By Ashleigh Smithson
“Trish, das you daughter?”
“Yes, this is Ashleigh.”
“She dark, eh.”
I never really considered myself as being “dark”. Truth be told, I never really thought about my complexion. Growing up in a royal town in suburban England meant that I was blissfully ignorant when it came to the complexities of black female identity.
I went to a primary school of 360 children. I was 1 of 5 black children … in my entire school. On reflection, I can appreciate how significant this was.
My best friend was beautiful. Her name was Laura. She had long, chestnut brown hair. It was thick and amazing. And that was the general sentiment shared by all who encountered Laura.
It’s not that people didn’t think I was pretty – they did, and they commonly expressed this. However, it wasn’t in the same way as they expressed their adoration for Laura. On reflection, I can pinpoint that it was at that exact moment in my life that I really took notice of the differences between black girls and white girls.
As a child, my hair was very thick and just above shoulder length. But it didn’t fall how Laura’s fell. It didn’t flow like the girls’ hair in the shampoo advertisements. The ones who can whip it, and shake it, and the whole world moves in slow motion when they do this. My hair was underwhelming. And annoyingly, it shrunk when I went swimming on Wednesdays and Fridays!
At the age of 10, I moved to the Caribbean. Nothing could prepare me for the truths I would discover about being a dark-skinned black child. One of the first memories I have of those early days in St. Kitts, is of people’s incessant commentary on my skin colour. They would spit the word “dark”.
“She dark, eh!”
“She black, eh!”
In a country where 95% of the population are of sub-Saharan African descent, my complexion was paradoxically out of the norm. The collocation of my darkness and my Britishness bewildered people. They literally could not understand the union of my identities. And very quickly, it was made clear to me that I would not be accepted as Kittitian or Caribbean, or even black. My Britishness was my sole identity.
But what does a British woman look like? Jane Austin? Margaret Thatcher? Kate Moss? Judi Dench? Definitely not what Ashleigh Smithson looked like! Thus, whilst I sounded British, I certainly didn’t look ‘British’.
My mum would not let me perm my hair at 10. Not because she had some great disbelief in it, but just because she could not be bothered with the maintenance. As such, I had to get creative when it came to – ‘Project: Make Ashleigh look British’. My answer, like millions of other black girls around the world lay in the age-old hot comb! I meticulously hot-combed my hair every Sunday evening. The sound and smell of the hot comb burning my hair straight made me giddy.
“Yay,” I thought. I would finally have hair like Laura. I would whip my hair back and forth like the girls in the Pantene advertisements. And in that moment, I knew I was beautiful.
By the time high school swung around, I had graduated to perms. I relished the burning sensation of sodium hydroxide on my hair and scalp. Thus, even when the bullying about my skin colour was unbearable, I knew there was no comment that could be made about my ‘good hair’.
At 16, I moved back to England. Unfortunately, the climate change wreaked havoc on my whole body. Inevitably, my beautiful chemically straightened, over-processed hair started to fall out.
“Oh Shit!” I thought. The panic that overcame me was ineffable, and in retrospect completely disproportionate. However, at the time, my identity was literally wrapped in my hair. What was I to do?
Weaves were the answer! And throughout sixth form and university, I spent thousands of pounds on weaves. I literally chose my hair over buying groceries. LITERALLY!
So why then, on a brisk autumn night in September, did I take the clippers and shave my head?
Having struggled with my identity my entire life, now in my late twenties, I finally realised something extraordinary. I am not just British. I AM Caribbean, and I AM black. But most importantly these identities are not mutually exclusive. However, the most powerful identity I have come to embrace is that of an African. I am an African. I come from a civilisation of people who have fathered humanity. A civilisation that has given the world philosophy, language, engineering, and the pyramids! An absolutely extraordinary group of people. And most importantly, I look like these people!
This moment of self-realisation and acceptance changed my life. I would love to say that I don’t wear wigs or weaves anymore. But unfortunately, being a legal professional in the City of London, means conforming to a European ideal.
But in the midst of this conformity, I have decided to take back my power. I have decided to liberate myself from imperialism and the patriarchal eurocentrism, which has been shoved down black women’s throats for centuries! So I took the clippers and shaved it all off. My hair is not the entirety of my identity. With or without it, I am still a proud, confident, African woman. And I have never felt more beautiful. No weave, wig, or hot comb could ever come close to making me feel the way I do now.