Growing up, I was my mom’s Barbie doll. In Omaha, Nebraska, I won a contest for the most beautiful baby three years in a row. She donned me with layers of dresses: a thin slip under a white tutu trimmed with sky blue fluff that peeked out beneath a shiny pink polyester dress. These outfits were suffocating, hot, and itched worse than any tropical mosquito bite.
From a young age, my mom manipulated my hair, face, and body to meet her standard of beauty—a standard that beckons for the safety and approval of the white gaze. Hair long and flat-ironed, face brighter than hands, eyes blue instead of brown. Every Sunday evening, my mom used a flat iron heated up to 451 degrees Fahrenheit to tame my nappy curls. The scent of conditioner and the sound of sizzling scalp and burning hair live in my memory.
Then in seventh grade, we moved to Atlanta where we spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She would tell us stories of our ancestors, how one grandfather traveled back and forth between Jamaica and the States as a person who was enslaved to a ship captain. As I was learning about my roots, a relaxer my mother forced on me chemically damaged my hair, causing my hair to fall out in chunks that would fill gallon-sized Ziploc bags. As it turns out, the same harsh chemicals used to kill the shape in our curls also poisons the environment and our bodies.
My journey to unlearn these beauty standards has taken many years. Finally, it led me back to Jamaica, the island that captivated my curiosity after hearing my grandma’s stories. Throughout this journey, I came to learn of the colonial erasure of Black hair and our cultural ties to it. This legacy lives on in the Eurocentric beauty standards many Black women still hold onto. It’s time to decolonize our perceptions of beauty—not only for our bodies, but for the planet, too.
Beauty is pain is an old yet relevant saying for the Black experience. Many of us have scars on our scalps or above our ears to prove it—where singes once bled for weeks similar to how Jamaica’s bauxite mines dig into its lush hills, leaving only red mud behind. When I visited Jamaica for the first time in May, however, I learned that beauty doesn’t have to be painful. Beauty is nature, it’s community—beauty is love.
This lie—beauty is pain—speaks to the societal pressures Black and Brown bodies around the world still face. The hair and cosmetics industries have erased Black and Indigenous standards of beauty and replaced them with Eurocentric ones. We’re pushed to be in close proximity to whiteness, forced to remind ourselves that Black is beautiful because the rest of the world tells us the opposite.
Even in Jamaica, where 90% of the population are of African descent, about 300,000 people in 2017 bleached their skin. Light skin and straight hair has long been connected to wealth and status on the island. Schools continue to turn away students who come in with locs or other natural hairstyles. Last July, police allegedly forcibly cut a woman’s locs while she was in their custody. Public investigators aren’t bringing forth criminal charges.
These are just some of the reasons why Kareece Lawrence (also known as Ayah Trod), an event producer and community organizer who’s worked with reggae artists like Chronixx and Protoje for social justice-related community work, has been committed to Rastafari since 2011. This pan-African, anti-colonial spiritual movement took root in Jamaica during the 1930s and is now a global symbol of Jamaican culture. Rastafari is built on ideologies from some of its first preachers, Leonard Howell and Marcus Garvey, who spoke of personal liberation and Afrocentric teachings.
As a Rasta woman, Lawrence’s primary goal is to expand her livity, which is the Rastafari concept of living one with nature and God by enhancing prayer and meditation through the use of cannabis, adhering to a vegetarian or vegan diet, and treating others with compassion. She does this, in part, through her locs, but a bank where she used to work discriminated against her because of them. So she quit after fighting legally for her right to wear locs—and winning.
“These injustices ended up bringing some very beautiful blessings in my life,” Lawrence said.
Now, she’s in the creative and wellness industry. Since Lawrence left the bank, she’s been able to work for herself, on herself, and wear her hair however she wants. Lawrence and other Rasta people believe that the land will provide for the community and that the community provides for each other. Sitting with her on hot, black sand at Bob Marley Beach outside of Kingston, Jamaica, I saw strangers in Rasta caps come up to her and call her empress. They’d hug her and, then, bring her a plate of food as though they were family.
“I have grown so much through some of the toughest situations that I’ve gone through, and my people have always been there for me, so I’m always just grateful for every step of the way,” she said. “My hair is symbolic of that journey.”
I began my own journey to overcome intergenerational trauma through my hair. After I moved out at 18 and temporarily cut ties from my mom, I did the big chop, cutting away split ends and curls that were unhealthy from all the years of chemicals and heat. In 2020, I finally transitioned to locs, which transformed my healing and identity journey.
That’s because Black hair has a long political history. Prior to landing in the Americas, traffickers of enslaved African people forced them to shave their intricate hairstyles, robbing them of their identity, culture, and traditions, all while vilifying their hair.
“We are still, by and large, suffering from that today,” said Dr. Michael Barnett, author of The Rastafari Movement and a Caribbean studies professor at the University of the West Indies.
Our hair has also inspired social and political change in the wake of this trauma. The Rastafari culture in Jamaica, for instance, encourages Jamaicans to be proud of their African heritage by being proud of their natural hair texture, Barnett said. Afrocentric ideologies and locs empowered Jamaicans during their fight for independence in the 1950s and 1960s, he said.
“Part of the African consciousness is being natural,” Barnett said. “Hair is an important part of that lifestyle.”
Many people in the Rasta community have transcended the political weight hair has on the Black identity. For Ras Takura, a local dub poet and food justice activist, his hair doesn’t have any more significant meaning than his eyes or his hands.
“Being natural is empowering,” he exclaimed. “People want to connect with naturalness because nature is roots. Being natural is being connected to the environment and your ancestors.”
When I first began my natural hair journey eight years ago, I tried to maintain curls instead of frizz, so I grew anxious about the outdoors. Water and humidity could easily ruin the work I put into washing, brushing, and styling each healthy curl that grew back from that first big chop. I stayed inside when it rained, avoided swimming (even with a swim cap), and kept nature at an arm’s length, always anxious of spiders and insects that might nest in my thick mane.
This was unsustainable—the amount I spent on products that didn’t work, the plastic bottles and containers with leftover moisturizer buried forever in landfills, all the times I wanted to go out in the rain but didn’t. During my visit to Jamaica, I got caught in a few rainstorms, but now that I have locs, every droplet felt like an ancestor’s blessing.
I’m glad I quit trying to maintain the perfect curl pattern. Not only was it exhausting, but the cosmetic and hair care companies whose products I relied on are exploiting the environment as much as the Black and Brown people who buy their items.
Last year, scientists found that more than half of the 231 cosmetic products (including hair spray) they tested in the U.S. and Canada contain toxic chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, that have been linked to immunity and reproductive health issues, as well as cancer. These toxic chemicals are also polluting our watersheds, putting Black families at a greater risk for unsafe drinking water.
In Jamaica, watersheds are threatened by something else: the extraction of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum. In the form of salts or powders, aluminum is found in cosmetics and personal care products like antiperspirants and eye shadow. Last August, the Rio Cobre—Jamaica’s second-longest river and key source of water for farmers and residents—was compromised by a bauxite spill when heavy rains caused a holding pond to flood. The water supply was cut off for weeks, and hundreds of fish died.
I asked everyone I spoke with in Jamaica how climate change was already affecting them. They all sighed with relief that the island wasn’t hit too hard by Hurricane Dorian in 2019, which devastated their Caribbean neighbors in the Bahamas, but most were worried about the increasing heat.
The chorus of response was clear: climate change is people change. It’s about the survival of humanity more than the survival of the planet. We are witnesses to air, water, land, and fire acting and reacting to us putting poisons in the womb of the Earth. Jamaica’s watersheds are vulnerable to sea level rise, which is already causing issues with runoff and flooding.
Many of the Rastafari women I met during my time in Jamaica told me they believe Earth will care for them as they, in return, mother nature. One of those women was Mojiba Asé, an artist, mom, and the daughter of Count Ossie, a famous Nyabinghi drummer from St. Thomas Parish, Jamaica. (Asé’s daughter Destinee Condison is the photographer for this story.)
As I entered her home to speak to her, I overheard a conversation Asé was having with friends about the magenta Madagascar periwinkle flourishing in her backyard and how she forages it to make tea to treat colds. She picked up these skills when her children were younger and would get sick. “I trust nature to protect us because she always has for me and my kids,” she said. “So I don’t get caught up in the mode of panic and fear.”
Asé was inspired, then, to learn about plants and herbalism. She shared how she would extract the gel from the leaves of her aloe plant and mix it with juice, honey, lemon, and lavender to make tonics for stomach viruses. Asé also handmakes her own line of clothing, oils, and hair moisturizers; she carves bowls and purses from the calabash tree, too.
“What you give is what’s going to come back to you,” she said. “But I also know the power of life cannot be destroyed.”
She tries to bring this fearless spirit through her hair, which she wears in locs. It’s shining and colorful. If a bead or fabric catches her eye, Asé is quick to add it to her hair. “My hair was not planned,” she said. “My hair represents my heart.”
I’ve been growing my own locs for two years. During that time, I have been cultivating a connection with the environment through foraging, hiking, and learning about our non-human relationships with plants and animals. I’ve been healing bonds with my mom. And I’ve been mindful of the products I use on my body, checking the ingredients and researching them on Skin Deep, an ingredient database.
Instead of Black hair as an act of rebellion, perhaps our hair can represent these journeys to reconnect and our responsibility to the environment. Perhaps one day, our hair can just exist without it carrying so much weight. I see myself in the mirror every morning now—and smile.
When I sat with my head relaxed in the shampoo bowl at Jus Natural Salon in Kingston, Jamaica, goosebumps crawled up my spine as I thought about how beauty doesn’t have to be painful. Instead, beauty should be peace and safety. Beauty should bring us closer to nature, authenticity, and love for ourselves and each other.
Correction, July 19, 2022 2:40 pm ET
The article has been corrected to note that Ayah Trod is a nickname for Kareece Lawrence, who is quoted in the piece. Her journey to quit her bank job has also been clarified to note that she quit only after pursuing legal action against her former employer's discrimination. The spelling of artist Protoje was also corrected.