickens” and felt every bit of my decline in this new social hierarchy. See, my hair didn’t look like the other women. You know — the ones with “good” hair? “At least their hair laid flat or had a nice curl pattern,” I thought. My hair was dry, brittle, and wool-like. I had no clue how to “make it better.” Little did I know, this WAS better for me. I was forced to redefine my old ideas of beauty and attractiveness.
Throughout my career, I was met with unwarranted and ill-advised suggestions on how to style my hair to be perceived as professional and trustworthy. Day in and day out, I stretched and brushed and combed and slicked my hair. It was exhausting.
One day, it occurred to me that my morning routine had an extra added step: conformity. For me to appear “neat,” I needed to conform to the natural beauty standards of the other women with whom I served. My natural hair was explicitly not good enough.
Through many months of journaling, self-reflection, and growing confidence in my work, I eventually put on my “f**k you” hat and confronted each naysayer with objection and scrutiny. Ultimately, they backed off. Additionally, “Big Navy” eventually passed a new set of rules that allowed for the inclusion of the nuances of African-American women’s hair, including braids and locs.
This was in 2018. Only three year ago.
Can you imagine what the women who served before us went through? Can you imagine being apart of an organization or job that can’t fully accept who you are? Can you imagine being told that who you are naturally isn’t good enough?
Unfortunately, I don’t have to imagine.