MICHEL MARTIN, host:
In the 1960s and even today, a journey of self-acceptance, for many women, begins with accepting their appearance. And for many black women, that means accepting their hair. In our latest essay for the NPR series, This I Believe, we hear one woman's story about how changing the way she styled her hair affected the way she saw herself. Hi, Jay.
JAY ALLISON: Hi, Michel. Toya Smith Marshall told us she began to hone in on her belief after she saw a museum exhibit about African-American women's hair. She said that issues of personal identity and cultural identity came together for her in that moment and her belief emerged. Here's Toya Smith Marshall with her essay for This I Believe.
Ms. TOYA SMITH MARSHALL: What I believe is that I am right and beautiful. Now, in this moment, in this body, I am right and beautiful. Do you know how hard that is, to believe in my own rightness, in my own beauty? But my greatest desire in life is to be free, and freedom means that I have to loosen the shackles of others' expectations and just be.
As an outward symbol of my determination to embrace my own personal beauty, I decided to stop straightening my hair and go natural. Going natural often seems more simple than it really is. But in the back of my mind, I've always known that it's not that easy. I've always known that the very essence of my being is militant. I am the last to cave to authority. I am the first to question. Admit it or not, choosing to rock a natural is still a political statement.
For me, that statement is: I will not let you dictate. I will not concede to your idea of beauty. It didn't go over well with everyone. The only one who accepted me without any back talk was my daughter, and she was a baby. In her innocence she saw me, and the texture of my hair made no difference. In her eyes, I was beautiful and loved. And I love me this way. I love not having to wonder, what am I going to do to my hair? I do nothing to it. I work with it.
My hair and me? We're a team. A wild, nappy, adventurous, rules-be-damned sort of team. Growing out 18 years of relaxed hair allowed me to get to know myself through getting to know my hair. I realized that my hair is a reflection of who I am. It is stubborn, unyielding. It takes much heat to beat it into submission. It fires right back, even after it's been subdued. Those little kinks burst right through within a week or two.
At different times in my life when I've made transitions, my hair has transitioned, too. It has gone from long to short. It's been black, red, brown and blonde. It's been straight, and now it's nappy. When I finally reached a point in my life where I was happy and secure in my own being as a woman, a wife, a mother, I allowed it to do its natural thing. And my hair and me? I believe we're the most beautiful we've ever been.
ALLISON: Toya Smith Marshall with her essay for This I Believe.
Michel, five years ago, when she stopped relaxing her hair, Marshall said her grandmother told her, we didn't raise you to be nappy. Marshall responded, we all know God doesn't make mistakes, and if he'd intended for me to have straight hair, he'd have given it to me. And that was the end of it.
Michel, we invite all your listeners to submit essays to our series. We hope they'll take us up on it. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison. Back to you, Michel.
MARTIN: Thank you, Jay. Jay Allison is co-editor with Dan Gediman, John Gregory and Viki Merrick of the new book, "This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women." And you can find out information about writing for the series and all the essays we've aired at npr.org/thisibelieve. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Marin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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