From as far back as I remember, I wanted to have straight hair. In the early years, as the only black girl in my school, I was convinced that if I could just get my hair the same as everyone else's, I'd be able to blend in. I cursed my father for not letting me get it straightened - he said I had to wait until I was 16, for fear of burning my scalp or ruining the hair with harsh chemicals. I remember walking around the house with a towel on my head and flicking my imaginary locks over my shoulders.
When talking to other black women, hair is never far from the conversation. We're either bemoaning the latest black celebrity to get theirs straightened, or agonising over what messages we're sending out ourselves. If a woman's pride and joy is her hair, then black women spend their life being told theirs is ugly, wild and needs taming. As a result, whether we like it or not, our hair is a political issue. "As a racial signifier, hair is second only to skin," says cultural historian Caroline Cox. "In the 60s and 70s, the afro became a symbol of black pride. To straighten your hair implied poor political consciousness."
Rightly or wrongly, people make assumptions about you based on how you wear your hair. If it's straight, you will be accused of selling out - of "wanting to look white", whatever that means, of trying to deny your heritage. If you wear your hair naturally in an afro, people congratulate you on your cultural awareness. If cornrows or braids are your style, then you'll be patted on the back for having the balls to wear a proper African style - that is, unless you're Bo Derek.
The older I got, the more confident I became, and the more I grew into my hair. Being black was no longer something to be ashamed of; in fact, it became desirable. But the longer my hair got, the harder it was to style, so for most of my time at university I had a root perm to make the hair drop, rather than grow upwards. On one occasion when I was having my roots re-done, the hairdresser offered to blow-dry it straight, so I could see if I wanted to get it "done" properly. I hated it. I couldn't help feeling I'd let the side down.
&3149; Hannah Pool's column on black beauty appears weekly.