2019 was a great year for black beauty and achievement. I rarely watch beauty pageants but last year I couldn’t help but pay attention to the fact that the major winners were all black for the first time…ever! Miss Universe, Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss World were making waves with their #blackgirlmagic, with Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa vowing to wear her natural hair to promote natural beauty. This would have been unheard of a few years ago, so it was refreshing to see the diversity of beauty being celebrated and having black women win…several times!
My lack of knowledge about beauty pageants made me think that they were very superficial and purely based on Eurocentric ideals of beauty that many women of colour couldn’t live up to. Beauty Queens were deemed vain and 2 dimensional but after watching the Miss World competition, it did open my eyes to how much more is involved in the judging – although I did wonder what all the dancing was about!
Black Beauty Queens or Black Queens?
We as a society have broadened our definition of beauty, which is great, but I still feel that, as black women, we are placed on a ‘scale of blackness’. Women with the stereotypical beauty queen image i.e. straight hair, lots of make-up, straighter noses, well spoken and lighter skin are perceived as ‘less black’, whereas those with darker skin, broader noses, louder voices and natural hair are often portrayed as ‘real black Queens’. This is unfair and hurtful to many. I have even personally been told I’m “not that black” (despite having dark skin and natural hair/locs) purely based on the fact that I am articulate and softly spoken. It’s crazy!
We are blessed with a spectrum of blackness, so both ends and inbetween should be celebrated and respected as black women equally. We have the right to experiment with hair and make-up and still be considered black. Our complexions and music taste doesn’t definite or quantify our connection to our ancestry and whether we are beauty queens or not, we all still black and treated as such by people outside of our race.
The Black Spectrum
I understand that my illustrations represent just a tiny portion of black society. I endeavour to be fully diverse and inclusive, but it would be impossible to represent every shade, size, age and hair type of the African diaspora, so bear with me as my collection grows!
I take inspiration from my followers and the people I meet at events, so I hope that there is at least one item that you and your friends and family can relate to. The goal is to expand my range and empower women (and men) right across the ‘black spectrum’ one card at a time… because after all we ALL descend from royalty!
This is my first post and one that is very important to me…
After my mum was diagnosed with leukaemia and lost her hair to chemotherapy, it dawned on me that all of the women I’d illustrated on my greeting cards had long hair or large billowing afros. My cards are all about beauty, celebration, empowerment and representation, but I had left out a group of women who may not have this typical feminine standard of beautiful long locks… and this bothered me.
For 2020, in celebration of my mum’s recovery as well as the diversity of women’s hair, I’ve launched two new cards featuring women with short hair as part of my Crown & Story collection. As my mum had lost her hair due to leukaemia treatment, I’ve also decided to donate £1 from every sale of a card to the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust (ACLT).
Below is an interview with my mum, Yvonne, on her journey of hair loss and I hope it inspires you to see beauty in her crown and story...
What was your relationship with your hair?
I had a positive relationship with my hair; I took pride in it. I’d had my locs for 25 years which began as a political stance because there is so much beauty and cultural politics tied up in hair, particularly for women. I had initially shaved off my curly perm in rebellion against the expectation that black women needed to chemicalise their hair in order for it to be beautiful and manageable. I wanted to prove that natural was beautiful and eventually decided to grow locs.
There is so much beauty and cultural politics tied up in hair, particularly for women.
At the time having locs wasn’t something many of my friends and family approved of, however, after seeing how well I looked after them, I would often receive compliments. Having locs for so long meant that they were a visible part of my identity, however, they did not define me and as time went by they became less about politics and more a style choice. I would style them, colour them and trim them, enjoying their increasing versatility as locs became more popular and more specialist salons sprang up.
How did it feel when you lost your hair?
I had reconciled myself to the inevitability of hair loss pretty much as soon as I was told that I would have to have aggressive chemotherapy treatment. On the day when the first clumps started to come away in my fingers and the reality began to kick in however, it was still a bit of a shock. On the day of cutting of my locs I was a bit tearful; firstly because it was symbolic of the gravity of my illness and secondly, much as I was ok with the prospect of not having any hair, the fact that I had no choice in the matter was difficult. After that initial sadness, I was fine.
On the day when the first clumps of hair started to come away in my fingers, the reality began to kick in.
How long did it take you to embrace the change?
I had decided that I would shave my head at the first sign of it falling out as I didn’t want to have to deal with the strange ‘patchy’ look. Unfortunately, I was unable to do this as quickly as I would have liked as my platelets were low but once they were healthy enough my daughter cut off the locs and a few days later my brother shaved off what was left.
I embraced the bald head immediately. It couldn’t have been a better time to have a bald head as a woman. Increasing numbers of black women were shaving their hair off out of choice, so other than the fact that my scalp was completely clean and shiny and my eyebrows were a bit thinned, there was nothing particularly remarkable about my look. For this reason, I chose not to cover my head and wore my bald head with a sense of pride – unless I needed to keep out the cold with a hat!
I chose not to cover my head and wore my bald head with a sense of pride
I suppose for those who were used to knowing me with a full head of locs, it took them some time to get used to my new look but most said that it actually suited me – apparently I have a good shaped head! The Film Black Panther that had not long been released was also instrumental in promoting female shaven heads and empowered many a black woman to adopt this look, so this helped a lot – WAKANDA FOREVER!
Are you now fully accepting of this change?
Yes, and have actually chosen to keep it short for the time being. I’ve trimmed it several times since and am experimenting with different colours. I’m still receiving compliments about my hair so it’s all good and just the other day a work colleague told me that this is my best look.
What advice would you give to women going through this journey?
Each woman’s experience is different and there is a lot of emotion connected with hair. My advice would be that although it is initially upsetting, the consoling fact is that it is only temporary – it will grow back. Your hair does not define you or your beauty. You may look different but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Embrace this time and use the opportunity to try different styles, head wraps, hats, bold make up etc.
Your hair does not define you or your beauty.
Did it affect your self esteem?
Nope – in fact I felt/feel quite empowered. It is the visual of my story of overcoming adversity. A constant reminder of my blessings, that I am still here.
Do you still think about your hair before?
Yes, at times I have to admit to finding myself looking admiringly at people with beautiful locs and reminiscing about the days of my own.
Do you feel different now that you have short hair?
I feel liberated! Swimming in the sea on my Caribbean holiday was a whole new, joyous experience as I didn’t have to concern worry about my hair getting wet and ruining a style!
What you do you think of Leanne’s new cards?
I am so pleased that Leanne has included these images to her collection. It’s lovely to see black women with short hair represented and myself reflected – I don’t think I have come across this before. I love that her range depicts black women in their varied splendour, including different skin tones and hair styles. Well done and thank you Leanne, you are sending a powerful, positive message not only to black women but to wider society about black women’s diverse beauty. I look forward to seeing what comes next!
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